Skip to main content

Saving lives in earthquakes: successes and failures in seismic protection since 1960


This paper will look at what we have and have not achieved in reducing the risks to human life from earthquakes in the last 50 years. It will review how success has been achieved in a few parts of the world, and consider what needs to be done by the scientific and engineering community globally to assist in the future task of bringing earthquake risks under control. The first part of the talk will re-examine what we know about the casualties from earthquakes in the last 50 years. Almost 80% of about 1 million deaths turn out to have been caused by just ten great earthquakes, together affecting a tiny proportion of the territory at risk from heavy ground shaking. The disparity between richer and poorer countries is also evident, not only in fatality rates, but also in their rates of change. But the existing casualty database turns out to be a very poor basis for observing such differences, not only because of the small number of lethal events, but also because of the very limited data on causes of death, types and causes of injury. These have been examined in detail in only a few, recent events. All that can be said with certainty is that a few wealthier earthquake-prone countries or regions have made impressive progress in reducing the risk of death from earthquakes, while most of the rest of the world has achieved comparatively little, and in some areas the problem has become much worse. The second part of the paper looks in more detail at what has been achieved country-by-country. Based on a new expert-group survey of key individuals involved in earthquake risk mitigation, it will examine what are perceived to be the successes and failures of risk mitigation in each country or group of countries. This survey will be used to highlight the achievements of those countries which have successfully tackled their earthquake risk; it will examine the processes of earthquake risk mitigation, from campaigning to retrofitting, and it will consider to what extent the achievement is the result of affluence, scientific and technical activity, political advocacy, public awareness, or the experience of destructive events. It will ask to what extent the approaches pioneered by the global leaders can be adopted by the rest. The final section of the talk will argue that it can be useful to view earthquake protection activity as a public health matter to be advanced in a manner similar to globally successful disease-control measures: it will be argued that the key components of such programmes—building in protection; harnessing new technology and creating a safety culture—must be the key components of earthquake protection strategies also. It will consider the contribution which the scientific and engineering community can make to bringing down today’s unacceptably high global earthquake risk. It will be suggested that this role is wider than commonly understood and needs to include:

Building-in protection

  • Improving and simplifying information available for designers and self-builders of homes and infrastructure.

  • Devising and running “building for safety” programmes to support local builders.

Harnessing new technologies

  • Developing and testing cost-effective techniques for new construction and retrofit.

Creating a safety culture

  • Involvement in raising public awareness.

  • Political advocacy to support new legislation and other actions.

  • Prioritising action on public buildings, especially schools and hospitals.

Examples of some of these actions will be given. International collaboration is essential to ensure that the resources and expertise available in the richer countries is shared with those most in need of help. And perhaps the most important single task for the engineering community is work to counter the widespread fatalistic attitude that future earthquakes are bound to be at least as destructive as those of the past.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Ambraseys N, Lensen G, Moinfar A (1975) The Pattan Earthquake of 28.12.1974, UNESCO FMR/SC/GEO/75/134.1974

  2. Armenian HK, Melkonian A, Noji E, Hovanesian P. (1997) Deaths and injuries due to the earthquake in Armenia: a cohort approach. Int J Epidemiol 26(4):806–813

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Arya, Chandra (1977) Earthquake-resistant construction and disaster prevention. In: Proceedings of the sixth world conference on earthquake engineering, New Delhi, January 1977

  4. Arya A (1981) A manual of earthquake-resistant non-engineered construction. Indian Society of Earthquake Technology, Roorkee

    Google Scholar 

  5. ASAG (1996) ASAG’s intervention through technology upgrading for seismic safety. Ahmedabad Study ad Action Group, Ahmedabad, India

  6. Barooah (2006) Capacity building for earthquake safety and mitigation through awareness and community education. In: Proceedings of the first european conference on earthquake engineering and seismology, paper 722, Geneva

  7. Berberian M (2005) The 2003 bam urban earthquake: a prectable seismotectonic pattern along the Western Margin of the Rigid Lut Block, Southeastern Iran. In: Naeim et al (eds) 2003 Bam Iran Earthquake Reconnaissance Report, Earthquake Spectra Publication No 2005–04EERI

  8. Bertero V (1989) Lessons learnt from recent catastrophic earthquakes and associated research. In Proceedings of the first international torroja conference, 1989, University of California, Berkeley

  9. Bilham (2002) Urban earthquake fatalities—a safer world or worse to come? CIRES, University of Colorado at Boulder  < > 

