Haitian Death Toll Reveals Vulnerability of Poor Countries to Natural Disasters

February 04, 2011
This is a joint post with Owen McCarthy. In February 2010, we wrote about how the relative magnitude of the death toll from the Haiti earthquake, then reckoned at approximately 230,000, compared to other recent natural disasters. On the one year anniversary of the earthquake, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive announced that a year’s worth of recovery efforts had provided a revised death toll of 316,000, representing nearly 3.5% of Haiti’s total population (a comparable disaster in the United States would kill 10.5 million people).  Death tolls from such extensive natural disasters are subject to uncertainty, but it appears the last event that definitively exceeds the toll from the Haiti earthquake was Cyclone Bhola, which struck East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1970, killing as many as 500,000. Considering these numbers, the 2010 Haiti earthquake was the most deadly natural disaster of the last forty years. The 2010 Chile earthquake presents a telling contrast in vulnerability.  Its magnitude on the Richter scale was 8.8, as compared to Haiti’s 7.0.  The Richter scale is logarithmic, meaning that a magnitude 7.0 event is ten times the strength of a 6.0, and 100 times the strength of a 5.0.  Using a bit of math, we find that the Chilean earthquake was 63 times as powerful as the Haiti earthquake, yet killed only 800 people. Naturally, there are important differences between the two earthquakes in terms of location of epicenters, population density, and so forth.  However, it is difficult to believe that the orders of magnitude between the destruction of Haiti as compared to Chile are not at least partially due to the difference in levels of development.  As David Wheeler points out in his new working paper here, poor countries are much more vulnerable to natural disasters. When natural disasters do strike developing countries, rich countries can help aid in reconstruction by implementing the policy proposals outlined here.


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