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


Development-Disasters: A correlation that has yet to
be addressed sufficiently

The discussion below highlights the following points:

1) While the concept of risk management has become increasingly consolidated over the past decade, there is a tendency to approach it as a progression:

  • beginning with the disaster;
  • allusions to how vulnerability increases the impact (a vulnerability that is invoked only in a general sense, but not documented);
  • ongoing natural threats, aggravated by current anthropogenic manifestations; and,
  • risk, which clearly is addressed from the standpoint of this conception.

2) In contrast, we raise the need to transcend this discourse and optic, by understanding, documenting, and addressing risk from the standpoint of development:

  • gaps in development approaches, planning, and implementation in light of recurrent and increasing disaster situations;
  • the need to identify, document-characterize, and control disaster risk at all levels of development planning and implementation;
  • reduce existing risk and its potential to rise;
  • create mechanisms, tools, and indicators to document the preceding two points (2b and 2c) in all public and private investment projects; and,
  • document and control the probability that vulnerabilities will be transposed in time and space to zones, activities, and moments other than those targeted by the investment project, which implies that risk will be assumed by others.

3) In synthesis, we must tie the conception, methodology and implementation of risk to development processes rather than just to an imminent or recent emergency or disaster. This, because the experience up until now, which is reflected in each new occurrence, indicates to us that we continue to operate essentially from an emergency and disaster response perspective, as reaffirmed by section 1 of this presentation. The disaster itself continues to be what brings us together, moves us, inspires solidarity, and acts as a conduit for resources and willpower.

Below we offer some examples that demand a more rigorous analysis of the multidimensional processes and phenomena present in our daily lives, which require a more demanding and broadbased approach:

4) In situations of expansion and growth inaptly termed “urban development” we ask the following questions:

  • Who are responsible for urban-metropolitan design and construction (settlements, subdivisions and condominiums, industrial parks, shopping centers, and road and service infrastructure?
  • Who grants loans and fund these public works?
  • Referring to potential consumers, future buyers and, essentially, those who acquire 20 years of debt with the national and international banking systems:

To what extent are they familiar with and include themselves in design processes and calculations; and document and take into account the specifics of-and relationships between-planning and implementation, in the following areas: riverbeds, watersheds and microbasins, river easements or normal channels, and exceptional channels due to additional roadways; erosion, sedimentation, and changes in the course of riverbeds; impermeability of soils and destruction of water replenishment areas; increased runoff and flows from rivers at high and medium altitudes; increased flood risk in midlevel and low-lying basins; pollution and destruction of groundwater due to lack of sewage treatment facilities?

How to explain, on the one hand, and make corrections, on the other-and most importantly, how do we avoid in the present and in the future-the proliferation of projects and works that exacerbate situations of vulnerability and risk, degrade resources and living conditions, increase economic and environmental costs, and have clear social and political implications, not to mention accountability, that have yet to be addressed.

5) Where people and economic and productive activities are present in the vicinity of active volcanoes (regardless of whether their recurrence happens in the short, medium or long term) we ask: what are the probabilities and implications of pyroclastic eruptions, lava flows, and eruptions of ash and toxic gases?

The dantean scenarios of pyroclastic eruptions (Vesuvius and Etna in Europe, Krakatoa on the Southern Pacific and Cosigüina in Nicaragua) are fodder for moviemakers looking for the most dramatic cases. Less talked about are situations of lava flows such as that which occurred in Oceania.

Nonetheless, and depending on the season and the wind direction, explosions of volcanic ash from Ilamatepec in El Salvador, Santiaguito and Galera (in Guatemala and Colombia respectively), Cerro Negro, San Cristóbal (in Nicaragua) or Agua in Guatemala, have repercussions -for days, weeks and even months- for the respiratory health of the population, and for crops and harvests, livestock and poultry. In addition, volcanic material (including rock) may accumulate on hillsides, thereby exacerbating the risk of massive flows and landslides that can impact waterways during the rainy season, a problem which can manifest collaterally, or months afterward. We also recall the 1968 toxic gas eruption from the Arenal volcano in Costa Rica, which had an immediate and dramatic effect on the local geographical area. Twenty years later, however, the same area has emerged as a focal point for productive investment, infrastructure and tourist attractions.

