State of the Planet

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Risks and Rewards: funding a technical earthquake response

Donna Shillington explains seismic network to Malawi TV
Donna Shillington explains seismic network to Malawi TV

A rapid technical response to the damaging earthquakes in Malawi produces both humanitarian and scientific benefits, and we hoped that both scientific and international assistance agencies would support our effort. Our seismic field effort serves two purposes: (1) to provide badly needed seismic equipment and technical training to the Malawi Geological Survey department (MGSD); and (2) to obtain unique data from very close to the earthquake sources to develop a better scientific understanding of faulting in the East African Rift. Funding has proven difficult, however, and our experience suggests that a technical component to earthquake response often falls through the cracks of the broader relief effort.

The Malawi earthquake sequence spawned a modest international response by several organizations with complementary and overlapping goals. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), through the Office of Foreign Disaster Relief (OFDA), and international organizations (e.g., Red Cross) provided direct humanitarian response: food, water, shelter, and other necessities for the displaced people of Karonga. Two scientists from the US Geological Survey (USGS), with support from USAID, provided a post-earthquake assessment based on field observations of damage and faulting, which constituted the official US government technical response.

Earthquake responders in Karonga. Left to right: Charles Kankuzi and Loveness (MGSD), Donna Shillington and James Gaherty (LDEO), Walter Mooney (USGS), Winstone Kapanje (MGSD), Frederick Simon (USGS), Nathan and Patrick Chindandali (MGSD).
Earthquake responders in Karonga. Left to right: Charles Kankuzi and Loveness (MGSD), Donna Shillington and James Gaherty (LDEO), Walter Mooney (USGS), Winstone Kapanje (MGSD), Frederick Simon (USGS), Nathan and Patrick Chindandali (MGSD).

Our technical response parallels those efforts, and is typical for the US academic community; individual scientists with existing contacts in and working knowledge of the effected region provide seismological field equipment, analysis, and training. Responding to the earthquakes in a timely manner required an almost instantaneous commitment on our part. Within two days after the largest event, IRIS had mobilized instruments and the funding necessary to ship them to the field. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) and the Earth Institute (EI), both at Columbia University, promised to “backstop” our effort – in other words, cover our travel and field expenses while we sought external funding for our effort. Both have strong and long-standing commitments to mitigating earthquakes, hazards, and human suffering worldwide, including in East Africa and Malawi. The project would have immediately stalled without this support.

With the LDEO and EI backstop in hand, we sought external funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and USAID, highlighting the unique scientific and outreach opportunities offered by a rapid response to these earthquakes (read our proposal here). USAID characterized the activity as too scientific to be in their purview and declined to fund us. NSF acknowledged a modest scientific benefit, but they described the effort as primarily a humanitarian and outreach response. While NSF agreed to provide some support, the amount available for such short-turnaround projects (via the RAPID program) is very small – enough only to return and recover our instruments.

Technical responses such as this one provide scientific and humanitarian benefits alike and strongly complement the larger response effort. The breadth of the impact should increase their fundability – more bang for the buck. But because of the splintered nature of the US response and funding mechanisms, this breadth can be a detriment to obtaining funding – too scientific to be humanitarian, but too humanitarian to be scientific. In our case, we overcame this quandary only with the strong financial support of our home institution. How many technical response efforts never get off the ground because of this funding uncertainty?

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