A Tale of Two Earthquakes: Different Types of Corruption in Nepal and Sichuan

In the wake of the horrifying human toll taken by the earthquake in Nepal, attention has once again turned to the role of corruption in increasing the original death toll and in hampering the effectiveness of aid. Rick recently posted about it on the blog. Bribery of building inspectors enabled a great deal of new construction in Kathmandu that violated the building code, and it was these buildings that were the most likely to trap people when the earthquake hit. There is a feeling of deja vu about the allegations. After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province in China, corruption in the building of schools led to thousands of additional deaths when schools across the region came down on pupils. But not all corruption is created equal, and the corruption in building in Kathmandu may have been less harmful than that in Sichuan province.

As Rick pointed out, with the proper building codes, we are capable of building structuress that can easily stay standing with earthquakes the strength of the one that hit Nepal. The 2011 Japanese earthquake was significantly stronger, and while it caused many problems (including a devastating tsunami), building collapse was not one of them. But building according to this strict code is very expensive, and it creates an incentive for people to try to get around the regulations.

In Sichuan, school contractors accepted the money to build schools up to code, but then pocketed a significant portion and built the schools in a much shoddier manner. No one benefited except for the contractors. The government paid for well-constructed schools, but people got ones that would collapse, instead.

In Nepal, the situation was a bit different. In Kathmandu, rapid urbanization has created a motive to add more stories to existing buildings, even when this violates zoning and earthquake regulations. Building inspectors are easy to bribe, and the going rate is somewhere between a few dollars and a few hundred dollars to add another story or two to a building. As in China, builders have the incentive to use shoddier materials and weaker designs, and this makes the buildings far more prone to collapse. But unlike China, the builders are not the only ones who benefit: Private apartments built on the cheap can be in turn rented or sold more cheaply.

When the rural poor migrate to the city in search of an improved life, they are often searching for the cheapest way to live. Given the choice between cheaper, shoddily constructed housing and more expensive housing that is up to code, poor migrants might well opt for the former, even if they know that such construction will be more vulnerable to an earthquake. Regulations (the building code) have decided that people are better off paying more for increased safety, but the people are voting with their wallets to avoid the regulations. Perhaps people are attaching too little importance to the earthquake risk when they first move to the city, because the chance of a building collapse is not salient to them, and perhaps the building code needs to be more rigidly enforced. But the fact remains that people did derive some benefit from the cheaper buildings.

So while corruption played a crucial role in convincing the building inspectors to look the other way, it is less clear if the central problem is corruption per se, or rather the fact that many Nepalis are too poor (itself in part due to corruption strangling economic growth) to pay for safe building. Building codes should perhaps realistically reflect the safety that a population is willing to pay for, or the incentive for corruption (and the number of people unable to find urban housing) will be too great.

Of course, failing to build up to code is not the only way that corruption can affect the human suffering in the event of an earthquake. Corruption in infrastructure projects that prevent the construction of a national system of roads that would enable aid to reach outlying areas quickly. There is also the misappropriation of aid funds themselves. But we need to remember that not all corruption, including corruption that leads to earthquake deaths, is equally harmful, and the type of corruption in Kathmandu may have for many years allowed some of the city’s poor to live in apartments they could otherwise never afford.

One thought on “A Tale of Two Earthquakes: Different Types of Corruption in Nepal and Sichuan

  1. I am still not convinced with Sarah’s adding poverty, in addition to Rick’s argument of corruption in construction sector, as a factor behind the earthquake deaths in Nepal. Without analysing the number of deaths due to collapsing buildings and other infrastructures, including whether or not proper building codes were followed or not, it will be difficult to pin point violation of building codes due to corruption as a single factor behind the loss of lives. The avalanche, the landslides and falling of debris seems to be far more important than the corruption factor per se in the loss of lives. Like Sunami in Japan, the intensity of the earthquake is that any engineering genius can withstand the nature’s wrath. Compared to death toll in 1934, this time it is much less if one takes into account massive growth and expansion of Kathmandu.

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