Earthquakes don’t kill people; poorly constructed buildings do. Every year, thousands of people in developing countries are killed or injured when their houses collapse during earthquakes, and thousands more are left homeless. The potential for disaster only increases as rapid urbanization means more houses are built on steep, unstable land using unsafe building practices and poor-quality materials. The tragic earthquake in Haiti in 2010 only reminds us how vulnerable some communities are to disaster.

Earthquakes also disproportionately affect the poor, who have the least resources to cope with disasters. For governments, large-scale disasters mean arrested or negative development as scarce human and economic resources are diverted to cleaning up, rebuilding and caring for the displaced and wounded. Yet, according to the UNDP, for every dollar spent on disaster preparedness, US$ 7 is saved in disaster response. The return on investment is exceptional – not to mention the thousands of lives saved.

Earthquake disasters are a man-made problem caused by poverty, a lack of building standards and enforcement, and a lack of access to affordable materials, skills and tools to build safely. While the massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Chile in 2010 (the sixth-largest ever to be recorded) created widespread damage, the death toll was relatively small – only 550 people were killed. Comparing this to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 300,000, the earthquake in Chile demonstrated that strict building codes and standards can greatly reduce losses and destruction in even the largest earthquakes. It just takes the right training, approach, incentives and small changes in construction practices to save lives.

In 2002, I went to Gujarat, India, on a Fulbright fellowship to study and assist with post-disaster reconstruction efforts after a devastating earthquake that killed more than 20,000 people. After observing these efforts, I learned an important lesson: housing construction is development. And like any development challenge, it comes down to technology, money and people: earthquake-resistant construction in developing countries will become common only if the right technology is locally available, widely known and culturally accepted. In addition, the cost of the technology must be competitive with existing, but not necessarily safe, building methods, and someone has to want that change.

Around the world, there has been growing recognition that homeowners need to be involved in reconstruction efforts, something that helps to improve local skills, create jobs, stimulate the local economy and make safer buildings the norm. This means that it is homeowners themselves who choose the structural type, materials and architecture of their house; purchase good-quality building materials locally; oversee hiring local builders; and participate in or supervise the construction. In addition, homeowners have the option of adding their own financial resources, which can result in a house that is more appropriate for their needs. In India and China, it is the preferred method. In Indonesia, it is now the preferred method after the hard lessons learned from post-tsunami Aceh. In Haiti, large aid agencies have been switching from more costly, donor-driven approaches for post-disaster housing reconstruction to less costly and more environmentally friendly, homeowner-driven approaches.

Before an earthquake hits, there’s an opportunity to offer homeowners loans so they’re able to carry out improvements, which are contingent upon certain standards for construction quality. By working with financial institutions to bundle housing financing with technical assistance, homeowners who may not normally qualify for home loans can make potentially lifesaving improvements to their houses.

This approach is being implemented in Haiti now that funding for permanent housing reconstruction and improvements has slowed. Sogesol, the Haitian micro-lending subsidiary of Sogebank, is implementing a housing finance and technical assistance project in partnership with Build Change to rebuild and upgrade homes in the earthquake-affected area of greater Port-au-Prince. Early indicators suggest there is a growing market for housing financing with technical assistance.

While there are always challenges to development, we know there is a sustainable solution to earthquake disasters. Now is the time for governments, public and private entities, financial institutions, NGOs and communities to work together to create change in construction practice and build resilient communities before the next earthquake strikes.

Author: Elizabeth Hausler Strand is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Build Change. She is also an Echoing Green Fellow, a Draper Richards Kaplan Fellow, an Ashoka-Lemelson Fellow and a Fulbright scholar.

Image: An apartment block shows major damage after an earthquake in Santiago, Chile. REUTERS/Marco Frede