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


Partners in action


Uruguay and civil society: toward a culture of prevention

In mid-latitude regions, the greater the damage caused by atmospheric phenomena, the more random and less frequent their occurrence. Monitoring, prevention and mitigation measures represent a challenge for Uruguay, not only in terms of the activities that aim at generating scientific knowledge and its application, but also concerning the institutional arrangements required to respond to emergencies in an appropriate manner.

The Eastern Republic of Uruguay, whose eastern shore lies along the Atlantic Ocean, is located in the Southern Hemisphere's temperate region, which is nearly all water (http://www.turismo.gub.uy/). This region is not usually affected by earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanic eruptions. Even landslides and hurricanes are not very common in this area. Although flooding is a recurrent phenomenon and has led to the evacuation of thousands of people, related events are rarely catastrophic. Drought is also an infrequent phenomenon but, when it occurs, its effects deteriorate the overall domestic socioeconomic situation. In addition to these two phenomena (floods and drought), the short but often intense atmospheric extratropical depressions and other minor events such as tornadoes, hail storms and wildfires must also be taken into consideration.

Along these lines, on the night of August 23, an extratropical cyclone struck the southern and eastern regions of Uruguay, with powerful winds that exceeded 130 km/h and stronger gusts reaching up to 150-160 km/h. This phenomenon caused the deaths of at least ten people and a large number of injured. Substantial damage to property was also caused.

This event sparked controversy among Uruguayans, who were looking for someone to take responsibility for what had happened. This, because although a warning was issued, it was inadequately circulated among the media and the public at large.

Organization and culture:
correlated but different concepts.

In Uruguay some early warning systems have been put in place. For instance, warnings have been issued in cases of storms, strong wind and intense rain. However, the lack of a culture of disaster prevention is evident, especially because this country has not coped with any of the major atmospheric catastrophes experienced in other regions of the planet.
This lack of culture has limited the scope of the operational measures taken. Thus, although the country has a National Emergency System responsible for mitigation measures, its competency is limited in the field of risk management.

Another deficiency arises in the area of communications. Early warning systems do not always predict these events with adequate advance notice, or they are sometimes unclear. This lack of communication occurs at different levels: between the population and bodies involved such as the Meteorological Service (and vice versa), and among other institutions.

In order to solve this situation, it is necessary to surmount the existing gap in terms of the equipment and training required for the adequate monitoring of physical events. In addition, it is essential to facilitate the training of professional staff with a suitable profile to carry out all activities required to achieve this goal, which has been neglected and currently lacks prioritization. In this manner, citizens' knowledge will be fostered toward achieving their own protection and the adequate social response to emergency situations, and promoting institutional support for these tasks in a participatory manner.

Toward a culture of prevention

In light of the facts of the aforementioned storm, the distrust of the operational systems in charge of issuing warnings was apparent. After the occurrence of this phenomenon, the media questioned if it were in fact possible to accurately alert the population in advance of similar meteorological events.

Along these lines, the organization entitled “Amigos del Viento [Friends of the Wind] Meteorology-Environment-Development” devotes efforts to foster the advantages of early warning among the population, inform about the natural hazards to which we are vulnerable, raise awareness of which sectors of the population are at risk, and convey the need to establish a culture of prevention in our society.

On Monday August 22, at the annex building of the Legislative Palace, just a few hours before the storm, “Friends of the Wind” addressed this issue during a seminar entitled “Severe phenomena: from meteorology to the creation of a culture of prevention.” The agenda of this event included the following topics: natural hazards in Uruguay, early warning for severe meteorological phenomena, events that have affected Uruguay and, lastly, “Warning: damage vs. available resources.” Since the holding of this seminar, our organization has received numerous requests for information on natural hazards, early warning and its dissemination, as well as data presented during the seminar regarding the cost-benefit ratio of related activities.

Early warning for a severe meteorological phenomenon will not prevent an event from occurring, but it will provide support for activities required to cope with it and mitigate its effects, so that risks do not become disasters. Response activities also comprise an important process of issuing warnings, which include detection of risks and the ways in which forecasts and warnings will be disseminated among the population.

Although communicating this information is essential so that people respond adequately and take all precautionary measures, warnings alone are not sufficient for the population to adopt an appropriate response mind-set. Meteorological services must ensure that their warnings and forecasts are disseminated in a timely fashion among the population; that the information released is received and that communities will respond to it in an appropriate manner. Therefore, it is essential to achieve an adequate level of coordination between those responsible for issuing warnings and forecasts and those in charge of disseminating them.

One of the current aims of “Amigos del Viento” is to contribute to raise awareness in communities and among decision-makers. The ultimate goal is to work toward an integrated risk management system, in which technicians and the population are able to interact and work jointly.

What is "Amigos del Viento [Friends of the Wind]. Meteorology-Environment-Development”?

We are a civil society organization (CSO) made up of a multidisciplinary group of meteorologists, teachers, and other professionals interested in conducting studies and research on meteorology and other related disciplines, linking them to the global environment and human activities. One of the primary goals of this CSO is to contribute to and promote the improvement of meteorological activities in Uruguay.

We believe that it is essential to promote educational and dissemination activities in the field of meteorology and related scientific disciplines. In addition, we aim to foster collaboration and the exchange of technological, scientific and academic information at both national and international levels. We are currently carrying out educational and dissemination activities with a focus on school students from different areas of the capital city. In addition, we recently started similar activities in other parts of Uruguay, through presentations on environmental and climate issues, such as climate change and the socioeconomic effects of extreme meteorological events, among others. Some of these presentations were delivered at the headquarters of the National Parliament because our goal is not only to address these issues among the population at large but also with our legislators.

For additional information, please contact:gsalaberri@hotmail.com
Graciela Salaberri Civil Society, Amigos del Viento [Friends of the Wind] Meteorology-Environment-Development
Luis Piera 1931/001 C.P. 11200
Montevideo, Uruguay Mobile phone: 099 112893