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Published in “Tuttoscienze” of “LA STAMPA”, 18 February 2004

Two people died in California last December and only one building was destroyed in the aftermath of an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale. On the other hand, more than 30,000 people died last December in Bam after the 6.6-magnitude earthquake that struck Iran. About 85 percent of the city's structures collapsed, leaving 100,000 people homeless and 30,000 wounded.

There is only one non-governmental organisation in the world which deals exclusively with preventing and reducing earthquake damage in developing countries: it is the Palo Alto-based “GeoHazards International” (GHI), and it was founded in 1991 by Brian Tucker, a pre-eminent American seismologist and formerly a consulting professor at Stanford University (California). Brian Tucker and his GHI associates have worked - often in collaboration with the United Nations - in all of the most vulnerable and quake-prone areas of the world, from Latin America to India. He recently received the “genius award”, a $ 500,000 grant which the American “MacArthur Foundation” awards to unsuspecting scientists, artists, journalists, teachers and activists, who having "the courage to challenge inherited orthodoxies” take “intellectual, scientific, and cultural risks” to produce new ideas, thus illuminating “human potential, and shaping our collective future".

We interviewed him during one of his missions to New Delhi.

Doctor Tucker, isn’t the comparison between the consequences of the earthquake in California and that of the one in Iran staggering?

It is staggering, but it is not exceptional: in recent years California has suffered from similar sized earthquakes of magnitude 6.9 on the Richter scale in 1989, magnitude 6.7 in 1994, and finally, magnitude 6.5 last December: these earthquakes resulted in a total of 125 deaths. Whereas if we consider similar sized earthquakes which struck developing countries, we notice that Mexico lost some 30,000 people in 1995, Armenia 40,000 in 1998, Turkey perhaps more than 30,000 in 1999 and India about 20,000 in 2001.

Statistics show that between 1900 and 1950 the mortality rate of earthquakes in developed and developing countries was the same, but that in the last 50 years the mortality rate has dropped dramatically in developed countries, while it has increased in developing countries!

In the last half century, urban areas in developing countries experienced staggering development: populations grew fast, the cost of land went up and so buildings tended to go higher, and people built rapidly, using poor materials and no rules. And so the mortality rate of earthquakes has increased. In contrast, developed countries have invested in scientific and engineering research and have established, and most importantly enforced, serious building codes. Unfortunately, some people have a sort of fatalistic attitude towards earthquake as it cannot be predicted nor stopped. But if it is true that we cannot control quake, it is also true that we can prevent whether it sows destruction and death caused by homes and buildings being built incorrectly and/or in the wrong place. And the comparison we spoke about before demonstrates this.

So scientists and engineers in developed countries know how to build safe buildings, but the problem is: do they know how to do this in countries where there is no money, technology or expertise?

Well, you say “safe buildings”, but actually only a windowless concrete bunker could be “earthquake safe”, maybe! And I doubt that anyone would want to live in such a place! In nature, there is no such thing as absolutely safe, what is important is to establish an acceptable level of risk. The fact is that a child in Kathmandu is 400 times more likely to die in a school collapsing in an earthquake than a child in Japan. Is this acceptable for a Nepalese and for us in the developed world? Engineers who come to developing countries are shocked: it’s mad that people live in those houses without understanding how risky it is. It is like seeing a child running with a knife! In my experience with earthquakes in developing countries, the fundamental problem is not the lack of technology, expertise or money: constructing earthquake-resistant buildings means approximately an additional 5 percent of construction costs. We at GHI find ourselves in a different situation with respect to organisations working on AIDS which are looking for sophisticated and, at the same time, affordable solutions for AIDS in developing countries. We instead must to convince “the patient that he is sick”, that is make local communities realise that the level of risk they accept is actually unacceptable, that that risk can be handled and that there are simple and affordable solutions.

And how do you work in the field?

