Chris de Freitas says risk-management planning can help society in practical and economic ways.
As seen in Haiti this year and at home in recent days, few natural events disrupt human society more than large earthquakes.
It is a stroke of good luck that the Christchurch earthquake hit in the early hours of the morning. There could have been very significant loss of life if the event had happened during the business day.
Compared to other natural hazards, earthquakes are unique in that they occur suddenly and unexpectedly.
This, and their potentially devastating consequences, contributes to widespread fear about these events.
Who would have known that Christchurch was more vulnerable to a big earthquake than the seismic hazard maps suggested?
The Panel on Earthquake Prediction of the US National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Seismology stated in 1976: "The panel unanimously believes that reliable earthquake prediction is an achievable goal.
"We will probably predict an earthquake of at least magnitude 5 in California within the next five years in a scientifically sound way and with a sufficiently small space and time uncertainty to allow public acceptance and effective response."
In the following 20 years, more than 100 earthquakes occurred in California with magnitudes greater than 5.0, none of which was predicted.
In the 1960s geophysicists believed that with enough resources they could predict where and when major earthquakes would occur. It was not long before prediction programmes blossomed in rich countries.
For example, in 1966, the Japanese government funded a $300 million-a-year programme. After 30 years and having spent 160 billion yen ($2.5 billion), the government admitted its programme was a complete waste of money. In 1997 it finally got the chop.
Earthquake geosystems are so complex and their underlying physical and chemical processes so difficult to model that the traditional approaches to scientific research using "fundamental laws" to predict where and when earthquakes will occur is less than adequate.
Despite this, the primary rationale for governments to give high priority to earthquake-research funding remains. The reason is that large earthquakes are becoming more hazardous to human life and more costly as large urban centres in tectonically active regions accelerate their population growth upward and their fragile infrastructures outward.
In this context, however, "prediction" has become a loaded concept, usually taken to mean the accurate forecasting of the time, place and size of large earthquakes early enough to allow potentially affected communities to prepare.
But many aspects of earthquake behaviour can be anticipated with enough precision to allow for a risk management approach to planning, which can be of assistance to society in practical and economically beneficial ways.
Almost all the casualties and losses from earthquakes are caused by damage to the "built environment", including not only buildings, but also lifelines and transport systems.
Reconstruction in the same place has been a consistent human response to earthquake disasters through history to modern times.
Those people disposed to look on the brighter side of things might see earthquake damage as serving as a beneficial, if unwelcomed, agent for urban renewal and consider the economic stimulus provided by post-earthquake recovery as part-compensation for the economic losses from the event.
On the other hand, there is no recompense for human suffering, injury or loss of life. A realist might conclude therefore that reconstruction in situ is a form of Russian roulette.
The focus on earthquake-disaster planning and crisis management is on risk reduction, readiness, response and recovery.
In this context, government and local authorities have the responsibility to minimise social vulnerability and have a duty to promote community resilience through enlightened planning.
Real crises provide an opportunity to assess community preparedness.
The earthquake-disaster potential for New Zealand is high for a variety of reasons.
The main one is that so much of the country appears as "high risk" on seismic hazard maps.
Another is that so many of the country's growing urban centres are located within these seismically active zones.
Among the biggest questions in natural hazards research in New Zealand is not if a severe earthquake event will happen, but when and exactly where.
Chris de Freitas is an associate professor of environment at the University of Auckland.By Chris de Freitas