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


An Experience in Risk Management in Mountain Areas of Argentina: The Integrated Management Program for the Andean Bi-oceanic Corridor between Potrerillos and Las Cuevas
Arq. Laura Acquaviva- Lic. Silvia Quiroga- Dra. María Alejandrina Videla, Prof. Eleonora Guiñazú, Prof. Ricardo Cohn
The Center for Mercosur Territorial Strategies (CETEM), National University of Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina


Argentina’s Mendoza Province, lying as it does at the feet of the Andes, is one of the most earthquake-prone areas in the country. It is also extremely vulnerable to landslides and climatic phenomena such as frost heave and snow-storms. At the same time, it is the setting for a key section of the Bi-oceanic Corridor that unites the Mercosur countries (and the Atlantic Ocean) with Chile, giving them vital access to Chile’s ports on the Pacific and the Pacific Rim markets.

The Integrated Management Program for the Andean Bi-oceanic Mountain Corridor between Potrerillos and Las Cuevas is one of the first attempts by Mendoza’s government to incorporate disaster risk management into the development process by producing a land-use management plan for the area based on the existing risk of natural and man-made disasters. It is the result of a partnership between Mendoza’s Provincial Directorate for Environmental Management and Urban Development and CETEM, the Center for Mercosur Territorial Strategies of the National University of Cuyo.

The Program’s objective is to assess actual and potential hazards along the mountainous section of the Central Bi-oceanic Corridor. It is also intended to define the most appropriate intervention strategies for risk reduction.

This section of the Corridor, in spite of its strategic importance for political and economic integration, remains highly vulnerable, given its topography and the density of roads, tourism facilities and other infrastructure, as well as hub cities along the mountain range. In such a complex system, the failure of any single component has a negative multiplying effect on the entire chain of trade and development, putting at risk the integration process itself.

Ever since the integration of Mendoza into Mercosur and the Corridor, freight trucking and recreational motoring through the area have increased many-fold. While this is highly desirable for a part of the country that for decades remained stagnant and poorly developed, the downside has been an increase in potentially catastrophic accidents. Between 1991 and 1997, more than 10 high-risk situations took place annually due to such accidents and the resultant spill of toxic substances into Mendoza River, the only source of drinking water for the 900,000 inhabitants of “Greater Mendoza”. The accidents have mainly taken place due to landslides blocking the highways in the area.

Assessing Risk Levels: The First Step

A vulnerability assessment was carried out by analyzing differential risk conditions throughout the Corridor and in the mountain villages, based on a multi-hazard approach that looked at the geological, hydrological and climatic characteristics of the area and their implications for proper land-use management.

Function was the key consideration, since the complexity of the system makes vulnerability transcend the merely structural. Thus, the predominant function of some areas was the provision of basic services; others provided chiefly tourism services, while yet others provided strategic trade and border services.

As to the major functions of the Corridor as a whole, they include the following:

  • Integration of Mendoza province, and particularly the high mountain settlements, into an international trade and transport network.
  • Key route for Mercosur products to reach Pacific markets.

From this perspective, it quickly became apparent that major disruptions due to natural or man-made disasters would not only entail the usual reconstruction and rehabilitation costs—not to mention lives lost and homes destroyed—but would also critically affect the economies of all Mercosur countries. Since natural phenomena only turn into disasters when large populations are affected, an assessment was also made of current settlement patterns, future trends, and the attendant risks.

Adaptation Potential: an Indicator of Risk Management Capacity

Risk assessments, no matter how precise, are of no value unless there is room to change existing land-use practices—and the capacity for change needs to be not only physical but political as well. Accordingly, emphasis was placed on taking a close look at the following issues:

  • The existence of development plans. Although development plans do not necessary incorporate a prevention strategy (sadly, they often do not), their existence means that risk reduction strategies can be incorporated into them.
  • Availability of land. This determines whether it is possible to transfer existing activities to less risk-prone areas, as well as to build new risk-reduction and mitigation infrastructure.
  • Availability of crucial infrastructure. Key infrastructure—health facilities, potential shelters, education facilities where prevention can be taught and disseminated—plays a significant role in disaster reduction.
  • Relative freedom from exposure to natural hazards. Intimately related to availability of land, this factor involves identifying those as-yet-undeveloped geographical areas that would be safe for the various economic and social activities carried out in the region, so that development plans can take this into account when encouraging or discouraging the choice of new sites for the various activities.

