Our Perspectives


Opportunity in tragedy: A reflection on the Ecuador earthquake

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Opportunity in tragedyFor all its devastating impacts, the recent earthquake could open up opportunities for Ecuador's most vulnerable communities. Photo: Jeannette Fernandez Castro

With a risk-informed approach to earthquake recovery, two of Ecuador’s vulnerable and exposed regions can not only protect against future disasters, but ensure progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

I took this picture in Muisne, one of the most beautiful towns in Ecuador, my home country.  Muisne is in the Province of Esmeraldas, in the northwest of the country and is, I feel, home to our best soccer players, the best “marimba” music, the best dancers and the best seafood.

For all of its promise, however, the region is challenged by poverty and is exposed to natural hazards, vulnerabilities that hold back social and economic growth.

This vulnerability was evident in April 2016 when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit this province as well as five others (including Manabí, where the biggest impact occurred), producing large-scale devastation. Housing and infrastructure were the most affected, with over 30,000 homes and 875 schools lost across all six provinces.

While understandable, this loss of infrastructure – and related loss of lives and livelihoods – should not occur in the future. We have the ability to build better and stronger. This is especially important in earthquake zones and even more so in regions going through recovery.

Risk-informed development can reduce disaster risks and losses. In Muisne, it was the light, one-story dwellings made out of wood that survived, while the newer, poorly built concrete buildings collapsed. With the right building codes, with sensitive land use planning, and with the enforcement of standards and training, buildings can be made to withstand earthquakes, and people can be taught how to respond and react. Future losses can be reduced if the right actions are taken now.

Ecuador is using the recovery to not only rebuild, but to build back better and incorporate disaster risk reduction into development.

Thankfully, the Government and partners are moving in this direction. With the support of UNDP colleagues and a team of six Ecuadorian universities, a state-of-the-art seismic code for Ecuador is being put in place along with other initiatives to restore livelihoods and social cohesion.

It is critical that building codes are enforced and that capacities are built so that regulators are trained and able to follow up. With this in mind, we are working closely with the Government to implement the building code and to have a national strategy to train engineers, builders and masons.

A sound recovery programme could make the difference and provide an opportunity to address past vulnerabilities. Municipalities, with the support of universities and research centres, must be equipped to assess local vulnerabilities (e.g. through micro zonation to assess soil response to shaking) and to put in place seismic-resistant and environmentally friendly infrastructures. Architects and engineers can be empowered to design and build innovative structures that correspond to the context, and affected communities can be brought on board to contribute to and lead the recovery efforts.

When I took this picture of a boy in Muisne I couldn’t help but wonder if the earthquake and the recovery – for all its devastation and impacts – could open up opportunities for him and his family.

Having worked in disaster risk reduction and recovery for 20 years I know it’s possible. But I also know that it takes work, investment and commitment. The earthquake recovery can and should be a turning point to reduce vulnerabilities and to support not only disaster risk reduction, but the sustainable development that hinges on its success.

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