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



Disaster risk reduction: A call to action

On our planet, there have always been natural phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, landslides, drought, and other events, which are con-sequences of the Earth’s own dynamics of constant movement and transformation. Throughout the history of humanity, many of these events have caused damages with disastrous consequences for the affected population and its livelihoods. Most cultures, however, have learned to live with, understand, and respect natural hazards and the laws of nature, allowing civilizations to develop in harmony and balance with the environment and their surroundings.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the international community recognized that the magnitude and recurrence of natural disasters, as well as the number of people affected by these phenomena, had increased in the last few decades, but that the death toll had decreased. Unfortunately, just one year later, the world witnessed a devastating scene, and it appeened that this positive balance had only represented a temporary respite. The earthquake and tsunami that struck Asia in December 2004, the hurricanes in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, and the earthquakes in Pakistan later that same year, were some of the global events that, before the horrified and eyes of the world helpless and, showed us just how vulnerable and fragile our societies are. This lesson left hundreds of thousands dead, injured, or missing; millions displaced, and economies and livelihoods destroyed across the globe.

Photo: J. Jenkins PAHO/WHO

It is estimated that during the last few decades, an average of 250 million people have been affected each year, with nearly 58,000 deaths and more than $67 billion in losses as a result of disasters caused by natural hazards. In 1990, 90 million people suffered the impact of disasters, compared to 255 million in 2003. Between 1990 and 2003, a total of 3.4 billion people worldwide suffered the consequences of disasters2.

Approximately 75% of the world’s population lives in areas that have been affected by disasters at least once between 1990 and 2000. An average of 184 people die every day as a result of disasters. Over the last two decades, more than 1.5 million people have lost their lives to these disastrous events. While only 11% of the world population exposed to natural hazards live in countries with a low Human Development Index (HDI), these countries alone account for 54% of deaths. On the other hand, countries with a high HDI represent only 15% of the world population and account for 1.8% of deaths caused by natural disasters3.

These alarming facts pose an important question: Is the world advancing unavoidably toward a form of development that generates and increases disaster risk, and is it possible to halt and reverse this process? Predictions are not encouraging. Projections by the UN suggest that, by the year 2050, natural disasters will have caused 100,000 deaths and more than $300 billion in losses per year4.

These figures paint a bleak picture, and represent only the tip of the iceberg, since they do not reflect the true impact of disasters and their effects on the physical and mental health of the affected people, and on the economy, the livelihoods and the production of the local population, or on families that lose their breadwinners, as well as on countries with a low HDI, which have little or no chance of recovering after a disaster. Nor do they consider the impact of minor disasters, which could drastically increase these figures.

Disasters: Consequences of development and risk accumulation

At this point in human history and development, with such a high level of scientific and technical knowledge, and with unimaginable technological resources that have taken humans to space, when communications are immediate and technology for forecasting the weather and understanding hazards is greater than ever, how is it possible that, instead of advancing in the field of risk reduction, the world is going backwards at an alarming rate and is unable to protect the lives of its citizens? To answer this question, we must assess whether the development model, at the current pace of natural resource exploitation and the generation of vulnerability, can continue and guarantee a more sustainable planet, or whether we must seriously question current development practices.

Disaster risk is a cumulative process in which hazards are combined with human weakness in the development and construction of our habitat. The latter creates conditions of vulnerability that make society face, to a greater or lesser degree of susceptibility, hazards that are potentially destructive and that might cause one or more minor disasters.

Disasters are the outcome of a complex mix of actions linked to economic, social, cultural, environmental, physical, political and administrative factors related to inadequate development processes, structural adjustment programs, and economic investment projects that fail to consider the social or environmental costs of their actions.

While it is true that the impact of disasters is greater in poor countries, especially those with a low HDI, the reduction and generation of disaster risk is not the sole responsibility of these countries. These disasters are not due merely to local and national development patterns. They are also a consequence of supranational, and even world patterns, such global economic policies, global warning, climate change, desertification, and environmental degradation. Risk reduction is a global responsibility and, as dictated by ethics and the basic principles of humanism and solidarity, this is mainly the mission of those who possess the necessary knowledge, resources and tools, and are in the best position to carry forth the struggle against disasters.

Photo: J.Jenkins PAHO/WHO

A series of myths or erroneous interpretations make a society even more vulnerable to disasters. We often hear assertions, even by experts on the subject, such as “disasters are natural”, “population growth generates risks”, “a society cannot recover on its own after a disaster and needs external aid”, and, “a disaster situation lasts only a couple of weeks before everything returns to normal,” to name a few. Reality, local experience, the wisdom of communities and scientific knowledge have all proven that most disasters can be prevented, and that, while hazards may be natural, disasters are not.

It is not the earthquake itself or the hurricane’s winds that kill people, but the physical construction or other secondary factors that are not necessarily related to the hazard. People are not the problem, but the solution, and the primary resource available to developing countries. It has also been proven that local communities and residents are the first line of defense in an emergency, and are the basis for subsequent recons-truction phases.

