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

In the Spotlight: Moutain Areas


In Spotlight: Disaster Reduction in the Mountain Areas

Whether we live in coastal zones or at higher elevations in the mountain areas, we are all connected to mountains and affected by mountains in many ways. Mountains harbor some of the world’s richest biological diversity as well as some the world’s poorest people. Mountains are an important source of water and energy as well as of many important resources, such as minerals, forest and agricultural products. As a major ecosystem representing the complex and interrelated ecology of our planet, mountain environments are essential to the stability of the global ecosystem.

Mountains are often referred to as “world’s water towers”. Because of their size and shape, mountains intercept air circulating around the globe and pull it upwards where it condenses into clouds, rain and snow. More than half of the world’s population relies on the fresh water that originates from mountains.
Human activities are profoundly affecting the climate and mountains are a barometer of global climate change. Because of their altitude and orientation to the sun, mountain ecosystems are easily disrupted by a change of temperature. Mountain glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates. If current trends continue, it has been estimated that by the end of this century many of the world’s mountain glaciers will have disappeared entirely. For example, melting of the Quelcaya Ice Cap has increased from 3 to 30 m a year, putting freshwater at risk for 10 million people. Many climatologists believe that the decline in mountain glaciers is one of the first detectable signs of global warming.

Did you know that ?

  • Mountains are among the world’s greatest sources of biodiversity, providing refuge to untold varieties of plants and animals. In the Andes, for example, farmers know as many as 200 different varieties of indigenous potatoes.
  • More than half of humanity depends on mountains for drinking water, to grow food, to produce electricity as well as to generate industry.
  • Of the 20 plant species that supply 80% of the world’s food, six originated in the mountains.
  • Because of their shape and size, mountains accommodate a wide range of climatic conditions. Climbing just 100 m up a mountain slope can offer as much climatic variety as traveling 100km across flat terrain.
  • Mountains are a barometer of global climate change, because the fragile mountain ecosystems are highly sensitive to change in temperatures.
  • The Andes run for 8000 km along the west coast of South America, making them the longest mountain range in the world.
  • The Andes is the second highest mountain range in the world, only the Himalayas of South Central Asia are higher
  • The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads dengue fever, has traditionally been unable to survive at altitudes higher than 1000 m above sea level. In recent years however, mosquitoes have been reported at 1150m in Costa Rica and at 2200 m in Colombia.
  • About 90% of the cloud forests in the northern Andes have disappeared. Deforestation and inappropriate farming practices increase the hillside erosion, thus increasing the likelihood of natural hazards, such as avalanches, landslides and floods.

Mountains: Regions at High Risk

The vertical nature of mountains makes its surface highly unstable and vulnerable to many natural hazards, such as earthquakes, landslides, debris flows, snow avalanches and floods. Volcanic eruptions, as well as glacial lake outburst floods - so called GLOFs - are other common phenomena in mountain areas. Due to the global warming, mountain areas are expected to become even more dangerous, as melted permafrost and glacial runoff accelerate soil erosion and likelihood and frequency of landslides, floods and avalanches will increase in the future.

Another indirect consequence of global warming in mountain regions will be increasing risk of infectious diseases. According to some scientists, the mosquitoes that carry malaria, dengue and yellow fewer are spreading to higher altitudes as temperatures will increase.

Furthermore, some human activities can contribute to the fragility and vulnerability of mountain terrain. For example, when mountain forests are cut down too extensively or too much land is cleared for farming purposes, this can lead to deforestation and severe destruction of the ground vegetation. As a result, runoff increases and soil erosion escalates. As more and more soil and sediment travels downwards, the likelihood of avalanches, landslides and floods increases. Deforestation is often driven by rapid population growth, uncertain land tenure, inequitable land distribution or by the absence of strong and stable institutions.

Sometimes, human beings directly contribute to their own vulnerability, by constructing their houses on unstable mountain slopes, floodplains or too close to dangerous rivers that originate from mountains and are at risk from sudden flash floods or debris flows.

Another factor that contributes to the vulnerability in the mountain regions, and in particular in the Andes, is the migration from rural to urban and from highland to lowland. The dynamic of migration includes rapid expansion of urban centers as well as overwhelming slum development around the major cities. The migrants from rural areas and mountains are most likely to settle in dangerous areas near cities, such as hillsides or floodplains and will have limited access to safe building technologies.

Each year the Andean region suffers from the devastating impact of different kinds of natural hazards. The most recent reminders include the floods in Bolivia earlier this year, the earthquake in Peru in 2001, as well as the mudflows in Venezuela in 1999.

Some examples of highly destructive disasters in the Andean region are the 1960 earthquake in Chile and the 1970 earthquake in Peru. In May 1960, an earthquake registering 8.3 on the Richter Scale hit southern Chile, killing about 5000 people and causing considerable destruction in Valdivia and Puerto Montt. Ten years later, in 1970, in northern Peru, an earthquake of lesser magnitude (7.7.) caused more than 66,000 deaths and destroyed the towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca and the city of Huaraz.

Towards Sustainable development of Mountain Areas

Unfortunately, many times, policies and decisions concerning the mountains and management of mountain forests are made far away, leaving the mountain communities without any power and influence. This is one of the reasons why most mountain communities live in poverty and highly vulnerable conditions. One of the goals of the International Year of Mountains 2002, is alleviating the poverty of mountain people by putting power back into their hands. This in turn would protect the mountain forests and reduce the impact of natural hazards. Proposed measures that could accomplish these aims include reinvesting forest revenues in mountain communities, supporting community based property rights, decentralizing power and accountability, building alliances and fostering the links between local experience and scientific knowledge.

Many climatologists believe that mountains can provide an early glimpse of what may happen in the lowland environments in the near future. Therefore, information on the status of mountain environments is vital to assist governments and international organizations to develop strategies towards sustainable mountain development as well as to organize campaigns in order to reverse current trends in global warming.

The next critical challenge for disaster managers, planners, legislators and development workers will be to effectively mitigate and reduce the impact of natural hazards originating from mountain environments. While it is impossible to avoid the occurrence of natural hazards in the mountain areas, their impact can be reduced considerably by changing the current development patterns as well as by protecting the highly vulnerable and fragile mountain ecosystems.