Natural Disasters and Their Effect on State Capacity

Published June 18, 2011
By J. J. Messner and Melody Knight
Failed States Index 2011
From the earthquake in Haiti to the volcano in Iceland, 2010 was a big year for natural disasters. Over a quarter million people were killed last year, and millions displaced, as a result of blizzards, droughts, earthquakes, floods, heat waves, landslides, and super typhoons, making it the deadliest year in more than a generation. These disasters claimed the lives of over 290,000 people in 2010, compared with just 11,000 in 2009, according to Munich Re.

Though conflict and poverty tend to be the domain of countries at the worst end of the Failed States Index, natural disasters are non-discriminating, terrorizing the “rich” and “poor” alike. But their actual effect can be particularly damaging for developing states. Poor infrastructure and urban crowding maximize fatalities and disrupt the ability to provide service to survivors. Displacement can also exacerbate existing tensions between groups and strains on supplies.

Earthquakes have especially dominated the headlines over the past 18 months, with tragic images of death, destruction, chaos and human suffering emanating from countries as diverse as Chile, China, Haiti, Indonesia, Japan and New Zealand. Though the March 11 Japanese earthquake and the February 22 New Zealand aftershocks (which were far more destructive than the initial 2010 temblor) occurred after the Failed States Index sample period during 2010, these events will almost undoubtedly play a role in both countries’ scores in 2012.
Haiti (Léogâne, January 12), China (Qinghai, April 14), Chile (Maule, February 27), and Indonesia (Sumatra, October 25) were the scenes of the most lethal earthquakes of 2010. Though Chile’s was by far the largest in magnitude, the death toll of just over 500, though tragic, was surprisingly low in comparison to the toll elsewhere as a result of smaller magnitude quakes.

Of course, there are seismological reasons for this—the location of the epicenter versus the location of significant population areas, or the depth of the earthquake, or even the deaths caused not by the temblor itself, but by any resultant tsunami. But compare the toll in Chile versus the toll of between 80,000 and 300,000 in Haiti, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Seismology tells only part of the story. In the wake of the earthquake in Chile, there was relative calm and a generally organized response from authorities, requiring little external assistance. Haiti, by comparison, witnessed the complete collapse of the state’s ability to deal with the disaster. In this sense, natural disasters provide an insight into the ability of the state to handle sudden and large-scale disaster.

The first Christchurch earthquake, on September 4, claimed zero casualties, despite hitting close to a major population center with magnitude 7.1. Though the subsequent February 2011, 6.3 magnitude, after shock claimed nearly 200 lives, the miraculous aversion from tragedy after the initial temblor may have a lot to do both with the capacity of the state to regulate and enforce adequate building standards appropriate to an earthquake-prone area, as well as the rescue capacity of local authorities to respond immediately within those critical first few hours after such a disaster. Though the February after shock did claim a significant number of lives, much of the loss was wrought by infrastructure already weakened in the previous quake.

The ability of the state to recover from disaster is also clearly evident in the aftermath of such events. In both Chile and New Zealand, the state continued to function normally throughout the disaster and reconstruction was able to begin immediately after the rescue phase had wound up. Haiti, however, continues to struggle nearly 18 months on, with thousands displaced and many of Haiti’s pre-existing troubles magnified.

Chile, Haiti, Indonesia and New Zealand all experienced a worsening in there Demographic Pressures scores for 2011, no surprise given that Indicator’s sub-set of Natural Disasters. The Public Services and Refugee/IDP scores for all but Indonesia also suffered. Similarly, the total score for all but Indonesia also worsened, with a strong likelihood that the worsening was at least in part linked to the earthquakes.

Though natural disasters are non-discriminating, affecting the rich and poor alike, the ability of the state to prepare for such events, to execute successful rescue efforts when they occur and to competently manage the reconstruction effort, is a critical factor in mitigating the ultimate loss—both of life and property—in any such disaster. Though such pressures can bear upon many diverse countries, it is the ability of these countries to deal with these pressures that sets them apart.