International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001



Information and knowledge:

Considerations for the adequate management of disaster information centers CRID: Regional Meeting to Develop of a Toolkit for Disaster Information Management Radisson Europa Hotel - San Josť, Costa Rica - September 21-22, 2004

Zaida Sequeira 0rtiz

At the beginning of a new millennium, a new-fangled approach to the role of information in reaching sustainability and development is bringing about a number of discussions and contributions. Many of these ideas highlight the fact that 21st century will be a period in which information and communication technology will stand out, and its adequate use will become the underlying condition needed to achieve human sustainable development.

It is obvious that the world is rapidly moving toward critical thresholds. People and societies are becoming even more vulnerable to natural disasters caused by natural hazards due to different causes. According to a document prepared by CIAT, the World Bank and UNEP , the index of climate risk shows that, in total, more than one-fourth of the soil in Central America (some 27 percent) is at risk of being flooded, and approximately one-third is prone to drought. A significant part of this region (40 percent) is at risk of being severely flooded or coping with harsh drought. If we consider, for example, the devastating events caused by hurricanes George, Frances and Ivan in just one month, we may state that we are living in a region with the highest vulnerability levels.

Paradoxically, many of these negative effects could be reduced, and most of their causes prevented if both governments and the population at large, made adequate use of existing information on, for instance, the consequences of population growth and urban density, environmental deterioration and climate change. Although natural and other related risks pose threats to every society, in reality, these risks are proportionally more destabilizing in developing countries, including some specific regions in the Americas.

How can information and technology prevail in such fragile environments? How to be aware of the potential that information has to solve problems related to inappropriate land- or water-use practices, high deforestation rates, and the ongoing lack of urban planning? How to have a positive impact through specific information centers in terms of early warning systems, or how to contribute to shared knowledge and how to influence investment in communities so that natural events are prevented and mitigated?

The increasingly cognitive nature of all economic, technical, social and political activities, as well as the speed of all changes undergone within these fields turn information into important raw material to be processed and integrated into knowledge. This type of information could potentially become crucial when prioritizing interventions, and identifying financial aid, investments, beneficiary sectors and people, and accurate information related to prevention plans and actions.

This requires complementary mechanisms and tools in order to generate information from different viewpoints, allowing for the creation of knowledge and its efficient management that focuses on our specific study areas.

As Inge Kaul states in her book about world public goods: “Knowledge is the most public of all public goods: it is strongly non-rival and its benefits cut across many issues of public concern. The challenge is to strike a balance between promoting the broader use of knowledge (enhancing static efficiency) and providing incentives to generate more knowledge (fostering dynamic efficiency).”

Promoting the efficient management of this global knowledge requires a number of global public goods –such as climate stability and the control of contagious diseases. It also implies the establishment of a balanced access to all relevant knowledge. As the aforementioned book suggests, effective and efficient knowledge management represents an essential tool needed to provide public goods, whether these are national, regional or global.

It is considered that disasters are an enormous hindrance to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) proposed by the United Nations System, in order to significantly reduce poverty by the year 2015. Generally, when poor countries suffer the consequences of disasters, losses are not quantified. It is different in the case of the first world, where information is produced immediately: $4.6 billion by cyclone Charley; $8 billion by hurricane Frances, and $10 billion by hurricane Ivan.

To a large extent, impacts depend on the type of option that has been previously chosen. Prosperous countries are able to easily and quickly recover, while other countries depend on humanitarian aid. The best way to address this issue would be then to prevent, manage and reduce risks, incorporating any potential threat and existing vulnerability into state and regional plans and policies.

The document entitled “Reducing Disaster Risk”, prepared by UNDP, introduces a risk index that measures the relative vulnerability of different countries, drawing upon three primary natural disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes and floods; identifying those development factors that contribute to increasing risk, and showing in a quantitative fashion the level to which risk may be reduced if adequate policies are put in place:

• Disaster management systems are based upon timely and well-structured information. These systems must respond to a new approach to risk management, as part of development plans.
• Disaster management systems are based upon information systems that allow governments to consider different options,financing tools, cost-benefit analyses, methods to determine financial needs in terms of recovery and prevention, and the monitoring of both damage caused and reconstruction processes.

• Information systems are intended for different stakeholders who participate in prevention and disaster management efforts at both local and regional levels. This includes the use of different methodologies such as the one developed by UN ECLAC, which allows to quantify damage, indirect losses and macroeconomic effects.

But it is impossible to make appropriate decisions if there is a lack of an information support system. Clearly, the use of information in order to make decisions and carry out planning processes must go beyond the simple monitoring of the catastrophic effects of natural disasters on economies, societies and the environment, as well as the reconstruction planning process following a catastrophe.

On rare occasions, disaster risks are related to development, and to information and knowledge. Fortunately, international agencies are paying more attention to this aspect: the NLM, ISDR, UNDP and the World Bank, among others, have already adopted an approach to risk reduction that recognizes that disasters are unsolved development problems, and they occur when risks are not managed appropriately.

