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Earthquake proofing the future

On the Five Live's Pods and Blogs segment which focused on the earthquake in Kashmir we had a contribution from geo-physicist Kush Tandon who blogs at the Herodotus's the Histories

Clearly inspired by his blogs namesake, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who said " Of all men's miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and to have control over nothing." He's been trying to draw attention to the work of Brian E Tucker who has been working jointly with American and Indian researchers to help improve the earthquake resistance of buildings in India, particularly the schools.

Tucker also joined the programme and spoke eloquently about the relative inexpense of building with earthquake resistance in mind, a 5% increase in cost,  and of the great tragedy of children often being legally compelled to attend schools that are not up to code.

One thing that Tucker said intrigued me; his claim that earthquake preparedness, particularly for schools was a vote winner.

A quick flick through the property pages in LA will show that properties in good areas easily sell for over a million dollars; that strikes me as odd given the likelihood a major quake will hit Los Angeles sometime in the next 50 years. But humans are irrational about future risks. In economics there is the concept of discounting..to illustrate it ask yourself a question: which would you rather have, $50 now or $50 in 5 years time? If you say $50 now, you've discounted the value of the future $50. In other words it's the economic term for the old addage a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Most of us discount the future heavily, as the value of property in Los Angeles clearly shows. We build towns like Naples on the side of not so dormant volcanoes, or we approve major redevelopment plans on or near flood plains as in London. Governments similarly discount the future, firstly because the public do, and secondly because they are in office for limited periods of time - a decade would be exceptional. Politicians have little incentive to worry more about the future than the electorate, nor to worry about what might happen when they are no longer in power. Threats from low probability disasters, such as major earthquakes will, therefore, tend to be underestimated. Simply, there aren't that many votes in protecting the public from something that may happen at some point of the next 100 years, but has no great probability of occuring within a term of office. So future threats are discounted.

But none of this is true outside a true democracy where terms of office can be indefinite and leaders remain in power in spite of popular feeling. So, Perves Musharraf who isn't subject to elections in the usual sense  might in fact have more reason to enact the kind of change in building programmes Tucker wants and to take a longer term view.

October 12, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink

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