  10. Blondet M, Torrealva D, Vargas J, Velasquez J, Tarque N (2006) Seismic reinforcement of adobe houses using external polymer mesh. In: Proceedings of the first european conference on earthquake engineering and seismology, Paper 632, Geneva

  11. Bolt (1976) Earthquakes. W.H Freeman, New York

    Google Scholar 

  12. Bommer J, Pinho R, Spence R (2006) Earthquake loss estimation models: time to open the black boxes? In: Proceedings of the first european conference on earthquake engineering and seismology, Paper 834, Geneva

  13. Brasini F, Modonesi D, Sidoti B, Camassi R (2006) Tutti giu per terra—an active course to discover earthquake topics. In: Proceedings of the first european conference on earthquake engineering and seismology, Geneva

  14. Carreno M-L, Cardona O, Barbat A (2006) Urban seismic risk evaluation: a holistic approach. Nat Hazards 1–38 (forthcoming)

  15. Centre for Disease Control (1999) Achievements in public health 1900–1999: control of infectious diseases. MMWR Weekly 48(29):621–629

    Google Scholar 

  16. China Academy of Building Research (1986) The mammoth tangshan earthquake of 1976: building damage photo album. China academic publishers, beijing

  17. Coburn A, Dudley E, Haaland A. (1991) Communication for building safety: report of a field study in northern pakistan, Working Report, Building for Safety Project. Cambridge Architectural Research, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  18. Coburn A, Hughes R, Illi D, Nash D, Spence R (1984) The construction and vulnerability to earthquakjes of some building types in the northern areas of pakistan. In: Miller K (ed) Proceedings of the international karakoram conference. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  19. Coburn A, Hughes R, Pomonis A, Spence R (1995) Technical principles of building for safety. Intermediate Technology Publications

  20. Coburn AW, Spence RJS. (2002) Earthquake protection. Wiley, New york

    Book  Google Scholar 

  21. Comerio M. (2004) Public policy for reducing earthquake risks: a US perspective. Build Res Inform 32(5):403–413

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Costa (2006). Strengthening and repairing earthquake damaged structures. In: Oliveira R, Goula X (eds) Assessing and managing earthquake risk, Chapter 19. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg New york

    Google Scholar 

  23. CRED (2006) EM-DAT, disaster database, centre for research on epidemiology of disasters, University of Louvain,

  24. Cuny F. (1983) Disasters and development. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  25. D’Ayala D, Free M (eds) (2003) The Kocaeli Turkey Earthquake of 17 August, 1999, A Field Report by EEFIT, Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team, Institution of Structural Engineers London

  26. D’Souza F (1989) Vote of thanks. The need for grass-roots response. Coping with natural disasters The second mallet-milne lecture, SECED. Institution of Civil Engineers, London

  27. Davis I. (1978) Shelter after disaster. Oxford Polytechnic Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  28. Dixit A, Dwelley-Samant L, Nakarmi M, Pradhanang S, Tucker B (2000) The Kathmandu Valley earthquake risk management project: an evaluation. In: proceedings, 12th world conference on earthquake engineering, Paper 1788

  29. Dolce M (2004). Seismic safety of schools in Italy. In: Yelland R, Tucker B (eds) Keeping schools safe in earthquakes, Chapter 3. OECD, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  30. Dowrick D. (2003) Earthquake risk reduction actions for New Zealand. Bull NZ Soc Earthquake Eng 36(4):249–259

    Google Scholar 

  31. Dudley Haaland (1993) Communicating building for safety. IT Publications

  32. Dudley E. (1993) The critical villager; beyond community participation. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  33. Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (2006) Guidelines for earthquake resistant construction of non-engineered rural and suburban masonry houses in cement sand moratr in eartquake-affected areas. ERRA, Islamabad

  34. EEFIT (1991) The 21 June 1990 Manjil, Iran, Earthquake: a field report by EEFIT, Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team. Institution of Structural Engineers, London

  35. EERI (2003) Securing society against catastrophic earthquake losses. Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, CA

  36. EERI (2005) First Report on the Kashmir earthquake of October 8, 2005. EERI Newsletter 39:12

    Google Scholar 

  37. EERI (2006) The Kashmir earthquake of October 8, 2005: impacts in pakistan. EERI Newsletter 40:2

    Google Scholar 

  38. EN- 1998 –1 (2004) Eurocode 8: design of structures for earthquake resistance Part 1 CEN European Committee for Standardisation

