Disaster Risk Reduction in Venezuela: From Vargas to a Comprehensive Risk Management Bill
The following article highlights a number of initiatives carried out in Venezuela over the last six years that have helped make disaster risk reduction a priority, with a strong institutional and social basis for its implementation at both national and local levels.
Venezuelans use the saying “mucha agua ha corrido” (“a lot of water has flowed”) to suggest that a number of things have happened and somehow have made the current situation different from the past. This popular Venezuelan saying applies perfectly to what happened as a result of the landslides that washed away the central coastline, the most representative disaster that has occurred in Venezuela since the Caracas earthquake of 1967. The Vargas disaster of 1999 highlighted a series of negative aspects that resulted from the lack of a culture of prevention, which were exacerbated by the actions of various actors during the emergency and reconstruction phases. These negative aspects included conflicts of interest (in the midst of an election campaign), the use of victims’ suffering for political gain, the evident lack of coordination among the various governmental and non-governmental agencies that offered support; differing principles, goals, timeframes and resources of the numerous programs carried out, the desire to steal the spotlight, and political and territorial competition among the different actors (Lozada, 2005).
However, the tragedy also generated a series of positive aspects that warrant mention. According to Genatios and La Fuente (2005), “… Vargas became a learning lab for urban, environmental and infrastructure management. It constituted a solid basis to make disaster prevention a priority, to conduct research and develop educational plans for emergency prevention and response, as well as for public management, and to create a National Risk Management and Disaster Prevention System.” The Vargas landslide created opportunities to raise awareness that risk and disasters are a reality not just in Vargas but throughout the country. The national consciousness, lulled to sleep by the daily grind and survival, awoke to remind us that we are a country that is vulnerable to those natural phenomena that we thought could only happen elsewhere. From that point onward, many experiences, projects, laws and other important mechanisms have been developed; strengthened, continued, and/or deepened, helping to ensure that disaster risk reduction is gradually incorporated into the Venezuelan culture.
In this article we wish to highlight some of those initiatives as examples that are by no means exhaustive, with the purpose of disseminating and making them known, contributing in this manner to their consolidation and strengthening.
The contributions of the public sector
Here we highlight the systematic work done and the actions taken by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT) to produce significant change in the national capacity for disaster management. Toward this end, the MCT created the Risk Management and Disaster Reduction Program, through which public, private, and academic professionals and institutions, as well as NGOs and organized communities can submit financial proposals and requests to the National Science, Technology, and Innovation Fund (FONACIT by its Spanish initials). FONACIT was created in 2001 to conduct research, design and implement human resources management and training programs, and strengthen technological and management platforms for risk management and disaster reduction in institutions and companies. To date, this fund has financed 30 projects in the area of risk management and disaster reduction, totaling almost 4.7 billion bolivars (local currency).2 This indicates the strong interest of Venezuelans in developing knowledge on and experiences in this field.
Disaster risk reduction and schools
The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR) recently launched the World Campaign for Disaster Reduction with the slogan “Disaster Reduction begins at School.”3 One of the primary goals of the campaign is to integrate disaster risk reduction education into the curricula of countries vulnerable to natural hazards. Several initiatives in Venezuela have been developed to contribute to this goal.4 One of them is the work done by the Universidad Pedagógica Experimental Libertador (UPEL) through its Research, Education, and Risk Management Program, which began in 2001 with the goal of consolidating a training proposal for teachers in disaster and risk management in order to change the attitudes of students and teachers. UPEL has also developed the Innovative Teaching Strategies for Risk Management Program, based on the content of the national basic curriculum. The Ministry of Education, together with the Educational Building and Endowment Foundation (FEDE by its Spanish initials), created the Educational Sector Advisory Committee for Risk Mitigation, which has incorporated risk mitigation into the national basic curriculum.