Furthermore, external assistance is not always adequate, or is it necessarily adapted to the needs of a country or area in the aftermath of a disaster. Such foreign aid often responds more to the offering and capacity of the financial institutions or donor organizations than to the reality of the victims. In general, limiting conditions are imposed, and some countries are not able to meet them, or they are not contemplated in new programs and projects, or used in the forecasting or generation of new risks. Often, this increases the level of debt and economic dependence of a country, and can be translated into even greater conditions of vulnerability to future hazards.

Many people living in subsistence economies do not have the means to allow them to survive without contributing to the depletion of local natural resources, and they generate vulnerability factors in their surrounding areas. Unfortunately, this is the livelihood of nearly one third of the world’s population5.

However, depletion as the means to survival for the less fortunate, does not represent the gravest problem. In an attempt to generate short-term income and profit, States, international financial institutions, and large multinational companies promote mega-projects, or development projects, such as hydroelectric dams, highways, airports, natural resource exploitation (forest, water, mining, fishery, etc.), and housing developments, in low or high river basins, among other endeavors, that do not take into account the risk factor involved in implementation or anticipate the generation of new vulnerabilities or hazards. Thus, these projects contribute to another generation of higher risk levels, which endangers the ecological balance in the affected areas and affects the survival of local populations, in particular, those of indigenous peoples and their habitats, where most natural resources have been preserved.

By cutting down native tropical forests, so that exogenous species are planted, or livestock is raised; by eliminating or reducing mangroves in order to rear shrimp, or other species; by flooding extensive swaths of land with dams; and by building developments on fertile land and covering it with asphalt or concrete, we are eliminating and reducing the natural defenses of our ecosystems to shield wind, slow and calm waves, hold back water, prevent erosion, and above all, avoid human, economic, and environmental catastrophes. A basic principle in all social processes is that economic development must not take precedence over sustainable human development, the environment, and people’s lives.

In addition to inadequate development processes that exacerbate the impact of natural hazards, efforts made by individual countries and the international community, to reduce disasters, focus primarily on disaster response, and continue to be dominated by humanitarian assistance and emergency management, rather than on prevention and reconstruction. In many situations, this attitude can actually increase the causes of vulnerability, if efforts are not planned and coordinated with the authorities and local communities, and if they do not focus on sustainable development. Generally, emergency response and humanitarian assistance are more visible and quantifiable in the short term, and in some way, may help assuage guilty consciences, as they show tangible results, attract greater visibility, and gain credibility in the eyes of public opinion.

Also, lengthy periods often elapse between the end of humanitarian assistance and the beginning of reconstruction activities. During this time, the local population has little or no support for recovery, and has no choice but to begin rebuilding in a spontaneous, ad hoc way, without the appropriate resources and capacities to do so. New disaster scenarios may arise during this time lag, increasing the risk that already exists. In some cases, long-term reconstruction never gets off the ground, or is delayed, due to a lack of implementation and preparation capacities after the emergency phase6 .

Awareness Raising among the International Community

Despite this grim outlook, not everything is negative. Glimmers of hope are beginning to be seen in the struggle against disasters. The international community is increasingly starting to gain awareness of the direct effects of disasters on development, as well as the impact of current development systems and their effects on disaster risk generation. We are gradually changing the trend of acting only in response to emergencies, and we are ceasing to see disasters as random events. Rather, disasters are a process of risk accumulation that must be considered and incorporated in all actions related to the development of a given country or region.

The United Nations declared the 1990s to be the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), which allowed us to make significant progress in promoting a culture of prevention. Major achievements were also made in establishing national disaster reduction systems and in raising awareness at the national and international levels, among local and national governments, and civil society. Non-governmental organizations, research centers, universities, municipal development institutions, and local governments are becoming increasingly involved in this field.

At the end of the last decade, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) was launched, as a continuation of those actions promoted during the IDNDR, and to satisfy the need of the United Nations for a permanent global framework to coordinate and promote disaster risk reduction. At the same time, a number of organizations within the UN system, such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the International Labor Organization (ILO), among others, promoted actions and projects aimed at reducing risks in the most vulnerable countries and populations throughout the world.

A set of international instruments, such as Agenda 21, the Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, the Johannesburg Declaration and its Sustainable Development Implementation Plan, the Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought, the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals, are important in that they have been approved and ratified by the majority of UN member States, and can therefore become excellent tools to advance disaster risk reduction and sustainable development.

The Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters, was adopted by the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR), and held in January 2005. It is another excellent tool that is supported by nations throughout the world, and it has been ratified by the United Nations General Assembly. It serves as a starting and reference point to carry out local and national policies and processes aimed at reducing disaster risk7.