  39. Fathy H. (1973) Architecture for the poor. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  40. Geller RJ. (1997) Earthquake prediction: a critical review. Geophys J Int 131:425–450

    Google Scholar 

  41. Gere JM, Shah HC. (1984) Terra non Firma. W H Freeman, New York

    Google Scholar 

  42. Ghafory-Ashtiany M, Mousavi R (2006) History geography and economy of Bam. In: Naeim et al (eds) 2003 Bam Iran Earthquake Reconnaissance Report, Earthquake Spectra Publication No 2005–04

  43. Giardini D, Jiménez M-J, Grünthal G (2003) European-Mediterranean seismic hazard map.

  44. Grant D, Bommer J, Pinho R, Calvi G, Goretti A, Meroni F (2006). A prioritisation scheme for Seismic intervention in school buildings in Italy. Earthquake Spectra, forthcoming

    Google Scholar 

  45. Grossi P, del Re D, Wang Z (2006) The 1976 great tangshan earthquake; 30-year retrospective. Risk Management Solutions, Newark, CA (

  46. Gujarat State Disaster Management Agency (2002) Coming together, 3rd edn. GDSMA, abhiyan.gsdma.undp

  47. Gülkan P et al. (1999). Revision of the Turkish development law No 3194 and its attendant regulations with the objective of establishing a new building construction supervision system inclusive of incorporating technical disaster resistance-enhancing measures (3 Vols), Turkish Ministry of Public Works and Settlement

  48. Gülkan P (2005). An analysis of risk mitigation considerations in regional reconstruction in Turkey: the missing link. Mitigation Adaptation Strategies Global Change 10:525–540

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Gutscher M-A (2005) Whodunnit in 1755? New clues from Sumatra, from the seafloor off SW Iberia and from GPS. In: Proceedings, international confrence on the 250th anniversary of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, Lisbon

  50. Housner GW (1989) Coping with natural disasters, the second Mallet-Milne Lecture, SECED. Institution of Civil Engineers, London

  51. Housner GW, Duxin H (2002) Report on the great Tangshan earthquake of 1976, earthquake engineering laboratory. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA

  52. Hunt T (2004). Building Jerusalem: the rise and fall of the Victorian City. Phoenix, London

    Google Scholar 

  53. IIEES (2003) Isoseismal Map of the Bam Iran earthquake of 26.12.2003. International Institute of Earthquake Engineering and Seismology (

  54. Indian Standards Institute (1970) Recommendations for Earthquake-resistant design of structures, IS:1893, Bureau of Indian Standards, New Delhi, India

  55. Jain S, Lettis WR, Murty C, Bardet J-P (eds) (2002) Bhuj India earthquake of January 26th 2001: reconnaissance report. Earthquake Spectra, Publication No 2002–01

  56. Jain SK. (2006) The Indian Earthquake problem. Curr Sci 89(9):1464–1466

    Google Scholar 

  57. Joaquin ME (1966) Seismic behaviour and design of small buildings in chile. In: proceedings of the fourth world conference on earthquake engineering, Santiago, Chile, 1969

  58. Kabeyasawa et al (2001) In Report of the Damage Investigation of the 1999 Kocaeli Earthquake in Turkey, Chapter 6, Architectural Institute of Japan, 2001

  59. Kircher C, Selison H, Bouabid J, Morrow G. (2006) When the big one strikes again—estimated losses due to a repeat of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Earthquake Spectra 22(S2): 297–339

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Langenbach (2006) Preventing pancake collapse: lessons from earthquake-resistant traditional construction for modern buildings of reinforced concrete. In: proceedings of the international disaster reduction conference, Davos Switzerland, 2006

  61. Leslie J (1984) Think before you build: an earthquake reconstruction project in Yemen. In: proceedings of the International Symposium on earthquake relief in less-industrailised areas, Zurich

  62. Leslie J, Coburn AW. (1985) The dhamar building education project: assessment. OXFAM, UK

    Google Scholar 

  63. Lubkowsky Z. (2005) The Tenth Mallet-Milne Lecture. Bull Earthquake Eng 3:137–139

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Madabhushi S, Haigh S (eds) (2005) The Bhuj India Earthquake of 26th Jan 2001: a Field Report by EEFIT. Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team, Institution of Structural Engineers London

