Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean
Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Partners in action
Strengthening local capacities in Andean high-risk scenarios
Hazards and Disasters in the “Callejón de Huaylas”
The Peruvian region of Ancash is located north of Lima and is considered one of the highest-risk areas in Latin America. During the last century, this region was affected by deadly disasters caused by snow avalanches and earthquakes. This includes the 1970 earthquake, which is considered one of the disasters with the largest death toll in recent western history, with more than 69,000 deaths, most of them in the area known as the “Callejón the Huaylas” [Huaylas Alley].
During the last 65 years, the three main cities of the Callejón de Huaylas have experienced serious disasters. Huaraz, the regional capital city was destroyed in 1942 by floods and landslides caused by an overflow0 of a lagoon. Ranrahirca in 1962 and 1970, and Yungay in 1970 were buried by landslides and snow avalanches that killed almost the entire population. In a similar manner, different small towns were swept away by floods. Despite all this, cities are still being built in high-risk areas.
The presence of the “White Cordillera”, where most snow- covered mountains are located, the formation of lagoons and the possibility of glacier retreats due to global warming seriously increase existing hazards despite the efforts made during the last decade to reduce them, especially through the monitoring and control of the oldest glaciers and lagoons.
Collective memory and emergencies
Problems associated with risk and climate change are not new to the concerns and organized responses of the rural population. However, they focus on what is manageable on a daily basis: deficiencies in their irrigation systems, or soil infiltration that contributes to massive slope destabilization. Also, glacier retreats reduce the amount of water available for their precarious crops and alter biological cycles, affecting their productivity. In order to cope with these problems and the ‘small’ local disasters –which are not even officially recorded and do not receive any outside aid- inhabitants turn to their ancestral knowledge and the tradition of carrying out community work.
In the presence of greater risks and a collective memory
of the major disasters that have taken place in this area during the last
three decades, their attitude seems to be different. The facts and details
of these disasters have been transmitted by word of mouth, laying emphasis
on the damage caused to the poorest sectors and subsequent changes in
their lives. However, like in the past, there is a sense of helplessness,
especially because this region is characterized by poor citizens’
participation and the existence of mechanisms that favor social and political
patronage, which contribute to such weakness.
Strengthening Capacities for Disaster Prevention and Emergency Responses in Vulnerable Communities
Capacity-building activities are being carried out in the context of a project funded by the Disaster Preparedness Program of the European Commission Humanitarian Office (DIPECHO), and implemented by the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG Latin America), jointly with the Movement for Peace, Disarmament and Freedom (MPDL) and Save the Children – UK.
This project is aimed at reducing existing risks and responding to emergency situations through the participation of the community at large, schools, municipalities, and the local media. Participation is sought through training activities, risk assessments, prevention and preparedness plans, and the design and implementation of illustrative mitigation actions.
It is worth mentioning that a number of officials responsible for local development planning, who have gathered technical information, and community leaders who have historical information and are able to better express the community’s perspective, are participating in these activities. Their involvement is essential because of their experience, but this does not exclude the use of new geographic information technology and the input from experts and professionals for plan preparation and risk assessments. Higher-risk areas are jointly inspected through satellite images and photographs, which also help determine evacuation routes and security areas.
In addition, teachers, students and parents are involved in training activities (workshops and community actions), so that the entire community education is able to participate in the promotion of a culture of disaster prevention and the improvement of emergency responses. Likewise, staff members of local radio stations and newspapers help the population by providing information and guidelines. They also promote greater responsibilities and commitment on the part of pubic officials and the community at large.
Finally, community members participate in local meetings, as well as in the planning and subsequent implementation of mitigation actions.
Institutionalizing Risk Reduction
In the context of the aforementioned project, we have learned that there exists a paradox: although this was the most affected area by all disasters that took place during 1970 –which led to the creation of the National System for Civil Defense and other institutional mechanisms for a planned reconstruction process-, at the beginning of 2004, this region had one of the weakest local institutional frameworks in the entire country. This weakness was characterized by the insufficient connection between disaster issues and development.
For this reason, the project has made efforts to involve municipalities in the development of a new approach that coincides with the promotion of community participation in local management and in the incorporation of risk management, preparedness policies and emergency responses into development plans.
This process is being developed in a coordinated manner and includes agreements with the Ministry of Education, the National Institute for Civil Defense and a number of municipalities. To date, local offices for civil defense have already been established in three different municipalities.
of the first achievements of this project at the municipal level is the
creation of committees for civil defense and the reorganization of youth
brigades through the province, specifically in four districts and other
smaller human settlements.
Although this project will end in July 2005, it will be able to raise awareness among different sectors by using an approach that includes integrated risk management and improved coordination of emergency responses. Clearly, this will require institutional strengthening and citizens’ participation.
It is essential to bear in mind that that participation of all players (leaders, authorities, communicators, teachers, children and women) must be continuously strengthened and include new ways to establish links with local, regional and national institutional frameworks, in a social, political and legal context in which citizens’ participation, as well as the role and capacities of all municipalities should be enhanced.