Earthquakes killed more people in the last 10 years than any other natural hazard, said new figures released by the Belgium-based Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) a few weeks after the recent quake in Haiti, in which more than 112,000 people are known to have died so far.
Almost 60 percent of the people killed by natural disasters between 2000 and 2009 perished in earthquakes, followed by 22 percent in storms, and 11 percent as a result of extreme temperatures.
On the other hand, floods affected 44 percent of the two billion people struck by disasters, and droughts affected 30 percent, while earthquakes affected only four percent.
Femke Vos, a CRED researcher, pointed out that because earthquakes were sudden and had an immediate impact, they claimed more lives than other slower-onset natural hazards, such as flooding and droughts, where people had time to prepare or adapt.
|Lives lost in decade's deadliest disasters|
|Indian Ocean Tsunami 226,408|
|Cyclone Nargis 138,366|
|Sichuan earthquake 87,476|
|Pakistan earthquake 73,338|
|Heat waves in Europe 72,210|
"The area over which earthquakes leave their footprint is also comparatively small in relation to, say, floods or cyclones, which destroy vast areas but cause fewer direct deaths," said CRED director Debarati Guha-Sapir.
CRED figures for earthquake casualties included the Indian Ocean tsunami caused by an undersea quake in 2004, which left 226,408 dead and has been billed as the deadliest disaster of the 2000 decade.
Eight of the world's 10 most populous cities lie on tectonic fault-lines: Japan's capital, Tokyo; Mexico's capital, Mexico City; New York in the US, Shanghai in China, Jakarta in Indonesia, and three cities in India - Mumbai, Kolkata, and the capital, Delhi.
"Since 1900, four of every five deaths caused by earthquakes have occurred in developing countries," according to the website of GeoHazards International, a US-based NGO working to improve earthquake safety.
"In the year 1950, two of every three people living in earthquake-threatened cities lived in developing countries; by 2000, that number had increased to nine of every ten."
Many developing countries do not have building codes; in those that do, the codes are often not enforced. "Experts in earth science and earthquake engineering in developing countries are few in number, ill-equipped, and isolated," GeoHazards said.
Margareta Wahlström, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, noted that "Disaster risk reduction is an indispensable investment for each earthquake-prone city and each community," in the CRED press statement.
"Risk reduction will be a main priority in the Haiti reconstruction process, and we will be working with our partners to ensure that it is central in the reconstruction," she said.
"Earthquakes generally have long return periods and in Haiti the return period for this level is, I believe, about a 100 or more years. The main issue in Haiti is not so much reduce their risk to seismic shock, but reduce the crushing poverty that is cause of most of their deaths," Guha-Sapir told IRIN.
"The issue is: How do we ensure that the victims survive the next years? It's a country with little basic services and high child mortality. We must ensure these basic life-saving services are in place for the population. That is a priority."