• 77,000 lives, 15 million people affected and USD 37bn economic losses - this is the earthquake toll in South America for the last 40 years.
    © GEM
  • View from San Cristobal
    © View from San Cristobal

Assessment of Seismic Risk in South America


From 1970 to 2012, the earthquake toll in South America was 77,000 lives, 15 million people affected, and economic losses of about USD 37 billion dollars. In light of these figures, the seismic threat in South America might seem obvious, but no one will take action unless they are convinced they are at risk. Awareness of that risk is the focus of this project.

The countries of the region are not only exposed to high levels of seismic hazard, but are also particularly vulnerable to it. They are physically and socio-economically vulnerable, and the capacity for risk management of the governments and communities is limited. This combination of factors creates lethal disasters with long-lived consequences. Seismic disasters affect not only the survival, dignity and livelihood of people in the region, but also hard-earned regional development gains.

Events such as the 2010 Haiti (6.9 M) and the Maule (8.8 M) earthquakes have shown the importance of reliable earthquake risk information, and that strikingly different outcomes arise from differences in the socio-economic context. In this region, as in many earthquake-prone regions, there are no risk models, and even where models do exist, they are often inaccessible due to their proprietary nature.

The Global Earthquake Model (GEM), established in 2009 and on its way towards the first release in 2014, is developing and deploying tools and resources for earthquake risk assessment worldwide, based on common standards, data sets and tools. GEM’s scientific framework combines the assessment of seismic hazard with the evaluation of the physical and socio-economic vulnerability of communities in order to estimate direct and indirect impacts as well as risk indicators.

Hundreds of organisations and individual experts as well as professionals and practitioners are working together on uniform, global databases, methodologies, tools, and open-source software. This proposed project would provide the countries of South America with such data, models, and estimates of seismic risk that are developed and calculated using international standards by renowned experts from within the region.

This proposed South American project will join several other regional initiatives already included as part of GEM, such as the Euro-Mediterranean Seismic Hazard Harmonization project (SHARE), the Earthquake Model of the Middle East project (EMME), and the Earthquake Model of Central Asia project (EMCA)1. A combined regional effort is necessary to meet the objectives of providing robust risk assessments for each country in the region. Because earthquakes do not know political boundaries, scientists and practitioners in different countries need to collaborate on a common model for seismic risk.

The goal of the project

The project aims to calculate hazard and risk, and to estimate the compounding social and economic factors that increase the physical damage and decrease the post-event capacities of populations to respond to and recover from damaging earthquake events in South America.

This will be carried out using more uniform data sets and methodologies than have ever been attempted, using GEM’s new open source software engine, OpenQuake. The project focuses in particular on the risk to cities from selected scenarios, to acknowledge the importance that such studies have on the communication of risk.

The two cities that will be studied are Lima and Quito, and a number of reports on the impact that events could have on these cities will be produced. Workshops with local officials and governments will also be organised to raise awareness of risk, and to discuss plans for mitigating risk. Having the results for Lima and Quito could serve as a template for similar analyses in other emerging markets in Latin America but also in other parts of the world. As such there is much potential for replication.


The unique feature of this project is that it will engage researchers from a diverse spectrum of study fields, such as natural sciences, engineering and social sciences. This multidisciplinary group of specialists will be key in assessing the impact of an earthquake on the studied cities by considering contributing factors in a comprehensive and rigorous fashion. Such a close yet overarching collaboration with a common study goal is unprecedented in this area of research.


Impact on the communities

Because the process of data gathering is inclusive and collaborative, and includes specialists from throughout South America, these individuals will have a stake in the outcome, will feel ownership of the results, and will become the authoritative spokespersons to their governments and citizens. In this way, a more accurate assessment of the full consequences of earthquakes will become credible, visible, and inter-comparable between countries and cities. The model will form a sound and vetted scientific basis upon which decisions for risk mitigation can be made.

Particular focus will be given to the risk to cities from selected scenarios, to acknowledge the importance that such studies have on the communication of risk and impact on the community.

Through GEM’s OpenQuake platform, this project will provide the tools and information to support decisions by South American nations, municipalities and individuals that will manage seismic risk. Such actions include adoption and enforcement of building codes and appropriate land use policies, the establishment of disaster facilities, and the introduction of mechanisms of risk transfer, such as insurance, national or regional insurance pools, and national catastrophe bonds.

Undertaking the risk assessments through GEM, a neutral and locally-accepted source, provides an excellent base for discussions with all stakeholders in the region. With this project, Swiss Re would proactively contribute to raising risk awareness in the affected region with governments, disaster relief agencies and property owners.