Challenges for the Future: a Call to Action

Understanding that risk depends on a pre-existing situation, in which the human factor plays a role, allows us to understand the need for development strategies based on processes for disaster risk reduction and sustainability. This implies a two-pronged goal: reduce existing vulnerability (built up over time, through the implementation of unsustainable development practices), and promote processes that prevent the creation of new disaster risk scenarios in the future. We must address the structural causes of risk, not only the symptoms, as has been our tendency in the past.

A long process of awareness-raising has given communities and societies the tools, agreements, strategies, and above all, a framework for action and international consensus (the Hyogo Framework for Action), that allow us to promote a culture of prevention and make progress on disaster risk reduction, in the pursuit of sustainable human development. Now the responsibility lies with the States, international organizations, the UN system, and all other players involved in applying the measures, strategies, and recommendations that they themselves have promoted, signed and ratified. The necessary foundation and tools have been established. Therefore, there can be no excuses for justifying a lack of action in the future. Risk reduction must be understood in the context of development strategies, and no longer solely in the context of emergency response.

States and the international community, together with other key actors, must promote, to a greater extent, local capacity building and strengthening, as well as broad-based participation from all sectors. They must also use indigenous resources of countries, regions and communities, and base disaster risk reduction on local realities, considering the environment, natural habitat, and people as the primary resources for carrying out these processes.

International financial institutions, States, and donor organizations must assume the responsibility of integrating risk reduction into all of their projects, both to reduce existing risks and to prevent the generation of new vulnerabilities and hazards. Actions implemented during the post-disaster reconstruction phase should not increase the debt of those communities and countries affected by disasters. Soft loans for economic and social development should be considered, but they must be adapted to the specific reality of each country and not be based solely on donors’ capacity to offer aid, or be subject to conditions that the affected countries will not be able to meet.

A new challenge gaining ground is the development of new economic, credit and loan policies that give countries incentives to invest in disaster prevention and reduction. Such incentives could include the reduction of foreign debt, the granting of soft loans, and the implementation of local economic development projects aimed at reducing poverty, to name a few. Concurrently, there must be policies in place to enforce environmental tax, or impose sanctions, on those projects or activities that harm the environment. The funds collected through these means could be invested in efforts to reverse the negative consequences caused by unsustainable actions, and could be managed at the local level, in order to fulfill the two-pronged goal of reducing disaster risk and creating job opportunities in these areas.

In terms of corporations and transnational companies that are not appropriately regulated in many countries, there should be developed a set of minimum acceptable ethical standards and moral behavior criteria that aim to help stop natural resource depletion, environmental pollution, and the destruction of livelihoods in affected areas, especially those of indigenous peoples, whose fundamental rights are being violated, and whose very existence is being threatened.

The fight against disasters requires a serious moral and ethical commitment, since the lives and livelihoods of the world’s population are at stake. This responsibility falls upon all actors involved in risk reduction or generation. Without a real commitment by States to integrate risk reduction as public and development policy in economic, social, cultural and environmental sectors, and without adequate administration, oversight mechanisms, and decentralization of resources and authority at the local level, little progress will be made towards risk reduction and sustainable development.

Experience tells us that the key, to preventing, mitigating and, in the best -case- scenario, avoiding the impact caused by disasters, is to reduce risk before a disaster actually takes place. Before a potentially damaging event occurs, it is necessary to create a well-prepared response to ensure rapid, effective and adequate reconstruction.

However impossible this may seem, no effort is too big if the ultimate goal is to prevent human catastrophes and guarantee greater harmony between people, society and the environment.

“A society is safe when it learns to live with itself as well as to live with Earth. Disaster risk reduction strategies will be successful when governments and the general public understand that disasters are much more than a chance event, that they constitute a lack of readiness on their part and reveal their own negligence.”

For futher information, please contact:
Arq. Jaime Valdés Aguayo
Asesor en reducción del riesgo de desastres
Programa Delnet, Centro Internacional de Formación
Organización Internacional del Trabajo
CIF/OIT, Turín, Italia

1 Summary of the article titled “La reducción del riesgo de desastres: un llamado a la acción” [Disaster Risk Reduction: A call to Action], publishedin@local.glob Global Thinking for Local Development, a magazine of the Delnet Program of the ILO International Training Center (No. 3, 2006). The full version of this article is available on the web at
2 D. Guha-Sapir, D. Hargitt and P. Hoyois. Thirty Years of Natural Disasters 1974-2003: the Numbers, CRED/UCL Presses, 2004.
3 UNDP – Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, Reducing Disaster Risk: A challenge for Development, UNDP, 2004.
4 A. Lavell, Local Risk Management. Ideas and Notions related to Concept and Practice, CEPREDENAC-UNDP, 2003.
5 Source: UNEP, 2000, as quoted in the document: Disasters and Human Settlements. Situation in the Caribbean Basin, UN-HABITAT, 2002.
6 Delnet Program, Specialization in Sustainable Local Development and Disaster Risk Reduction - Theoretical Framework, Delnet ILO/ICT, 2006.
7 For further information on the Hyogo Framework for Action, see Section IV of the magazine, the chapter devoted to international organizations.