  65. Maheri M, Naeim F, Mehrain M (2006) Performance of adobe buildings in the 2003 Bam earthquake. In: Naeim et al (eds) 2003 Bam Iran earthquake reconnaissance report. Earthquake Spectra Publication No 2005–04

  66. Mallet R. (1862) First principles of observational Seismology. Chapman and Hall, London

    Google Scholar 

  67. Mayorca P, Navaratnaraj S, Meguro K (2006) Report on the state of the art in the seismic retrofitting of Unreinforced Masonry houses by PP band meshes. International Centre for Urban Safety Engineering, Institute of Industrial Science, University of Tokyo, Japan

  68. Megget L (2006) From brittle to ductile: 75 years of seismic design in New Zealand. In: Proceedings of the Conference of the New Zealand society of earthquake engineering, NZSEE. Auckland, New Zealand

  69. Milne JW (1903) Earthquakes and other earth movements, 5th edn. Kegan, Paul Trench, Trubner, London

  70. Monk T (2006) Community involvement on the road to school seismic safety in British Colombia. In: Proceedings of the conference on development in earthquake mitigation since the Kobe earthquake. Japan Society for Earthquake Engineering, Kobe Japan

  71. Movahedi H (2005) Search, rescue and care of the injured following the 2003 Bam Iran earthquake. In Naeim et al (eds) 2003 Bam Iran earthquake reconnaissance report, Earthquake Spectra Publication No 2005–04

  72. Murray JL, Lopez AD (1997). Mortality by cause for eight regions of the world: global burden of disease study. Lancet 349:1269–1276

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Murty C et al (2005) Earthquake Rebuilding in Gujurat, India, EERI Recovery Reconnaissance Report, EERI, 20050–02, CA

  74. NICEE (2006) Newsletter. National Information Centre of Earthquake Engineering, Kanpur India (

  75. Norton J (1976) Builders in Iran, Guinea and Sudan—the barefoot approach to shelter. In: Carr (ed) The barefoot book. Intermdiate Technology Publications

  76. OECD (2004) Expert group report on earthquake safety in schools Part V. In: Yelland R, Tucker B (eds) Keeping schools safe in earthquakes. OECD, Paris

  77. Ohlsen RA (2003). Legislative policies and seismic safety: California’s early years and the field act 1925–1933. Earthquake Spectra 19(1):111–131

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Oliver-Smith A. (1986) Martyred city. University of New Mexico Press, New Mexico

    Google Scholar 

  79. Olshansky. (2005) Making a difference: stories of successful seismic safety advocates. Earthquake Spectra 21(2):441–464

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Parsons T, Toda S, Stein RS, Barka, A, Dietrich JH (2000). Heightened odds of large earthquakes near Istanbul: an interaction-based probability calculation. Science 288:661–665

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. Patel DD, Patel DK, Pindoria KL (2001) Repair and strengthening guide for damaged low-rise domestic buildings in Gujarat, India, The Gujarat Relief Engineering Advice Team (GREAT),

  82. Penelis G (2001) Pre-earthquake assessment of public buildings in Greece. International Workshop on Seismic Assessment and Rehabilitation of Structures, Athens Greece

  83. Perkins J, Chakos A, Olsen R, Tobin T, Turner F (2006). A retrospective on the 1906 earthquakes’s impact on bay area and California public policy. Earthquake Spectra 22(S2): S37–S260

    Article  Google Scholar 

  84. Petal M (2004) Urban disaster mitigation and preparedness: the 1999 Kocaeli earthquake, Ph. D. Dissertation, University of California

  85. Pomonis (2001). The mount parnitha (Athens) earthquake of eptember 7th 1999: a disaster management perspective. Nat Hazards 27(1,2):171–199

    Google Scholar 

  86. Pomonis A (ed) (2006) The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 26.12.04: mission findings in Sri Lanka and Thailand. Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team, Institution of Structural Engineers London

  87. Pomonis A, Coburn A, Ledbetter S (1990) The Vrancea Romania earthquakes of 30–31 May 1990, a field report by EEFIT. Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team, Institution of Structural Engineers London

  88. Rapoport A. (1969) House form and culture. Prentice Hall, New York

    Google Scholar 

  89. Saito K, Spence R, Going C, Markus M (2004). Using high-resolution satellite images for post-earthquake damage assessment: a study following the Bhuj earthquake of 26.1.01. Earthquake Spectra 20(1):145–170

