ISDR Informs - The Americas


Specialization in Disaster Risk Reduction in the Context of Local Sustainable Development:
An Innovative Experience

As the official responsible for human resource training at the Coordination Center for Natural Disaster Prevention in Central America (CEPREDENAC), I have been involved in activities in this field both in Latin America and in Europe. I have also witnessed many efforts made to implement specific training programs in higher education contexts, as well as in technical settings not related to universities. Many of these programs are subject-specific, generally linked to hazard assessment, risk quantification and, more recently, land-use management.

While this type of specialized training is important, if there are no initiatives aimed at training managers in incorporating this knowledge into global strategies for risk reduction planning processes, our efforts will be divorced from public policies and regional, national and local plans. For this reason, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 (HFA) established five priorities, one of which purports to “(u)se knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels.”

As an international framework agenda, the HFA has been instrumental in the process undertaken to update the Regional Disaster Reduction Plan (PRRD) in Central America. The Plan now promotes training programs for human resources, drawing on a new leadership culture that focus on managing regional, national and local disaster risk reduction processes. In this context, the Delnet course represents an innovating benchmark.

In 2006, with the financial support of the Spanish Cooperation Agency (AECI) and the academic assistance of the University of Alcalá, CEPREDENAC implemented a 300-hour specialization course that combined modules of in-person and virtual sessions. In addition, one of the coursework requirements was the writing of a research paper. During 2007, a new post-graduate has been made available thanks to the joint efforts of the University of Alcalá and the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. In this new edition, DELNET bridges a number of educational innovation efforts around the issue of safer development and sustainability in the face of disasters, together with other actors who are also supporting CEPREDENAC’s work, such as UNDP, ECLAC and the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ).

If disasters pose complex scenarios, will education deal with them through multifaceted efforts? To a certain extent, the Delnet course is similar to the one offered by CEPREDENAC, but the former focuses more on DELNET’s institutional mandate; that is, local agendas and work contexts. DELNET´s innovative approach goes beyond traditional local risk management, and includes a process for capacity-building in the field of sustainability, beginning at the local level, but as part of an effort at the national level. It also incorporates new connections, scarcely studied to date, such as productivity for job and wealth generation, and for sustainable livelihoods, which may contribute to recovery processes through mechanisms that are not only exogenous but also endogenous to a specific territory.

Innovation is not only found in this approach, but also in the methodology applied, which fosters the active exchange of knowledge and experiences between Europe and Latin America through a participatory effort for new knowledge development. In the course, individual work becomes the basis for group discussions through which new approaches are created, virtual fora enrich viewpoints thanks to new contributions, and, lastly, the writing of a final paper integrates the knowledge acquired and allows participants to frame a thesis that may lead to new ways of addressing risk reduction issues.

Thus, the Delnet course has enabled our institutions to exchange frameworks, concepts, and education approaches and methodologies, developing synergies to work jointly in the future, establishing new partnerships to train managers and, in this way, building “a safer world…for all.”

The above represents a major institutional achievement, as well as the academic work and exchanges originated, which have also been very successful. Individual and group work, as well as thematic fora have generated an in-depth understanding of other mindsets and views on development, risk and disaster. I will explain two paradigms that I developed and strengthened as a result of this training process.

First, the human safety paradigm: new actors in this field, especially institutes that work on safety and sustainability issues, as well as the Hyogo Framework of Action, mention the need to “build a safe society,” and to work for the establishment “safe environments,” but I have not been able to find a definition of these terms. According to the 2004 version of the book titled Living with Risk: A global review of disaster reduction initiatives, “(s)ecure societies are those that have learned to live with their land as well as from it. Disaster reduction strategies will have succeeded when governments and citizens understand that a natural disaster is a failure of foresight and evidence of their own neglected responsibility rather than an act of God.”

But what is human safety in the face of disasters, and in the context of sustainable development? I propose the following definition: It is a public policy aimed at considering and incorporating risk assessment into development processes. It facilitates the implementation of a participatory process to reach social agreements or consensus so that all development projects, programs and investment consider the characteristics of dangerous territorial phenomena, and, accordingly, develop planning processes based on these features, and the rational use of resources that support the generation of the capital needed to improve the quality of life of all its members. It also fosters the assessment of existing risks in all social units, infrastructure and livelihoods, striving to neutralize, reduce or eliminate such risks. The definition also involves institutional capacity-building to respond to the negative impacts of socio-natural phenomena, strengthen reconstruction efforts to overcome the vulnerabilities that caused such damage or losses, and finally, contribute to the evolution of society by building its long-term resilience.

Second, the integrated disaster risk management paradigm: this conceptual model is developed around disasters, since its primary purpose is to reduce existing risks. For this reason, I propose a new model that focuses on development, namely “safe development,” which involves visualizing and incorporating socio-natural safety as a new angle to sustainable development. Therefore, we can say that safe development is a social output that results from a planning process that is based on the features and potential of a given territory, guaranteeing the sustainable use of its resources and the quality of life in a vital, long-lasting and healthy environment. This, at the same time, includes four approaches to management:

Management applying a prospective approach, which refers to all planning actions that, while considering the features of a given territory, develops a model to be applied to all future interventions. These actions also intend to make a sustainable and balanced use of resources, so that hazardous areas are not exploited. By using development planning as the starting point, this approach also includes human protection against hazardous phenomena in a specific territory, creating in this manner a balanced socio-natural system. Its primary goal is to protect lives and property. This is measured by assessing the existing capacity to manage human protection. These factors refer to the existence of public policies related to safe land use, safe investment, and the balance required within the natural system of social settlements. They also refer to planning, institutional and legal frameworks, and technology developed for safe land use, among others.

Management applying a corrective approach refers to all planning actions aimed at assessing social units and their infrastructure in unsafe places, or that have developed vulnerable building or organizational systems. It is geared toward identifying risks and vulnerabilities, in order to determine how prone these systems are to be negatively impacted by socio-natural phenomena. By using risk or vulnerability indicators, this approach intends to identify corrective measures for a given risk, and could include actions such as relocation, structural retrofitting or recovery of altered natural dynamics and, ultimately, changes in natural and social dynamics to reduce the level of exposure to socio-natural phenomena.

Management with a reactive approach refers to actions related to preparedness, warning, and reduction of the impact or damage caused by socio-natural phenomena on social and natural systems. An institutional and legal framework is necessary to ensure an organized and effective

response. Indicators used at this management level are those that measure the impact or damage, especially damage, loss, alteration of livelihoods and opportunity costs for development.

Finally, management with an evolutionary approach aims at establishing reconstruction scenarios, transforming the risk conditions that originated such loss or damage, and foreseeing new and unstudied risks that could put in danger a rebuilt social unit. More than adapting or replacing damages, the approach seeks to conduct a prospective analysis in order to evolve, recover the balance of altered socio-natural dynamics, and carry out reconstruction tasks with longer return processes, while considering how phenomena have changed, particularly those of hydro-meteorological and technological nature. The approach, therefore, resorts to change indicators.

Víctor Manuel García Lemus: