Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean
Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
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 worlds richest biological diversity as well as some the worlds 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 worlds 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 worlds population relies on the fresh water that originates
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.
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.