The development of adequate information systems, for example, are the base of the goals proposed by UNDP:

• Promote the integration of both risk planning and preparedness into national and regional programs.
• Offer help and guidance in order to strengthen national and regional structures that reduce disaster risk through the strengthening of knowledge networks.
• Train countries so that they are able to share information on strategies and best practices through these knowledge networks.
• Contribute to global advocacy regarding disaster reduction by preparing the global report, which promotes policies and tools for risk reduction.
• Support a training program on disaster management.

In the context of this shift in perspective caused by disasters, there is a new approach developed by the World Bank, as its disaster risk management unit focuses on preventing those natural and technological risks that affect development. More than 95 percent of deaths caused by disasters occur in poor countries, and losses are twenty-fold higher in developing countries than in industrialized nations (in terms of their GDP).
Even those poorly planned development efforts may cause recurrent natural phenomena that can turn into economic and human disasters, such as building housing in high seismic or flood-prone areas.

Organizations and agencies that devote efforts to prevent risks and improve existing poverty levels resort to the creation of information systems that make available prompt and strategic responses to risks, and provide support in order to promote the integration of prevention and recovery efforts into development activities.

According to the World Disaster Report (2002) , during the last decade, natural disasters have affected more than one billion people and caused losses in the amount of $730 billion. Losses increase in poor countries, where natural disasters have a disproportionate impact. The new policies developed by the World Bank lay emphasis on information system management that supports research, policy-making processes, loan mechanisms, knowledge exchange, and the creation of practice networks with governments, civil society and local communities.

There is an increasing demand for effect mitigation and capacity building in the context of an comprehensible and structured framework for risk management to be used at national and regional levels.

Information represents a unique input for knowledge, and it allows for risk awareness raising. It also contributes to improving analytical capacity and professional knowledge in all risk management areas.

For this reason, challenges posed by this new information and knowledge age to information management systems are numerous and wide-ranging, and are brought about by this new dynamic trend of change and movement. Drastic changes have already been experienced in terms of information management, storage and dissemination. In addition, current scenarios for knowledge learning and transfer are now different, as they put more emphasis in sharing than in disseminating such knowledge. Currently virtual scenarios are replacing those limited by geographical borders, using web semantics through which a significant number of people on the planet communicate with each other and share what we do, write and think.

Disaster prevention becomes an easier task at the national or regional level if accurate information and data are available at the local level. For this reason, data bases and risk assessments have and additional value, and the lack of these tools make it impossible to learn more about the changing geography of risks and their factors, which turn into or produce damage and vulnerability. Measuring tools developed to the present allow us to combine information obtained from different contexts to solve the puzzle of sustainable human development that incorporates risk and vulnerability at local and national levels. The possibility of relying on knowledge related to risk and vulnerability assessment from the local to the regional level, lays the foundation for development policies that incorporate disasters.

There exists much information at the local level but there is a lack of central structures for data processing and for turning this information into useful knowledge for decision-making. This is the work that CRID has been carrying out along with other existing networks, but the journey has just begun.

Along these lines, UNDP’s report recommends the following:

1. Enhance global indexing of risk and vulnerability, enabling more and better inter-country and interregional comparisons;
2. Support national and sub-regional risk indexing in order to produce useful information for decision makers;
3. Develop a multi-tiered system of disaster reporting: at local, national and regional levels; and,
4. Support context-driven risk assessments (in the framework of sustainable development)

These guidelines may lay the foundation for the analysis of a toolkit development system. In order to use specific knowledge and decide on ways to work with this toolkit, a number of plans may be reviewed, as the one proposed by ATHENA Alliance, which starts from the idea of contrasting scenarios that focus on information management.

Or we can review the framework described by Kaul in her book about public goods, in which she lays emphasis on the intervention of different actors in the process of building a public good, or the perspective of having collaboration networks in order to produce information on issues to be further developed:

In either case, it is important to take into account that this toolkit to be developed must be refined on an ongoing basis and provided with new concepts, including a number of experiences and new knowledge. One of these guidelines may be the categorization of methodologies based on the approaches proposed.

There is still a remaining question: Towards which knowledge society are we moving? Certainly, one of the most ambitious and utopian notions developed in recent years is knowledge society.

The reasoning behind this concept – more desiderative than analytical or real- presupposes that this new highly technological society will result in a new production trend and a more evolved social life. According to this discourse, as the industrial society, with its manufacturing dense smokes, as well as the post-industrial consumer society and the mass media are left behind, we will enter a new age based on the synergic exchange of knowledge.

Leaving aside this rather utopian approach, it is important to highlight that this is an open and malleable concept that is being discussed, and represents the main idea of this document.

T.S. Elliot states that the success of information has led to a knowledge crisis, and the progress of knowledge has led to a mindset crisis . This may be one of the contexts in which we could frame our working sessions and the approach to develop the aforementioned toolkit.