On May 31, 1970, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale rifled across the regions of Ancash and La Libertad in northern Peru, collapsing roads, homes and schools and unleashing an avalanche that buried the town of Yungay in a mass of rock and ice. More than 66,000 people were killed, more than 100,000 were injured, and hundreds of thousands more were left homeless. Infrastructure damages – estimated at $530 million – took years to repair.
Other impacts still linger. According to research by Germán Daniel Caruso and Sebastián Miller for the IDB, the so-called Ancash earthquake triggered long-term negative effects on education, poverty, marriage and labor that have far outlived the material destruction. In some cases, these have even been transmitted across generations. Not only have women been harmed who at the time of the disaster were still in their mother’s uterus. So have their children.
Recent research into the impact of events like famines, armed conflicts, and natural disasters reveals that exposure to trauma in utero or in the first two years of life can long afflict victims. That can happen for at least two different reasons, which can work together for a perfect storm of disastrous consequences. First, malnutrition and disease in the wake of a disaster can affect a child’s health. And the deaths, loss of homes and livelihoods can produce post-traumatic stress. That can affect both pregnant women, who pass it on to their children in utero, and children in infancy, causing depression and anxiety that can be profound and enduring.
While it is still unknown which of those mechanisms was at work at Ancash, the effects themselves seem clear enough. People affected by the earthquake in utero had 0.65 less years of education than those had not been affected as of 2007, 37 years after the event. Moreover, women who had been so exposed had children with 0.45 less years of education than the children of those whom the earthquake left unscathed. If those numbers seem small at first glance, they are significant: losing a half year of education in a middle-income country like Peru translates into wage losses of 3.9-5.5 percent over the course of a working life.
Women exposed in utero to the earthquake also seem handicapped in other ways, especially when it comes to welfare and poverty. For example, such women were 3% more likely to be single or divorced. And they were more likely to have daughters who were working before the age of 16. They also tended to be poorer, with a 2.6% greater chance of lacking basic household amenities, like electricity, piped water and a refrigerator. With the exception of losing about a half year in schooling, however, men exposed to Ancash in utero didn’t suffer long-term effects, a difference that has yet to be explained.
More research is needed. To date, most work on natural disasters has focused on the ability to predict them or their macroeconomic impact. Relatively little has been done on their impacts on labor markets or on the loss of human capital. But natural disasters have hidden and silent effects, ranging from health to education and poverty. Understanding them better and taking immediate action with medical and psychological intervention to protect pregnant women and the very young could be key to alleviating them and preventing their endurance in time.