What can we do about earthquakes?

Towards a systematic approach to seismic risk mitigation


  • David Alexander Global Risk Forum GRF Davos, Davos, Switzerland




This paper discusses the possible means of achieving risk reduction and resilience against earthquake disasters. It begins with an enquiry into the evolving nature of the resilience concept, which has at its root the notions of participatory governance and livelihood protection. It then discusses the potential for saving human lives by greater utilisation of the evidence base derived from studies of earthquake epidemiology. For example, there may be an opportunity to improve self-protective behaviour as a means of reducing casualties, especially in combination with knowledge of typical modes of the performance of buildings during earthquakes. There follows a discussion of the particular seismic vulnerability of critical infrastructure, hospitals and schools, and the means of reducing it by planning and well-calculated intervention. Seismic risk management needs to be comprehensive and often neglects some important factors. Hence, the next section discusses three of them: the plight of minorities, the protection of cultural heritage, and the management of veterinary emergencies. Following this, there is a discussion of the requirements for viable recovery from earthquake disasters. These include the need to make reconstruction, risk reduction and emergency intervention sustainable in their own right and part of general sustainability against all of the major risks that society faces. The paper concludes with some brief reflections on the process of learning lessons, as seen in the light of organisational learning theory. The use of evidence-based practice to achieve seismic disaster risk reduction has much further to go. To be accepted, it needs to be assimilated permanently into prevailing social and organisational cultures.


ACLU (2006). Abandoned and Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. National Prison Project, American Civil Liberties Union, New Orleans, 141 pp.

Adini, B., A. Goldberg, D. Laor, R. Cohen, R. Zadok and Y. Bar-Dayan (2006). Assessing levels of hospital emergency preparedness. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 21(6): 451-458.

Alesch, D.J. and W.J. Petak (1986). The Politics and Economics of Earthquake Hazard Mitigation. Monograph no. 43, Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Centre, Boulder, Colorado, 273 pp.

Alexander, B., C. Chan-Halbrendt and W. Salim (2006). Sustainable livelihood considerations for disaster risk management: implications for implementation of the Government of Indonesia tsunami recovery plan. Disaster Prevention and Management 15(1): 31-50.

Alexander, D.E. (1989). Preserving the identity of small settlements during post-disaster reconstruction in Italy. Disasters 13(3): 228-236.

Alexander, D.E. (1996). The health effects of earthquakes in the mid-1990s. Disasters 20(3): 231-247.

Alexander, D.E. (2002a). Principles of Emergency Planning and Management. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, UK and Oxford University Press, New York, 340 pp.

Alexander, D.E. (2002b). Nature's impartiality, man's inhumanity: reflections on terrorism and world crisis in a context of historical disaster. Disasters 26(1): 1-9. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-7717.00187

Alexander, D.E. (2007). Making research on geological hazards relevant to stakeholders' needs. Quaternary International 171/172: 186-192.

Alexander, D.E. (2010). The L'Aquila earthquake of 6 April 2009 and Italian Government policy on disaster response. Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research 2(4): 325-342.

Alexander, D.E. (2011a). Mortality and morbidity risk in the L'Aquila, Italy, earthquake of 6 April 2009 and lessons to be learned. In R. Spence, E. Ho and C. Scawthorn (eds) Human Casualties in Earthquakes. Advances in Natural and Technological Hazards Research no. 29, Springer, Berlin, Ch. 13. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-9455-1_13

Alexander, D.E. (2011b). Disability and disaster. In B. Wisner, J-C. Gaillard and I. Kelman (eds) Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction. Routledge, London: 384-394 (Ch. 34).

Alexander, D.E. (2012). Resilience against earthquakes: some practical suggestions for planners and managers. Journal of Seismology and Earthquake Engineering 13(1): 131-137.

Aven, T. (2011). On some recent definitions and analysis frameworks for risk, vulnerability, and resilience. Risk Analysis 31(4): 515-522.

