Corruption kills

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On the anniversary of Haiti's devastating quake, Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham calculate that 83% of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes over the past 30 years occurred in countries that are anomalously corrupt.

At a glance


  1. Earthquake deaths.
    Figure 1: Earthquake deaths.

    Despite advances in earthquake engineering, the number of people killed by earthquakes each decade has surged (blue), and the number of deaths as a proportion of global population has not dropped much (dark grey). Many of these deaths can be attributed to building collapse (red).

  2. Cash and corruption.
    Figure 2: Cash and corruption.

    The poorest countries are the most corrupt, but some are more corrupt than others. A weighted regression line (dashed) divides nations that are perceived as more corrupt (below the line) than might be expected from the average income per capita from those that are less corrupt (above the line). Named countries have lost citizens in building collapse caused by earthquakes since 1980.

  3. Corruption's toll.
    Figure 3: Corruption's toll.

    Corruption versus the level of corruption that might be expected from per capita income. Of all earthquake fatalities attributable to building collapse in the past three decades, 82.6% occur in societies that are anomalously corrupt (left-hand corner of the plot).


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  4. Bilham, R. Bull. Earthq. Eng. 7, 839887 (2009).
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Author information


  1. Nicholas Ambraseys is in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Imperial College London, London SW5 2BU, UK.

  2. Roger Bilham is at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA.

Author details

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. Supplementary Information (1.5M)

    This file contains Supplementary Materials, Supplementary Figures 1-11 with legends and additional references.

  2. Supplementary Table 1 (251K)

    This table shows earthquakes since 1980 for which the number of deaths directly attributable to building collapse have been estimated from original accounts.


  1. Report this comment #17887

    Saumitra Mukherjee said:

    Corruption kills Science also

    I agree with Nicholas Ambraseys& Roger Bilham that corruption in building construction kills people during earthquake. Further I would like to add that in developing countries corruption in science kills scietific temperament also. It is required that for any award the concerned scientist should not apply or submit recommendations from their known people including research supervisor. It should be the responsibility of the scientists in authority to develop an honest search committee to identify working scientists in the specific field and recommend award to only deserving candidates,

  2. Report this comment #18629

    G Pearn said:

    This is a very interesting article, especially the conclusion that funds designated for earthquake resistant building construction may potentially be siphoned off in countries with higher perceived corruption. However, it is likely that there are many other factors that lead to fatalities (and injuries) in earthquakes e.g. insufficient public awareness about appropriate action to take during an earthquake, lack of availability of locally-appropriate/acceptable, and cheap, retro-fitting techniques – it’s not just about enforcing building codes. So I think that whilst corruption does have an important role in explaining fatalities in earthquakes, there are many other reasons. Incidentally, the reference to the earthquake in “Iran in 2005” actually refers to the Bam earthquake of 2003?

  3. Report this comment #19549

    Emanuela Guidoboni said:


    We appreciated the article ?Corruption kills? by N. Ambraseys and R. Bilham published in Nature on 13 January 2011, vol. 469. The authors draw a direct correlation between corruption and the number of deaths caused by buildings collapsing in earthquakes, taking their data from the last 30 years. It does, however, seem to us that the authors tend to ascribe the problem to a single, if plausible, cause.
    From a planetary perspective, the current violent, rapid urbanisation process has speeded up in the last few decades and caused many Middle Eastern, Asian, African and Latin American cities to turn into megacities. The expansion of such recent urban sprawl has largely been by ?spontaneous building?, to use a town-planning phrase: home-made dwellings, shanty towns and various forms of suburban slum.
    According to the experts (Jackson 2006, for example, and indeed Bilham himself, 2004), deaths caused by earthquakes in these areas of the planet are likely to increase in coming years as a consequence of demographic boom amid extreme and widespread poverty. However, to confuse corruption with extreme conditions of poverty and marginal economic development (as Ambraseys and Bilham do) does not contribute, we feel, to understanding the chronic problem of ?witting? corruption, such as is found primarily in developed countries.

    As far as Italy is concerned, to correlate the number of deaths caused by building collapse and corruption rates, appears to say the least forced and partly incorrect as well.
    1) It is true that in Italy too corruptions widespread, in particular in the construction business. This is no mere moral judgement: consider the enormous difference between the costs of a large well-run construction company (capital intensive, though capital is not the main factor behind productivity) and a small building firm employing many workers (labour intensive). Large companies have substantial financial resources which they can use to go on expanding or simply to survive, by bribing officials to win tenders for public building projects.
    Poor building quality in Italy is due primarily to inefficient companies, driven to compete on price, lowering their costs by using off the records labour and poor quality materials. It should not be underestimated that ?price? is the key factor to winning a public tender for public infrastructure projects (quality doesn?t come into it).

    2) The second point relates to Italy?s seismic history and the current characteristics of her building stock. Historical buildings represent more than 65% of this last. Built in brick until the mid 20th century and covering the last six centuries, Italian historical buildings can be both residential and monuments, such as churches, palaces, monasteries, etc. Many historical buildings are currently used as schools, houses and public offices. The existence of this extensive historical heritage adds an important variable in the relationship between building collapse and deaths: a point ignored by the authors. One can hardly call partial or complete irresponsibility about conserving the architectural heritage corruption as such (at least in the usual sense of the term).

    3) In Italy thousands of villages and towns have been rebuilt during the last five centuries following earthquakes (almost nine hundred sites have suffered partial or total damage ? from IX to XI MCS, some of them destroyed more than once). Many foundations of historical buildings rest on metres of debris. For example, in Catania, with its extremely high seismic and volcanic risk, there are churches with foundations laid on over six metres of debris, from the earthquake destruction of 2nd and 9th January 1693 (X- XI MCS). Furthermore, L'Aquila, our most recent disaster (intensity VIII-IX MCS) was extensively rebuilt following earthquakes in 1349, 1461 and 1703. These frequent reconstructions modified the seismic response of the old town: it was not only the age of the buildings, but the debris underlying urbanised areas and the lack of routine prevention-oriented maintenance. The problem of seismic collapse in Italy?s historical towns is linked to a variety of factors including previous reconstructions and age-old restoration work, besides corruption in the building industry.
    The current vulnerability of Italy?s historical sites is very high. A future earthquake will test the resistance of these buildings, and deaths will not be caused by corruption alone.

    Emanuela Guidoboni
    Senior Researcher in Historical Seismology
    Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia
    Bologna (I)

    Cesare Roda
    Università di Udine (I)
    Engineering Geology

    Bilham, R., 2004. Urban earthquake fatalities: a safer world, or worse to come? Seismological Research Letters, 75, 706-712.

    Jackson J. ,2006, Fatal attraction: living with earthquakes, the growth of villages into megacities, and earthquake vulnerability in the modern world. Phil. Trans. Royal Society London, 364A, 1911-1925.

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