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

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Prevention Pays

Chronicle of a Decade: 1990-1999

The transformation of Nature is part of the evolutionary process. If we do not want to remain at the mercy of increasingly devastating natural disasters, we must find the means to secure the peaceful coexistence of civilization and Nature. What determines the level of risk at any given moment, in any given place, is the relationship between natural hazards and the vulnerable conditions created by human beings as they manipulate and transform their physical, economic, social, and political environment. The accelerated growth of cities and populations, environmental degradation and the spread of poverty, make us more fragile, less able to withstand the ire of natural phenomena such as earthquakes and hurricanes, floods and drought. Potential gloom-and-doom scenarios become even more alarming if we add to these factors the threats we have brought upon ourselves, such as the transport of dangerous materials, technological accidents, forest fires, and armed coflicts.

As the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction draws to a close, the international community has been realizing more and more that natural disasters are a major threat to economic and social stability. They are, essentially, an obstacle against development. The Decade’s major challenge is to establish a global culture of prevention.


The IDNDR Programme and Set-up

In December 1998, a major earthquake devastated Spitak, in Armenia. The event was preceded by major disasters such as the Nevado de Ruiz volcanic avalanche in Colombia and the earthquake in Mexico City, both in 1985. By the end of the decade, members of both the disaster management and international scientific and technical communities recognized the need to complement international involvement in relief and rehabilitation with an increased and concerted international contribution to disaster prevention and mitigation. Based on the belief that adequate scientific knowledge and technology were available to reduce the negative impacts of natural phenomena in a decisive manner, the United Nations General Assembly established the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) by its resolution 44/236, on 22 December 1989.

All countries were urged to set up National Committees and a small international framework was established to support, with a Scientific Technical Committee, an Inter-Agency Advisory board and a Secretariat based in Geneva. A Regional Unit for Latin America and the Caribbean was later set up in Costa Rica.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, many regional, international and UN organizations have adopted disaster reduction strategies, and have supported national, local and sectoral efforts to meet the goals of the Decade through the development of new policies or the implementation of new programmes. Presidents and ministers have adopted regional policy agendas that recognize the importance of disaster reduction. While these decisions and recommendations have yet to become fully operational, they are a step in the right direction.

Most national efforts in the region have been channelled through pre-existing institutions originally conceived as emergency management agencies. However, many of them have recognized the importance of public information campaigns, education, and changes in the current legislative structure. A key challenge for the future will be the integration into such efforts of national planning institutions, the private sector, and civil society.


The elements of natural disaster reduction adopted by IDNDR

Natural disaster reduction is a strategic concept leading towards the reduction of the loss of life and property, as well as the social and economic disruption resulting from natural disasters. It relates to several other strategic approaches of the international community, such as, sustainable development, poverty erradication, protection of natural resources, climate change, as well as economic globalization and public private partnerships. It injects the specific concerns of risk management and vulnerability reduction into these social and economic strategies. At the same time, it draws from these respective domains for the benefit of its own policy development, advocacy efforts and coordination needs.

Disaster reduction is an ongoing process and not limited to a singular disaster event. It motivates societies at risk to become engaged in the conscious management of risk, beyond traditional response to and defense against the impacts of natural phenomena. Disaster reduction is multi sectoral and interdisciplinary in character and comprises a wide variety of interrelated activities at the local, national, regional and international levels. These include:

  • comprehensive research activities for better understanding of natural hazards and how their effects may be better addressed;

  • application of scientific knowledge and technology for disaster prevention, preparedness and mitigation, including the transfer of experience and greater access to relevant data;

  • structural measures to strengthen disaster resilience of human settlements and public infrastructure, and to contain the potential impacts of natural phenomena on socioeconomic systems, based on risk assessment/risk mapping;

  • advocacy and sustained programmes of public information about natural hazards, vulnerabilities and risk, including formal education and professional training;

  • establishing public policy commitment on disaster prevention, preparedness and mitigation and adopting relevant legislation at both the national and local levels of administration;

  • integration of disaster prevention into national planning, including the establishment of effective risk management capacities, including disaster relief;

  • measures of land use planning which include hazard awareness, vulnerability analysis, and risk assessment with the participatory involvement of local authorities;

  • measures of decentralization of operational responsibilities and budgetary resources for risk management which will empower local communities to a greater degree of self reliance and improve their resilience to natural disasters.

fot1edi.gif (34233 bytes)Understanding the risk concept

In order to fully appreciate the feasibility of disaster prevention, it is essential to recognize the distinction between hazard, vulnerability and risk. This is a concept that has gained more and more understanding, especially in this Region:

• Natural hazards comprise phenomena such as earthquakes; volcanic activity; landslides; tsunamis, tropical cyclones and other severe storms; tornadoes and high winds; river floods and coastal flooding; wildfires and associated haze; drought; infestations;

• Vulnerability to natural disasters is a result of human actions and behaviour. It describes the degree to which a socioeconomic system is either susceptible or resilient to the impacts of natural phenomena, and includes aspects of awareness of hazards, the condition of human settlements and infrastructure, public policy and administration, and organized abilities in all fields of disaster management, among other aspects;

• The risk of a natural disasters is the probability of a disaster occurring, i.e. the impact of a natural hazard on a socioeconomic system with a given level of vulnerability: Consequently, risk management includes aspects of hazard awareness, vulnerability assessment, impact prediction, and the formulation of counter measures. These would include the mitigation of hazard impacts or the reduction of vulnerability.