Berkes, F. (2007). Understanding uncertainty and reducing vulnerability: lessons from resilience thinking. Natural Hazards 41(2): 283-295.

Birkmann, J. (2006). Indicators and criteria for measuring vulnerability: theoretical bases and requirements. In J. Birkmann (ed.) Measuring Vulnerability to Natural Hazards: Towards Disaster Resilient Societies. United Nations University Press, Tokyo: 55-77.

Boin, A. and A. McConnell (2007). Preparing for critical infrastructure breakdowns: the limits of crisis management and the need for resilience. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 15(1): 50-59.

Bolin, R.C. and P.A. Bolton (1983). Recovery in Nicaragua and the U.S.A. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 1(1): 125-144.

Bumbaru, D. (2007. Initiatives of ICOMOS to improve the protection and conservation of heritage sites facing natural disasters and climate change. In H-R. Meier, M. Petzet and T. Will (eds) Cultural Heritage and Natural Disasters: Risk Preparedness and the Limits of Prevention. Heritage at Risk, Special Edition. TUD Press, Dresden: 203-214.

Cannon, T. (2006). Vulnerability analysis, livelihoods and disasters. In W.J. Ammann, S. Dannenmann and L. Vulliet (eds) Risk 21: Coping with Risks Due to Natural Hazards in the 21st Century. A.A. Balkema, Taylor and Francis, London: 41-49.

Cannon, T. and D. Müller-Mahn (2010). Vulnerability, resilience and development discourses in context of climate change. Natural Hazards 55(3): 621-635.

Casson, L.W., K.M. Morley, S.J. States, J.C. Watson and J.A. Roberson (2011). Increasing preparedness for water utilities, local health departments, and first responders. Journal of Emergency Management 9(5): 39-46.

Chavez, C.W. and B. Binder (1996). A hospital as victim and responder: the Sepulveda Medical Center and the Northridge earthquake. Journal of Emergency Medicine 14: 445-454.

Cheng, F.Y. and Y.Y. Wang (eds) (1996). Post-Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. Elsevier, Amsterdam, 478 pp.

Coburn, A.W., R.J.S. Spence and A. Pomonis (1992). Factors determining human casualty levels in earthquakes: mortality prediction in building collapse. Proceedings of the Tenth World Conference on Earthquake Engineering, Balkema, Rotterdam: 5989-5994.

Coburn, A. and R. Spence (2002). Earthquake Protection (2nd edn). Wiley, Chichester, UK, 420 pp.

Comfort, L.K., M.D. Siciliano and A. Okada (2011). Resilience, entropy, and efficiency in crisis management: the January 12, 2010, Haiti earthquake. Risk, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy 2(3): Article 1.

CRS (2004). Critical Infrastructure and Key Assets: Definition and Identification. Congressional Research Service, Washington DC, 16 pp.

Crue, C.M. and R.J. Clark (2010). Missing links: Connecting emergency management and the cultural heritage industry. Journal of Emergency Management 8(4): 9-16.

Dahlhamer, J. and K. Tierney (1998). Rebounding from disruptive events: business recovery following the Northridge earthquake. Sociological Spectrum 18: 121-141.

Daskapan, S., W.G. Vree and R.W. Wagenaar (2006). Emergent information security in critical infrastructures. International Journal of Critical Infrastructures 2(2-3): 247-260.

Davidson, D.J. (2010). The applicability of the concept of resilience to social systems: some sources of optimism and nagging doubts. Society and Natural Resources 23(12): 1135-1149.

Davis, C., V. Keilis-Borok, V.G Kossobokov and A.A Soloviev (2012). Advance prediction of the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake: a missed opportunity for disaster preparedness. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 1(1) [forthcoming]. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2012.03.001

Dorn, R. (1997). An overview of disaster preparedness for veterinarians. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 210(3): 345-348.

ECAA (2008). The Great California Shake-Out. Earthquake Country Alliance Associates, San Francisco, California, 25 pp.

