Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean
Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
New challenges for vulnerability reduction
Impact of Disasters
In the past, we estimated the impact of disasters by calculating the number of victims and their subsequent health problems; the magnitude of the destruction of houses and infrastructure, and the extent to which services were interrupted. However, in order to develop a more integral approach in favor of our societies and their rights, in recent years, we have deemed necessary to assess other dimensions of damage as well. In this manner, we have also included long-term impacts such as job losses, the deterioration of existing environmental conditions, cost of living increases, the weakening or collapse of support systems, and land redistribution, among others. In addition, some economists believe that we are underestimating the damage caused to the informal sector, while other experts suggest that there exists the need to include as part of our losses the income that people would have generated had they not died or become disabled as a result of a disaster.
The new means for assessing the impact of disasters have not yet addressed an essential aspect of it: the need to differentiate its effects depending on the characteristics of affected people, families and communities. This would allow us to focus on those people and families who are more vulnerable. We would also be able to consider some “invisible disasters” such as droughts and local small-scale emergencies. These situations have been neglected because a) economic losses are not as significant to the country, despite the fact that this type of disasters may cause death and irrecoverable material losses for those affected; b) it is wrongly assumed that, given the current capacities of our countries, those affected by local disasters in isolated communities will be able to recover through national support; c) there are many existing towns and villages that are not aware of their rights and do not have access to any means of informing or being informed; d) we pay no attention to the fact that local disasters are increasing. This proves that extreme risk conditions are also rising, and the total damage caused by these conditions often exceeds the losses caused by large-scale disasters.
Due to the aforementioned reasons, a renewed concept of risk should be developed: the possibility of an immediate or mediate, direct or indirect impact of a disaster, which has different dimensions and levels of visibility. As we all may know, this possibility arises during the process of development, as a result of the interaction between threats and vulnerability conditions.
Two different approaches are to be found in documents referring to disasters in Latin America. A descriptive approach which states that the unsafe conditions of housing, as well as other elements such as health, food, low income, poverty, age group, disaster-prone areas, social disarticulation, and the lack of awareness, determine the level of exposure of people and assets to hazards.
The second approach considers vulnerability a process in which there is an interaction between unsafe conditions and other more global and dynamic elements –such as migration, population policies, scientific and technological changes and the effects or consequences of past disasters. Other structural elements are also included, such as access to resources, existing production relations and culture.
Given that the second approach considers vulnerability a generational and differentiation process (in terms of time and economic, social, cultural, gender and generational aspects), it is more appropriate to talk about the existing level of vulnerability in certain social sectors and in specific areas, as we do in this article.
Although the inverse relationship between vulnerability and capacities is implicit in these definitions, we must stress that the importance of these elements for risk reduction is yet to be taken into consideration in our countries. For this reason, recent analyses suggest that existing capacities be incorporated into risk assessment. This would also enrich current perspectives for risk reduction.
Vulnerability is also subject to people’s own biological development, as well as the number of resulting capacities in order to cope with risks and face emergencies. In most cases, children’s vulnerability also depends on their family, school, community, institutional and work settings.
Along these lines,
the family environment is essential because it create conditions for directly
protecting our children or, on the contrary, unsafe elements that could
physically affect them. These conditions not only refer to the characteristics
of their own houses and other non-structural aspects, but also to the
level of knowledge, organization and behavior of these families in the
face of disasters. The constitution and number of families, as well as
the negligence of parents –which is common in the Andean Region-,
have an impact on children’s vulnerability because such elements
weaken the capacity of these families to respond to disasters. As stated
by the Red Cross , solidarity among families, along with the increasing
importance of the role of extended families, constitutes the major mechanism
for humanitarian aid.
Children’s vulnerability depends on the capacity of our society to protect them and on policies related to safeguarding their rights. Although it is common to see the images of children victims of disasters, nothing or too little is being done to address their lack of information and their unsafe conditions; the interruption of their school activities, the psychological impact of disasters on them, their limited possibility of expressing themselves, and the loss of recreational spaces.
Information about risk reduction and guidance for protection during an emergency represent some of the most important conditions for enabling children to exercise their rights and for protecting them and their families. In order to have access to information, it is essential to consider the role played by both schools and the media.
As stated by Mr. Sálvano Briceño, Director of ISDR Secretariat, education is key to promote a culture of prevention and develop technical and managerial skills, as well as the leadership needed to educate children as future decision- makers in this field.
Schools and Risk Management
Schools also represent a fundamental setting for guaranteeing the physical safety of children who have access to education. Schools have the potential to develop skills and attitudes towards risk reduction among families and the community at large. In addition, educational institutions constitute a major resource in our countries as temporary shelters for affected families. In Andean countries, however, schools have focused on preparedness to cope with emergencies, instead of on education for disaster risk reduction.
In the specific case of Peru, the Ministry of Education promotes training for teachers, the establishment of School Brigades for Civil Defense in each school, and the drafting of plans for school security. Despite all this, there are only a limited number of school initiatives, and most of them respond more to institutional guidelines than to existing risks. In addition, there are not many initiatives for extracurricular activities which, in line with current policies, are essential within any education system. To some extent, this is due to the fact that a large number of educational institutions and organizations have not yet been incorporated into disaster prevention strategies in schools, such as school district boards of education, ecological brigades and municipal ombudsman’s offices. These bodies have the potential to coordinate training strategies in schools, without having to replace the existing School Brigades for Civil Defense.
Current local settings in Bolivia and Peru
One of the major challenges facing the development of risk management strategies is represented by ongoing institutional changes and their impact on local capacities. In Bolivia and Peru, these changes are aimed at decentralizing State actions, transferring to local governments and strengthening citizen participation.
In Bolivia, a number of important reforms have been implemented in order to promote broad-based citizen participation and transfer both resources and duties to municipalities.
It is also worth mentioning that Peru is in the initial process of transferring education and health services to municipalities. In addition, bills that promote civil participation are being passed and new regional governments created. These new bodies will progressively assume some of the tasks currently undertaken by the central government, especially with regards to civil defense.
This means that within the next few years, municipalities will play a pivotal role in education and risk management. Current changes experienced in the Andean region may have a significant impact on vulnerability reduction, if efforts are also devoted to strengthen existing local capacities.