Since I arrived in Antofagasta last week, I have been staying with my host and fellow cyclist, Jorge. A couple of nights off has turned into more and yesterday morning we woke up to the news that a very large earthquake had occured in southern Chile around 3.30 a.m. and Jorge's hometown of Talcahuano is one of the worst affected. He was able to contact his mother and sister and determine that they were safe but communications have since gone down again. Much of yesterday was spent watching the scale of the damage unfold live on various local channels and this morning the modern day wonder of reality TV is at the action before the authorities are, reporting on the looting of supermarkets in the city of Concepcion. The takes are looping though and if you watch for a few minutes you have seen it all. The police arrive, tear gas is fired, and now calm again. Jorge was worried last night about his mother and sister being alone in the family house as there was a fear looting would escalate. Looking more closely at the images, however, and you see that the majority of people are running away with milk, nappies and essential food. Only the odd person deeming a 42 inch plasma TV an essential item in this electricity-less period. A woman falls and her non-purchases splay across the carpark, a policeman now beside her. But he packs everything up and hands her the bag back. Now that's nice.
Fatalities are currently estimated at over 300 people and the limited loss of life is remarkable considering the scale of the earthquake (Magnitude 8.8 at the epicentre) and comparisons with Haiti are quick to emerge, where a 7.0 quake recently resulted in approximately 230,000 deaths. The difference in political, social and economic development being the difference in being able to take onboard the historical experience of large-scale tectonic events and to put in place preventative and reactive structures to cope with one of the largest events on seismic records.
So while the Chilean people deal with the aftermath of the earthquake and begin to rebuild their lives and houses, let's hope that lessons can be learnt and adopted and vulnerability reduced in other regions through continued recognition that these disasters are not natural events but events whose impacts are determined by the ability of a population to cope with and respond to the threat. Research into social vulnerability has clearly demonstrated that the most important root causes are economic, demographic and political processes, which affect the allocation and distribution of resources between different groups of people. So by being aware of these linkages and supporting empowering causes that aim to create a more just and equitable world, we can all do our part to reduce social vulnerability and the impact of events, such as Haiti and Chile have recently experienced.