Egan, M.J. (2007). Anticipating future vulnerability: defining characteristics of increasingly critical infrastructure-like systems. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 15(1): 4-17.

Ellidokuz, H., R. Ucku, U.Y. Aydin and E. Ellidokuz (2005). Risk factors for death and injuries in earthquake: cross-sectional study from Afyon, Turkey. Croat Medical Journal 46(4): 613-618.

Enarson, E.P. (2012). Women Confronting Natural Disaster: From Vulnerability to Resilience. Lynne Rienner, Boulder, Colorado, 245 pp.

Glass, R.I., J.J. Urrutia, S. Sibony, H. Smith, B. Garcia and L. Rizzo (1977). Earthquake injuries related to housing in a Guatemalan village. Science 197: 638-643.

Goldewijk, B.K., G. Frerks and E. van der Plas (eds) (2011). Cultural Emergency in Conflict and Disaster. NAI Publishers, Rotterdam, 480 pp.

Griffiths, J.H.P., A. Irfanoglu and S. Pujol (2007). Istanbul at the threshold: an evaluation of the seismic risk in Istanbul. Earthquake Spectra 23(1): 63-75.

Halvorson, S.J. and J.P. Hamilton (2010). In the aftermath of the Qa'yamat: the Kashmir earthquake disaster in northern Pakistan. Disasters 34(1): 184-204.

He, C-R., Q. Chen, S-L. Han and R. Zhang (2011). Earthquake characteristics and building damage in high-intensity areas of Wenchuan earthquake II: Dujiangyan and Pengzhou City. Natural Hazards 57(2): 279-292.

Heath, S.E. 1999). Animal Management in Disasters. Mosby-Year Book, St Louis, Missouri, 330 pp.

Henkel, K.E., J.F. Dovidio and S.L. Gaertner 2006. Institutional discrimination, individual racism and Hurricane Katrina. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 6(1): 99-124. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1530-2415.2006.00106.x

Hewitt, K. (1983). The idea of calamity in a technocratic age. In K. Hewitt (ed.) Interpretations of Calamity. Unwin-Hyman, London: 3-32.

Hoffman, R.M. (1948). A generalised concept of resilience. Textile Research Journal 18(3): 141-148.

Holling, C.S. (1973). Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Reviews of Ecological Systems 4: 1-23.

Hosseini, M. and Y.O. Izadkhah (2006). Earthquake disaster risk management planning in schools. Disaster Prevention and Management 15(4): 649-661.

Huber, G.P. (1991). Organizational learning: the contributing processes and the literatures. Organization Science 2(1): 88-115.

IFRCRCS (2011). World Disasters Report: Focus on Hunger and Malnutrition. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Geneva, 250 pp.

Jenkins, J.L., M.L. McCarthy, L.M. Sauer, G.B. Green, S. Stuart, T.L.Thomas and E.B. Hsu (2008). Mass-casualty triage: time for an evidence-based approach. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 23(1): 3-8.

Kates, R.W. and D. Pijawka (1977). From rubble to monument: the pace of reconstruction. In J.E. Haas, R.W. Kates and M.J. Bowden (eds) Disaster and Reconstruction, M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1-23.

Katoch, A. (2006). The responders’ cauldron: the uniqueness of international disaster response. Journal of International Affairs 59(2): 153- 172.

Labadie, J.R. (2011). Emergency managers confront climate change. Sustainability 3(8): 1250-1264.

Lam, A. (2000). Tacit knowledge, organizational learning and societal institutions: an integrated framework. Organization Studies 21: 487-513.

Langenbach, R. and A. Dusi (2004). On the cross of Sant'Andrea: the response to the tragedy of San Giuliano di Puglia following the 2002 Molise, Italy, earthquake. Earthquake Spectra 20(S1): S341-S358.