It is team work involving local and foreign civil and structural engineers, earth scientists, soil mechanics experts, public health and emergency response planning experts. We select countries and places which are highly vulnerable and which want to work with us, then we make an assessment of their risk, getting city maps, studying soil properties, locating schools and hospitals and trying to understand what kind of emergency response organisations there are in those cities and places. Once we have gathered these data, we try to evaluate the risk and we contact local authorities to understand what they want to do to reduce that risk, and together with them we plan work and costs.

What is your most significant result so far?

I think our most meaningful result has been strenghtening local organisations that actually carry out the work, which we don’t ever do directly. If you just publish an assessment or a report, it just stays on a book shelf, but if we can create an organisation which works in the vulnerable community, that is something which lasts. In Kathmandu, for example, with a 5,000 dollar budget, one of the local organisations we involved in our work reinforced a school, making sure that local masons learned good construction techniques. Training those masons is not an easy matter at all as they can speak different languages and dialects, they don’t read, so you certainly cannot write a handbook in English for them or send them an email! After that work in Kathmandu, there was an earthquake in Gujarat, India: those Kathmandu masons went to India and trained other masons.

I notice that there are many women in GHI. Why?

There are different opinions about this. Some think that it is due to the fact that women are particularly attracted by jobs which involve social work and helping people, while others think that it is a matter of money. Being a non-governmental organisation, GHI doesn’t pay much and since men quite often feel it is their primary responsibility to have highly-paid jobs in order to maintain their families as best they can, scientists and engineers who have the expertise we need at GHI quite often don’t choose to work with GHI, especially because in California there are very good career opportunities both in firms and in marvellous universities like Stanford or Caltech.

Going back to earthquake scientific and engineering research, although 90 percent of the people most vulnerable to quakes live in the developing world, their countries receive only 10 percent of the money spent on that research. Why?

If we look at international conferences and scientific journals, we realise that what is important for Japan, the United States and Europe is what drives research, and so that is where money goes. And no one becomes professor at the University of Tokyo or in Rome because he has discovered how to make construction of earthquake-resistant mud huts practical. If you want funding and recognition in developed countries, you have to dedicate yourself to the most advanced research, and that research does not address the problems of developing countries and often cannot be applied to them.

And so what can we do?

Well, of course, it would be good if rich countries helped poor countries. But I do understand that the money of an American, European or Japanese taxpayer should be spent on things relevant to those communities, and so is spent to study the earthquake response of skyscrapers or nuclear power plants. But the tragedy is seeing the researchers in poor countries using the pitifully small monetary resources of their countries to do research on power plant response to earthquakes. Some of their countries do not even know what nuclear power plants are!

Why does this happen?

Because of the power of the international scientific community, if a researcher wants to enter into the international arena he/she will study problems which are relevant to the international community, not to his/her own community. But of course this is a solvable problem: the system of scientific publications, tenures, and funding for research is based on the recognition of peers. If academics would respect those researchers of the third world who study third world’s problems, then those researchers probably would not find themselves studying the first world’s problems in order to gain attention, recognition, and funding from the international scientific community.

And what about you? I mean, you were doing research in the first world, in California, why did you decide to go to the third and fourth worlds?

I chose to go where my education and experience could make a difference. After I graduated from university, I travelled around the world and saw very poor zones with much more serious earthquake problems than those in California. And when I went to international conferences with friends who had travelled as well, we often commented among ourselves how ridiculous it all was: there were so many talented people working on the problems of developed countries! After a while I decided to try to do what I really was interested in, and my wife was very supportive. Actually, it was quite a risky decision: I quit a very good job to start GHI just two months before our first child was born.

Europe and most of all Italy have plenty of young scientists and engineers. They are often considered of no use and have no serious or interesting job prospects. Would you advise them to make the choice you did: quit everything and go where their competence can make a difference?

I would advise young people to go where their deep interest is: if their real interest is to make a difference in the developing world, then they should go there; if it is to make money or to develop new technologies, then they should go there. Bill Gates did marvellous things for the world, following his passion. I would advise young people to follow whatever keeps them awake at night, because most of the things I have achieved don’t come from “genius” , they come from hard work and motivation.