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


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The Role of Formal Education in Disaster
Prevention in Latin America


Formal education about disaster preparedness, mitigation and response, whether at the level of primary schools, secondary schools, or college, was rare in Latin America before the 1990s. It was at the end of the 1980s, and the beginning of the next decade, that such programmes were first launched for primary and secondary schools. Moreover, they were aimed mainly at ensuring that staff and students would know how to respond during an emergency, such as a fire or an earthquake. Prevention was not on the curriculum.

These programmes have continued to evolve, with some interesting results. Many students are now being taught disaster prevention and mitigation, not in an abstract sense, but starting out from their own immediate reality: their social, economic, and natural environment. Instead of simply providing information they are supposed to memorize, students are being encouraged to change their perceptions and attitudes toward risk management. Educational authorities have been gradually incorporating such programmes into the regular curricula, and have launched projects to train teachers in disaster preparedness.

However, it must be admitted that risk and disaster education in Latin America has not yet been fully mainstreamed. At the dawn of a new millenium, Latin American society, its leaders and its communities, must take a stand. Are they going to provide the new generations with the education they need to enjoy a better quality of life? If education is meant to prepare students for life, then it must take into account that there are natural and man-made hazards which simply cannot be ignored. Every community is vulnerable, to a greater or lesser extent, to the threat of loss of life and property as a result of a disaster. A proper education does not promote fear or fatalism. It empowers students to take the necessary measures to reduce the level of risk, and to act as multiplying agents in their own communities.

Manuel Ramirez, Regional Consultant, Disaster Education, Costa Rica


Universities in Action

Universities can play a key role as agents for change. They can modify people’s attitudes and customs – a vital matter when it comes to risk management and reduction. And since they train teachers, among other professionals, the effects can multiply and trickle down to primary and secondary education, ensuring that the citizens of tomorrow are more aware of the need for disaster prevention.

Many universities in the region have established disaster reduction centres or commissions. They have also launched courses in this field, or developed outreach programmes for surrounding communities.

For example, the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia, has established a collaborating center of the Public Health Faculty, with PAHO/WHO, to encourage disaster reduction and response initiatives in the region. Graduate students can also study disaster mitigation as part of their degree in Contemporary Social Sciences of the Antioquia University.

Venezuela’s Central University has played a leadership role in following up on the Hemispheric Action Plan for Disaster Reduction in the Education Sector. In these efforts, it has been supported by several regional and national institutions.

Meanwhile, the Higher School of Civil Defense at Trujillo, Peru, has launched similar initiatives, and FLACSO and LA RED are teaming up to offer a Virtual Master’s Degree in Risk Management.


The Hemispheric Plan

The OAS has supported the creation of a network of experts to assess the vulnerability of schools and introduce a culture of vulnerability reduction and disaster mitigation in the education sector. Through a programme financed by ECHO and supported by the Partners of America NGO and other organizations, the OAS has managed to raise the issue among most Ministries of Education in Central America. A Hemispheric Plan of Action on Educational Aspects and Vulnerability Reduction was also pushed by the OAS and completed by 1997, at a meeting in Venezuela that was co-sponsored by IDNDR, the OAS, Venezuela’s Central University and PAHO/WHO. Several Internet conferences on the subject have following, as well as exchanges between educational programmes focusing on disaster reduction.


Hurricane Mitch and Nicaraguan Universities

Universities can play a proactive role in promoting societal change to encourage disaster reduction. The Nicaraguan Universities Commission for Natural Disasters was already active in early November 1998, before the onslaught of Hurricane Mitch. When disaster struck, professors and students from participating universities rushed to the field to engage in search and rescue operations.

The city of Leon was particularly affected by the hurricane. Its lines of communication with the rest of the country – roads, telephone lines, other links – were blocked or severed, effectively isolating the town from the outside world. The local university’s Faculty of Medicine, School of Nursing and School of Public Health responded promptly, helping to decongest the severely overburdened public health services. A great landslide only a few kilometres away, on the slopes of Casita Volcano, travelled five kilometres and widened to a muddy front five kilometres wide, wiping out five peasant communities. The death toll reached 870; 160 people were injured. Injuries included multiple fractures, contusions and friction-induced burns.

A particularly successful strategy was the printing of leaflets, prepared by university professors and distributed by students to their families and neighbours, describing in simple language concrete steps that could be taken to prevent epidemics. In addition, brigades of between 10 and 15 students were appointed to attend to the needs of those in shelters, health centres, and ordinary neighbourhoods in Leon.

The Faculty of Pharmacy mobilized many of its academics and students in order to synthesize, in their laboratories, urgently needed drugs, in a town with no access to outside suppliers.

Dentistry and nursing students and professors benefited from their daily contact with community health centres where they normally carry out their outreach activities; they knew the conditions on the ground, as well as many of their patients. The School of Public Health supported the Ministry of Health through its Emergency Committee, and other faculties organized Support Brigades to help with food and clothes donations, shelter management, and temporary resettlement.

The National University of Engineering also stepped in to help with risk assessments, and provided training to mayors and local government staff in disaster prevention and vulnerability reduction, including the retrofitting of public buildings.

For more information, please contact:
Dr. Rene Antonio Urroz Alvarez,
Centro de Investigaciones y
Estudios de la Salud/CIES,