Leighton, F.B. (1976. Urban landslides: targets for land-use planning in California. In D.R. Coates (ed.) Urban Geomorphology. Special Paper no. 174, Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado: 37-60. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1130/SPE174-p37

Meslem, A., F. Yamazaki, Y. Maruyama, D. Benouar, A. Kibboua and Y. Mehani (2012). The effects of building characteristics and site conditions on the damage distribution in Boumerdès after the 2003 Algeria earthquake. Earthquake Spectra 28(1): 185-216.

Murphy, B.L. (2007). Locating social capital in resilient community-level emergency management. Natural Hazards 41(2): 297-315.

Noji, E.K. (ed.) (1997). The Public Health Consequences of Disasters. Oxford University Press, New York, 468 pp.

Olson, R.A. (2003). Legislative politics and seismic safety: California's early years and the "Field Act," 1925-1933. Earthquake Spectra 19(1): 111-131.

Perry, S., L. Jones and D. Cox (2011). Developing a scenario for widespread use: best practices, lessons learned. Earthquake Spectra 27(2): 263-272.

Qian, Y. (2010). Integrated risk governance project: towards better governance of very large-scale risks in the world. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science 1(1): 44-45.

Rahardjo, E, K. Wirjoatmodjo and P. Koeshartono 2008). 2008. Toward more efficient multinational work on rescue and aid for disasters: lessons learned during the Aceh tsunami and Yogya earthquake. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 23(4): 301-304. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049023X00005914

Reitherman, R.K. (2004). Application of earthquake engineering information in hospital emergency response and recovery. Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering, Richmond, California, 7 pp (manuscript).

Rivers, J.P.W. (1982). Women and children last: an essay on sex discrimination in disasters. Disasters 6(4): 256-267.

Rutter, M. (1987). Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 57(3): 316-331.

Salkowe, R.S. and J. Chakraborty (2009). Federal disaster relief in the US: the role of political partisanship and preference in presidential disaster declarations and turndowns. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 6: Article 28.

Sarriegi, J.M., F.O. Sveen, J.M. Torres and J.J. Gonzalez (2008). Towards a research framework for critical infrastructure interdependencies. International Journal of Emergency Management (IJEM) 5(3-4): 235-249.

Seaman, J., S. Leivesley and C. Hogg (1984). Epidemiology of Natural Disasters. Contributions to Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Vol. 5. S. Karger, Basel, 177 pp.

Sharma, V.K. (2001). Gujarat earthquake: some emerging issues. Disaster Prevention and Management 10(5): 349-355.

Spence, R., E. So and C. Scawthorn (eds) (2011). Human Casualties in Earthquakes: Progress in Modelling and Mitigation. Springer, Berlin, 322 p. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-9455-1

Stojanovski, P. and W. Dong (1994). Simulation model for earthquake casualty estimation. Proceedings of the Fifth U.S. National Conference on Earthquake Engineering, paper no. 00592, Chicago: 1045-1054.

Tierney, K.J. (1994). Social impacts and emergency response. In Northridge Earthquake, January 17, 1994. Preliminary Reconnaissance Report. Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, Oakland, California: 87-93.

UNISDR (2005). Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 22 pp.

White, G., M. Fox, J. Rowland, C. Rooney and S. Aldana (2004). Nobody Left Behind: Investigating Disaster Preparedness and Response for People with Disabilities. Research and Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.

Wisner, B. (1996). The geography of vulnerability. In J. Uitto and J. Schneider (eds) Preparing for the Big One in Tokyo: Urban Earthquake Risk Management. United Nations University Press, Tokyo: 20-33

Wisner, B. (1998). The geography of vulnerability: why the Tokyo homeless don't "count" in earthquake preparations. Applied Geography 18(1): 25-34.

Wisner, B. (2001). Risk and the neoliberal state: why post-Mitch lessons didn't reduce El Salvador's earthquake losses. Disasters 25(3): 251-268.




How to Cite

Alexander, D. (2012). What can we do about earthquakes? Towards a systematic approach to seismic risk mitigation. Bulletin of the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering, 45(2), 49–60. https://doi.org/10.5459/bnzsee.45.2.49-60