It is also important to mention the contribution of the Coordinated Program for Mitigating Risks of Socio-Natural Disasters (COMIR), of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), which began in 1995 and was consolidated in 2001. COMIR works to include the reduction of existing vulnerabilities to socio-natural disasters in its teacher education, research,
outreach, and management programs. More specifically, as part of the academic goals that COMIR has established, these programs are reviewed to include existing risks in each region of the country, and promote the incorporation of related content into teacher training programs.5 A more recent but just as active initiative is the Center for Risk Research (CIR) of the University of Falcon (UDEFA). Made up of a multidisciplinary team of experts in risk-related issues, CIR’s objectives include promoting and coordinating scientific research on risks and disasters, assessing different types of disasters and crises, and promoting interactive and cooperative research in the area of disaster risk reduction. CIR also maintains a databank on disaster risk reduction.6 Finally, psychology students and professionals at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) created the Psychological Support Network, which provided important, comprehensive attention to victims of the 1999 landslides, including support in shelters and the launching of a hotline (800-PSIC). Since then, this network has continued to carry out dissemination, training and exchange activities, and has produced educational materials. The network also acted efficiently during the floods in 2005.7
NGOs and community actions
Some Venezuelan NGOs have been trained to incorporate risk-related issues into their social programs and there are several NGOs that now work exclusively in that area. The Disaster Prevention and Social Reconstruction Project in the State of Vargas (PREDERES), which is financed by the European Union and implemented by CORPOVARGAS8, has worked since 2003 to link a number of NGOs and communities to these tasks. These NGOs have acted as facilitating organizations9 that work in different communities of the Catia la Mar parish. They have conducted awareness raising and training activities, and provided technical assistance to strengthen local capacity for the analysis of existing risks, as well as the design and implementation of local plans and projects. This work has resulted in the establishment of risk management processes and early warning systems, and hopefully in the adoption of responsible practices by program participants in solid waste management.
Dissemination and the country’s international visibility in the field of disaster risk reduction
The achievements in disaster risk reduction have been disseminated and shared through a number of activities carried out at the national and international levels. One of the most important events was the international seminar organized by the University of Falcon in 2005, titled “Involving the Community in Risk Reduction Programs.” In addition, the UCV organized the First International Encounter on HigheEducation and Risks, under the theme “Habitat and Risk: the Role of Universities,” which brought together more than 85 participants from national institutions and different universities in the region. Venezuela is also part of several international initiatives such as the Andean Regional Program for Risk Prevention and Mitigation (PREANDINO) through the Andean Development Corporation (CAF), and has presided over the Andean Committee for Disaster Prevention and Assistance (CAPRADE). Similarly, the country currently participates in the Project to Support Disaster Prevention in the Andean Community (PREDECAN).
The national legal framework
There are 11 different laws that make up Venezuela´s national legal framework related to disaster risk reduction.10 But, despite having a more specific legal instrument, the National Organization of Civil Protection and Disaster Administration Law, the country still does not have a comprehensive law that establishes the guiding principles for national policy. A proposed Organic Law for the Comprehensive Management of Socio-Natural and Technological Risks was just drafted in 2006, in response to the President’s decision to move away from a focus on disaster administration to one of risk management. 1 The bill is currently being debated in the National Assembly. This proposed law, which has been the subject of much discussion by politicians, academics and civil society, aims to make risk management a State policy in order to reduce vulnerability and prevent disasters in the context of sustainable development.
Finally, we believe that all actions nourish the vision and the task of disaster risk reduction in the country, and that it is important to foster and take advantage of them, and turn them into an added value for the country. The greatest challenge is integrating them all into a more coherent and balanced process, to ensure their sustainability so that they contribute to building a culture of prevention in the country.
Abelina Caro ILarraza
1Caro, Abelina. El Papel de los Actores Urbanos en el Desastre del Ávila. La Era Urbana Magazine. Supplement for Latin America and the Caribbean. Fall 2000.
2 Source: FONACIT, June 2007.
3For further information, see the complete UN/ISDR document available at www.isdr.org.
4We have defined “schools” here in a broad sense as educational institutions, in order to include experiences developed in universities.