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ResearchSocietal themesEarthquake research in Groningen

Focus on the wellbeing of people whose homes have multiple damage issues

Source: New sletter EPI Kenniscentrum, April 2017

Living with uncertainty affects people’s wellbeing. With regard to earthquake damage, it is mainly the Groningen residents with homes that have been damaged on multiple occasions whose health, sense of safety and future prospects have been affected. ‘Construction, inspection and insurance workers need to take this into account when dealing with these people,’ says sociologist Justin Richardson, a University of Groningen researcher.

‘Your house may be patched up a little, but there’s nobody to check how resilient it is. Every time you look around inside or outside your home, you notice new cracks.’ This is a quote taken at random from the report by researchers from Gronings Perspectief, a collaboration between UG researchers, the Municipal Health Service (GGD) Groningen and the municipality of Groningen’s Onderzoek & Statistiek department. It represents the many responses to the questionnaire in which people reported not feeling safe because of ongoing concerns about their homes. The confidence in their homes, which they took for granted before the earthquakes, has been eroded, while confidence in the organizations repairing the damage has also reached an all-time low.

The Gronings Perspectief team to which Justin Richardson belongs is headed by UG professor Tom Postmes and associate professor Katherine Stroebe. The research commissioned by the National Coordinator Groningen monitors the perceived safety, perceived risk and health of people throughout the province of Groningen.

In February, under the heading ‘Earthquakes further erode health’, the UG published the findings from the fourth scientific report just released by Gronings Perspectief. As well as identifying problems, the researchers, together with the people of Groningen, have also taken a look at the future. Richardson: ‘This kind of research makes it clear to administrators and to professionals in the field just which signals from the population should be taken seriously.’ All reports are made public and are available to local residents and other interested parties via the website groningsperspectief.nl.

Disaster

Richardson: ‘The main, rather shocking conclusion from our research so far is that people do indeed suffer from problems relating to the extraction of natural gas. We found a heightened risk of psychological complaints, stress-related health problems and a reduced feeling of safety.’ Although a lot is known about the impact of disasters on a population’s wellbeing, the effects of gas extraction in Groningen are very specific. This is because they involve a large number of smaller events, which little by little add up to a potential disaster, rather than a sudden catastrophe. This chronic aspect means that people can experience a loss of control. We wanted to know how this affected their health.

The researchers also wanted to know how residents deal with the fact that the Groningen earthquakes are the result of human intervention and are not an ‘ordinary’ natural disaster. Richardson: ‘There are signs that residents in the gas extraction zone feel misunderstood and unfairly treated as a group. Just as people who are unhappy about the tax authorities can sometimes take out their feelings on Tax Information Line staff, the same can happen to inspectors, surveyors or contractors who repair the earthquake damage when they have contact with residents.

Feeling unsafe

Feeling unsafe is of course not conducive to wellbeing. Professionals therefore need to know about their client’s situation. The Groningen research has revealed that, of the people whose homes have had multiple damage issues, only a minority (38%) feel safe. The figure is 60% for people with one-off damage. By comparison, of the people who suffered no damage and who live outside the area with recognized damage, 85% feel safe or very safe in their own home. This perceived lack of safety cannot be attributed to external factors such as age and level of education. The perceived lack of safety has risen sharply among all sections of the population that were exposed to damage, either in their surroundings or in their own home. Children’s Ombudswoman, Margrite Kalverboer, warns that the fact that many children are obliged to live under ‘debilitating stress’ often goes unnoticed. She would like to see a special investigation of their situation.

Alleviating concerns

How many people have truly experienced physical or mental health problems as a result of the earthquakes? The study reveals that where people live, the postal code area in the province, is not particularly significant. What matters is whether people’s homes have suffered damage and whether this was a one-off event (and often since repaired) or whether there was more damage. The research by Gronings Perspectief shows that some 90,000 people have so far experienced damage, 15,000 of whom have multiple damage issues. In this latter group, 33% reported feeling in poor health. Among those who have suffered one-off damage or no damage, these figures are 25% and 21% respectively.

Because health is closely related to perceived safety and is influenced by confidence in the authorities, policy must be aimed at improving these factors, say the researchers. ‘We conclude that the health of respondents with multiple damage worsened in 2016. Our recommendation is to develop concrete measures to alleviate the concerns of this group. Professionals can contribute to this by identifying stress or health problems and by paying special attention to communication with the people affected. It is also important to take measures to prevent a situation in which people with new instances of damage develop health problems as well.’

Trust

The researchers also recommend ‘the restoration of trust or, at the very least, ensuring that it is not eroded any further. Honest, reliable communication about natural gas extraction and its risks, transparency of decision-making and the independence of those carrying out the work appear to us to be essential conditions. According to one respondent, this is because: ‘No-one can give an assurance that the earthquakes will remain within the margin of safety. Repairing damage is not the same as ensuring a safe living environment.’

Fenneke Colstee, UG Communications

Last modified:25 April 2019 12.00 p.m.
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