Dying in an earthquake may become more frequent in the 21st century, warn U.S. Geological Survey seismologists. The problem isn’t more temblors, however. The danger comes from the fact that growing populations are crowding into cities with flimsy buildings that are are more likely to collapse during a quake.

A total of between 2.6 and 3.1 million people are estimated to die in quakes in the coming century, according to the study. The number of quakes with a death toll over 50,000 may climb to 25 from a total of seven in the 20th century. Those numbers assume the global population will climb to 10.1 billion by the year 2100.

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The seismologists recommended quake-proofing buildings to prevent this massive loss of life.

“Without a significant increase in seismic retrofitting and seismic-resistant construction in earthquake hazard zones at a global scale, the number of catastrophic earthquakes and earthquake fatalities will continue to increase and our predictions are likely to be fulfilled,” said study author USGS engineering geologist Thomas L. Holzer in a press release.

Unfortunately, I would note that many regions with the fastest growing populations are also some of the poorest. People simply don’t have the resources to build earthquake-proof housing. The 2010 Haiti earthquake provided a tragic example of this.

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However, international organizations can help a nation overcome the limitations imposed by poverty. Groups like Engineers Without Borders lend professional expertise to engineering projects in the developing world. With improved infrastructure, citizens can begin to dig themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

Some argue that international aid groups are a form of neocolonialism. Or that they are an expression of the “white-savior” complex, in which a person from a wealthy European or North American nation swoops in to help people who supposedly couldn’t help themselves. However, to break out of the poverty trap, a relatively small influx of outside help may be necessary for extremely disadvantaged nations, as documented in The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey Sachs.

Image: A poor neighborhood shows the damage after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm January 12, 2010. Credit: UN Photo/Logan Abassi United Nations Development Programme, Wikimedia Commons