Death by Corruption: The Nepal Earthquake

Although press reports attribute the growing death toll in Nepal to the April 25 earthquake, earthquakes were in fact the proximate cause of very few fatalities.  Nepalese did not die from shaking ground but, as news footage shows, because they were crushed by falling buildings.  The link between earthquakes, collapsing buildings and fatalities has been known for centuries if not millennia as has the solution: codes setting standards that ensure all structures can withstand the shock of a quake.  Since 1994, Nepal’s building code has contained several provisions requiring buildings to be earthquake proof, but as the New Zealand consultant who helped develop the ’94 code told Bloomberg News, drafting a quakeproof code is easy, “the hard thing is to get implementation.”

That is where corruption makes its appearance.  Builders can find many ways to bribe around building codes, and judging from New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley’s May 1 story, Nepalese builders found them all.  The collapsed buildings in Katmandu “exposed not only flaky concrete and brittle pillars, but also a system of government enforcement rotted by corruption and indifference. . . . Residents and building experts say the corruption is an open secret . . . .  The developers and landlords who slap up the buildings . . . know they will rarely be punished by officials, who are often happy to look the other way for a price.”

The earthquake – corruption – death nexus is a predictable part of post-quake reporting.  Stories similar to Buckley’s appeared following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2008 one in China’s Sichuan province, the 2001 quake in the Indian state of Gujarat, and the 1999 one in the Marmara region of Turkey.  But as with the Nepal story, they were based on anecdotes and impressions.  Is corruption really why so many buildings become coffins once a quake strikes?  And if it is, what can be done to curb it?

The best evidence on the corruption death toll link comes from an article in the January 11, 2011, issue of Nature by seismologists Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham.  They examined the death toll from all earthquakes over the 1980 – 2010 periods and concluded, as the title of their article proclaims: “Corruption kills.”  Some 83 percent of all deaths from earthquakes during the period were, they found, in countries where the level of corruption as measured by the CPI exceeded what one would predict given its GDP. “This striking correlation . . . suggests that where corruption is extreme, its effects are manifest in the building industry. . . . In sum there is statistical support for widespread anecdotal evidence of a correlation between corruption and loss of life in earthquakes.”  In a fine rebuff to those who treat building code enforcement as a technical matter, they conclude that:  “The structural integrity of a building is no stronger than the social integrity of the builder.”

Most prescriptions for shoring up the enforcement of building codes ignore Ambraseys and Bilham’s essential point: that non-enforcement is not a technical matter but a social, or better, political one.  Thus, a 2013 project in Nepal sponsored by the United Nations Development Program’s Comprehensive Disaster Risk Management Program sought to facilitate the implementation of the ‘94 building code through an e-government system while at the time the quake hit USAID program had a series of training programs and awareness-raising activities underway to bolster building code enforcement in Nepal.

Technical fixes are surely a part of the answer.  More and better training, perhaps greater use of the new generation of web cams that permit continuous monitoring of construction sites.  But until reformers come to grips with why, in the word’s of Ambraseys and Bilham, “the social integrity of builders” in countries like Nepal remains so low, technical fixes are unlikely to make much of a difference.

The only effort I have seen to do so is British criminologist Penny Green’s analysis of why Turkish building codes, at least prior to the 1999 quake, were honored in the breach. In “Disaster by Design” she explains the unholy link between Turkish politicians looking for bribes and builders wanting a quick lira mixed with the needs for cheap public housing produced so many deaths by corruption.  While the precise pattern may differ in Nepal or India or Haiti, the basic incentives are surely the same, and until reformers identify them and develop realistic means for changing them, the earthquake – corruption – death nexus will continue.

5 thoughts on “Death by Corruption: The Nepal Earthquake

  1. The real tragedy of stories like the earthquake in Haiti is how little changed afterward. 100,000+ people were lost to shoddy construction facilitated by corruption, and yet in the aftermath, stories of corruption in aid financing and reconstruction abounded. Sure, there were calls to strength construction standards, but the problems persisted and corruption proved all too hard to shake. This brings me back to a discussion that was had about Lauren’s post on “Greece’s Golden Opportunity,” one that asked if and when moments of national crisis can generate unique windows of opportunity within which one might effect substantial change in a country’s corruption culture. One would hope that a tragedy as devastating as losing thousands of lives in Nepal to construction eroded by corruption would present a sufficient shock to the nation to open the door for change; unfortunately, though, the experience in Haiti makes me question whether we should hold out hope that tragedies like this will produce a transformative “corruption moment” and really change countries like Nepal for the better.

    • *I am going to have to go with Narayan’s views on this one.
      Corruption issues in (pre-) and post-Katrina for example, do not appear to explain the death toll and systemic injustice.

  2. Dear Richard,
    Being some one close to the recent tragedy, I feel your explanations on lives lost due to shoddy quality of the building construction as a result of corruption is bit exaggerated. No doubt there is corruption in the construction sector, however, most of the damages done by the earthquake were with due old mud houses. In fact, saving few (conforming your explanation), a large number of concrete structures withstand the tremor. Many environmentalists have criticized these buildings for “too hot too cold” concrete houses. In your explanation, you also need to consider the number of people dead as a result of collapsing buildings. So far, nearly, half of the death comes comes from a single district Sindhupalanchowk. In rural areas, people build their own houses – there is no building codes. Where building codes are supposed to be applied – the skyscrapers in the Kathmandu Valley survived with damages. Out of 20 skyscrapers inspected by the government, 15 are now designated not fit for living. Saving damages, there were do deaths reported due to falling of skyscraper buildings. I would say, your explanations on corruption in construction sector and death due to collapsing building in Nepal is too early until data get carefully analysed. The satellite images of the damages houses showed most of the buildings were damaged, not by the swings, but by vertical jolt. This could be a better explanation why the quake took a toll on mud buildings. In the coming days, there will be construction of more concrete houses in Nepal. Bad news for the environmentalists, I would say.

    • Great comment! Although I am a big advocate for tackling corruption in the building sector I think many people are not aware of the progress being made in tackling these issues. I fully agree with your comments.

  3. Pingback: Spilling í byggingariðnaði grandaði fleirum í Nepal en jarðskjálftinn |

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