Human-Centered Disaster Prevention: The Actors

If disasters do not occur without human intervention, the same is true of disaster prevention and response. Accordingly, an assessment was made of the population in the area, its density, educational level, migration patterns, and degree of community organization. The role and functions of the various stakeholders were identified, as were those deficiencies in communication and organization that might contribute to non-structural vulnerability.

It soon became clear that such an assessment would have to look at two different levels:

  • The Sub-Provincial Level. At the level of the Andean Corridor as a whole, the key stakeholders were identified to be various federal and provincial government agencies, emergency prevention and response institutions, provincial planning and management bodies, lifeline service providers (drinking water, electricity, health services), and their private and public users. Attention was paid to their degree of coordination and mutual feedback to prevent duplication of efforts as well as the threat of communicational gridlock in the event of a major emergency.
  • The Local Level. At this level, the key stakeholders were found to be the municipal governments and their various agencies—particularly those involved in planning and zoning and the provision of local services— as well as local NGOs and community organizations.

Land-Use Management of the Andean Corridor

One of the key expected outputs of the program was the production of a sustainable land-use management plan that would incorporate risk into the equation. It was based on the premise that:

Risk is a result of development processes and the ways in which the land is used

Intervention strategies and alternative must incorporate the risk variable, including the factors that determine vulnerability. At the same time, in order for land use management to be sustainable, the Corridor must be seen as:

a dynamic factor that leads to changes requiring adaptation to prevent them from increasing the level of risk.

Since risk management cannot be isolated from land use management as a whole, any disaster prevention and mitigation plan must be part of the general land use management plan for the area.

Key Considerations regarding the Incorporation of Risk Management into Land Use Management

  • Efficiency. While expediency may sometimes appear to call for the simplest and least expensive solution, it is clear that the Corridor cannot serve its function efficiently if its key facilities are not located in relatively risk-free areas. This is the prevention component of the plan.
  • Competitiveness. The Corridor has to compete with alternative means of getting merchandise from Mercosur countries to the Pacific Rim, as well as with other regions interested in the same markets. This involves protecting the investments made, since their loss can only increase overall costs as well as producing unacceptable delays.
  • Functionality. Once again, any improvements in the functionality of the Corridor must be sustainable by incorporating vulnerability reduction.
  • Safety. Safety—which in this case translates into vulnerability reduction—is obviously an end in itself, but it is also a key element of the functionality of the Corridor. If lives, merchandise, or working capital (for instance, trucks and trailers) are lost, the competitiveness of the Corridor becomes compromised due to increases in insurance costs, reluctance on the part of drivers to take the route, and so on.

Hence the key components
of the strategy:

  • Incorporate the risk variable.
  • Start out with vulnerability assessments.
  • Make sure that mitigation measures are part of the land use management process

The Mitigation Component of the Plan

Non-structural measures were chosen in order to encourage the adaptations required, while technical and financially feasible structural measures were selected that would reduce vulnerability—all this with a view to improving the safety, efficiency and competitiveness of the Corridor. Specific objectives included the following:

  • Improving community response capacity as well as risk awareness for prevention and mitigation purposes.
  • Improving the structural conditions of physical components to protect and encourage investments.
  • Optimizing the use of the land based on existing risks and strategic needs.

The process has not been completely successful so far. A parallel kind of change is required: institutional change, as embodied in a greater awareness of the need for prevention—particularly when so many government and private-sector bodies are involved and need to transform their outlook more or less in tandem.

However, the program has succeeded in producing an integrated set of tools—including risk maps, an assessment of adaptive capabilities, vulnerability reduction proposals, and the assignation of priorities for action based on sound scientific evidence. Given the strategic importance of the Andean Corridor for reviving the ailing economies of participating countries, it can only be a matter of time before political will catches up with the need for effective, risk-aware, mitigation-minded land use management.