    Article  Google Scholar 

  90. Sarabandi P, Kiremidjian A, Adams B, Eguchi R (2006) Semi-automated 3D city modelling using stereo, high resolution satellite Images. In: Proceedings of the 4th international workshop on remote sensing for disasters, Cambridge

  91. Schilderman T. (2004) Adapting traditional shelter for disaster mitigation and reconstruction: experiences with community-based approaches. Build Res Inform 32(5):414–426

    Article  Google Scholar 

  92. Shackman G, Wang X, Liu Y-L (2002) Brief review of World demographic trends.

  93. Sharpe R (2004) Supprting local experts: experiences in Nepal and India. In: Yelland R, Tucker B (eds) Keeping schools safe in earthquakes. Chapter 16 OECD, Paris.

  94. So E (2006) Estimating human casualties in earthquakes an alternative loss modelling approach. The Martin Centre, Cambridge University Department of Architecture

  95. Spence R, Coburn A (1987a) Earthquake protection: an international task for the 1990’s. Structural Engin 65A(8)

  96. Spence R, Coburn A (1980) Traditional Buildings in Seismic Areas. In: Proceedings of the International Karakoram Project, vol 1, Cambridge University Press, 1984

  97. Spence R, Coburn A (1987b). Reducing earthquake losses in rural areas, project report. The Martin Centre, Cambridge University

  98. Spence R (2003). Earthquake protection in Europe: the missing teeth. VI Colloque National, AFPS, Paris

  99. Spence R. (1981) Reconstruction in Tianjin. China Now 94:13–14

    Google Scholar 

  100. Spence R (2004). Risk and regulation: can improved government action reduce the impacts of natural disasters?. Build Res Inform 32(5):391–402

    Article  Google Scholar 

  101. Spence R, Palmer J, Petal M, Kelman I, Saito K (2006) Using eyewitness reports to assess the impact of the 26.12.04 Southern Asian Tsunami. Maritime Eng J Inst (forthcoming)

  102. Taponnier P, King G, Bollinger L (2006) 2Active faulting and Seismic Hazard in the Western Himalyan Syntaxis. In: Proceedings, international conference on the 8.10.2005 Kashmir Earthquake, Geological Survey of Pakistan, Islamabad

  103. The Observer, May 31st, 2006

  104. Tierney K, Khazai B, Tobin T, Krimgold F (2005) Social and policy issues following the 2003 Bam Iran earthquake, in Bam. In: Naeim et al (eds) 2003 Bam Iran earthquake reconnaissance report. Earthquake Spectra Publication No 2005–04

  105. Turkish Government Ministry of Reconstruction and Resettlement (1975) Specification for structures to be built in disaster areas. Ankara, Turkey

  106. UNDP (1990) Technical review of the impact of the earthquake of 21 June 1990 in the provinces of Gilan and Zanjan, United Nations, 1990

  107. UNDP (1998) Human development report, 1998. Oxford University Press, Oxford

  108. USGS (2006) Earthquake hazards programme, Earthquakes with  > 1,000 deaths  < // > 

  109. WHO (2000) WHO Report on Global Surveillance of Epidemic-prone Infectious Diseases, Chapter 4: Cholera, World Health Organisation, WHO/CDS/CSR/ISR/2000.1

  110. WHO (2006) Injuries and disability: priorities and management for populations affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Asia. (

  111. Williamson R (2006) Remote sensing for disaster response; challenges and Opportunities. In: Proceedings of the 4th international workshop on remote sensing for disasters, Cambridge

  112. Wisner B. (2004) Swords, plowshares, earthquakes, floods, and storms in an unstable, globalizing world. J Nat Disaster Sci 26(2):63–72

    Google Scholar 

  113. Wyllie L, Filson J (eds) Armenia earthquake reconnaissance report Earthquake Spectra, Special Supplement, August 1989, EERI

  114. Yelland R, Tucker B (eds) (2004) Keeping schools safe in earthquakes. OECD, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  115. Youd TL, Bardet J-P, Bray JD (eds) (2000) Kocaeli, Turkey, Earthquake of August 17, 1999, Reconnaissance Report, Earthquake Spectra, Special Publication 2000–03, EERI

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robin Spence.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Spence, R. Saving lives in earthquakes: successes and failures in seismic protection since 1960. Bull Earthquake Eng 5, 139–251 (2007).

Download citation


  • Earthquakes
  • Building damage
  • Casualties
  • Mitigation