Is this a scenario for volcanologists and for the monitoring of flows, temperature and the probability of eruptions of any sort? Of course, but that is not enough. A number of scenarios, disciplines (geophysics, maritime studies, agriculture, economics, etc.) and their respective research, predictions, and decisions, are required to assess the risk levels associated with different development-related activities, settlements, and sector specific interests.

As the cliché goes, humanity always seeks out the skirts of the volcanoes to settle and farm, taking advantage of the nutrient rich soil and relatively cool climate. In the same way, human settlements and activities have proliferated in areas where there is an abundance of accessible sources of surface water and groundwater.

Nonetheless, in the prevailing view of emergency and disaster, there is a tendency to simplify the various dimensions of impact and loss. Therefore, we propose an initial classification from the standpoint of their implications for reconstruction and development planning and implementation:

  • Emotional loss: involving the individual, family, and collective pain of losing a loved one;
  • Material loss: related to the impact caused by the total or partial loss of one's home, furniture and everyday belongings that create a sense of home and community for people and groups.

Unfortunately, these two categories tend to dominate in the press and serve to galvanize immediate responses and subsequent solidarity. Missing from this, however, are:

  • Loss of patrimony and assets needed for production, income generation, and survival, which can be summarized as loss of livelihood; and,
  • Loss of investment capability, capital formation, and the ability to maintain and access credit. This limits opportunities for the regeneration of activities, jobs, assets flows, capital, and local, regional, and even national income, depending on the magnitude of the events and the strategic nature of the affected sectors.

The immediacy of the response and the relative mediateness of humanitarian aid do not necessarily respond to the demands and time frames for reestablishing crops in zones devastated by the improvidence or the waiting period before new crops become available. Actions taken prior to the disaster caused by tropical storm Stan in Guatemala were based on alerts by the National Seismological, Volcanological, Meteorological and Hydrological Institute [Instituto Nacional de Sismología, Vulcanología, Meteorología e Hidrología (INSIVUMEH)], the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction [Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres (CONRED)] and certain counties, that the population did not always pay attention to. The impact was marked by the unquestionable vulnerability of population settlements and productive activities in high risk areas lacking in alternatives for structural mitigation. The next two years, however, will probably be dominated by the rehabilitation and reconstruction of roadways (more than 850 km of road and 25 strategic bridges were damaged) and the agricultural sector. This will be done by the ministries of Planning and Programming (SEGEPLAN), Agriculture and Livestock, Public Words and Transportation, and even Health and Education and Information, given the recent forecasts issued by the Climate Forum for Central America warning that those same highland areas, in the middle of the rehabilitation phase, could be seriously affected by a series of cold fronts and trade winds, bringing temperature drops that could endanger the health of an already vulnerable population, as well as their agricultural activities.

In closing, we underscore that the scenarios described here, at the start of the 21st century, pose a challenge for scientists and experts responsible for the research and monitoring of natural phenomena; for national, regional and local development planners from all sectors; for decision-makers and public and private investors; opinion-makers (written press, radio, television, and public relations experts); and for educators in the formal and informal systems. They must understand and meet the challenge of improving dialogue and consultation, strengthening complementary disciplinary management, and promoting the notion that everyone is responsible for ensuring a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, adopting explicit practices for the rational use of natural resources, and promoting changes that make it possible to achieve-through concrete acts, outcomes and clear indicators-compliance with the mandates issued in October 1999 and found in the Declaration of Guatemala:

  • Guarantee the safety of lives, property, vital infrastructure, and investments, and
  • Incorporate vulnerability and risk reduction to natural disasters into national, regional, local, and sector-specific development planning.

All this is aimed at moving ahead with the reconstruction and transformation of Central America, beyond the discourse, agreements and proposals that, to date, have not made the grade.

For additional information, please contact:
David Smith, dsmith@cepredenac.org
Executive Director of CEPREDENAC