The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

Is counting fallen buildings useful?

Almost weekly, we read of damage and loss of life attributed to cyclones, earthquakes and floods. But what do we learn from these events?

Understanding the results of extreme weather events or natural hazards is far from simple. 

Almost weekly, we read about damage and loss of life attributed to cyclones, earthquakes, floods and other natural hazards. But what do we learn from these events? 

Often damage is only measured by financial losses and/or the number of people killed, injured or made homeless. If you’re trying to compare which global disaster is the worst, this might be helpful. But ultimately, all these figures really confirm is our inability to provide safe and healthy living environments that safeguard people and society.

Designing for risks to increase resilience

Students at SDN 1 school in Aceh province.
More resilient infrastructure such as this enhanced earthquake-resistant school in Indonesia is critical for protecting the lives of teachers and children, and sustaining education services. ​​© UNOPS/Benjamin Dixie

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Sustainable Development Goals articulate the need for governments to invest in resilience. Ultimately, this is to ensure that development and people, as well as their livelihoods, are protected from the shocks that extreme weather events and natural hazards can bring. 

Key to achieving resilience is in recognizing that development and humanitarian actions are intrinsically linked. All development contains elements of risk. Well planned and designed development can strengthen resilience and reduce humanitarian needs. Unplanned or non-compliant development can mean higher risks, a waste of critical resources and increased loss of life. 

So development planning and design processes must consider the whole risk environment, including climate variability, with a clear understanding of the potential consequences if resilience measures are not incorporated. In other words, we must proactively do everything possible during the design stage to increase resilience by minimizing the likelihood of something going wrong when infrastructure is placed under stress from the environment. And by understanding what can go wrong under certain conditions, we can better protect development gains and prepare for the future. 

Bangladesh is, to a point, leading in this area. 

Over the past ten years, earthquake risk assessments have been undertaken in a number of cities, including Dhaka, the capital. The frightening results: More than 325,000 buildings in Dhaka alone would collapse during a 7.5 magnitude or higher earthquake. 

By identifying vulnerable buildings and the potential consequences of not addressing their vulnerabilities, retrospective resilience measures could be introduced to strengthen them. Or highly vulnerable structures could be demolished and people relocated. Understanding consequences brings a touch of reality to humanitarian planning – although it’s better to reduce risks through compliance of building standards beforehand. 

Learning from adversity

For decades, counting losses and then placing a monetary value on the replacement cost has been the standard damage assessment practice. Effective ‘build back better’ approaches were often substituted by adding a 10-15 percent margin to this cost. But is it really better? 

What if the aviation industry simply counted accidents without understanding why they occurred? We wouldn’t accept that, and we shouldn’t accept any less from damage caused by natural hazards.

It’s difficult to learn from adversity because it often results in conflict between time and political sensitivities. We start with a ‘build back better’ approach, but end up focused on ‘build back quickly.’ But if we don’t understand why buildings and systems fail when under stress from shock events, then we’ll keep making the same mistakes. What if the aviation industry simply counted accidents without understanding why they occurred? We wouldn’t accept that, and we shouldn’t accept any less from damage caused by natural hazards.

The underlying causes of damage are not always obvious – they need to be investigated further. To this end, UNOPS is introducing an Infrastructure Assessment Methodology. This will assist governments with strengthening resilience through a number of ways, including learning lessons from adversity.

The bottom line: Counting damaged buildings as a single strategy simply doesn't add up when it comes to sustaining development gains. Through our commitment to achieving resilient infrastructure outcomes and influencing the work of others, however, we can try to ensure that there are fewer damaged buildings to count.

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