"Earthquakes don't kill people, collapsed buildings do"

COPENHAGEN – Natural disasters cost the world $100 billion a year, the equivalent of Africa’s entire yearly infrastructure budget, said a top engineer during her lecture at UNOPS headquarters last week.

​Jo da Silva is the head of Arup International Development, a not-for-profit design and engineering body that works in partnership with humanitarian and development organizations such as UNOPS.

Her lecture on the role of engineers in disaster risk reduction formed part of the Brunel International Lecture Series and marked the first major event held at UNOPS headquarters in Copenhagen’s new UN City.

While Ms da Silva said earthquakes caused 60 percent of disaster-related deaths, the engineering and humanitarian relief expert also argued that it was not the natural hazards themselves that caused those fatalities.

"Earthquakes don’t kill people, collapsed buildings do," she said to the audience of more than 100 people.

Disasters affected two billion people between 2000 and 2009 and are increasing in frequency and intensity, partly due to climate change and rapid urbanization, according to Ms da Silva.

To lessen the harm caused by these events, Ms da Silva is calling for a transition from disaster response to creating more resilient communities that are better equipped to cope when a hazard strikes.

She also highlighted the opportunity that building back after a disaster provides for creating greater resilience and pushed for safer construction practices, including the introduction of codes of practice.

 "Building codes and standards have significantly reduced deaths in Japan and the United States. But in other places, they don’t exist," Ms da Silva said.

"But engineers are not omnipotent. Events where engineers’ systems or defences fail are rare but when they happen, the results can be catastrophic," she added.

Looking ahead, Ms da Silva called for a better understanding of disaster risk and the recognition that infrastructure can both increase or reduce vulnerability, depending on how it is built.

"In some remote areas, buildings aren’t designed or engineered, they are just built. A simple intervention can make a huge difference," she said, adding that the infrastructure must also be appropriate for the particular setting.

Ms da Silva continued by saying that many countries lacked the funds and technological capacity to design and build certain structures, let alone the resources to operate and maintain these buildings.

Arup’s Jo da Silva was the ninth lecturer and first woman to take part in the Brunel International Lecture Series, established by the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1999 in memory of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the world’s most respected engineering pioneers.

UNOPS entered into a partnership with Arup in October 2010 when it signed a framework agreement for collaborating on infrastructure projects. The two organizations create shared tools and standards and exchange expertise in climate change resilience, disaster response and construction, sustainable infrastructure and water, education and healthcare facilities.

UNOPS helps governments and development partners construct disaster-resistant infrastructure and increase the resilience of communities against natural hazards. Sustainability, capacity development, gender empowerment and transparency are key focuses at all stages of UNOPS disaster risk reduction design and implementation. Find out more