International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
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Newsletter for Latin America and the Caribbean        Inssue No. 15, 1999


Is the impact of disasters increasing or decreasing?

The social, economic, political and environmental vulnerability of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean has been extensively described in other documents by a wide variety of authors and organizations from the region, the United Nations, PAHO, La RED and others, not to mention this very magazine. The growing gap between the rich and the poor, environmental degradation, the fragile economies and democracies (particularly of smaller countries) increase the vulnerability of societies to natural hazards. For instance, 1998 was the hottest year since records began to be kept 150 years ago. In addition, the hottest 14 years of that period all took place within the last 20 years, probably due to global warming caused by excessive carbon gas emissions. Experts predict an increase in hurricane activity in the Caribbean over the next few decades. Many seismic faults have been activated in the region and volcanic activity is up, as can be read below in the reports from Ecuador, Mexico and Montserrat.

During the 1990s, economic losses due to disasters were nine times larger than during the 1960s, according to Munich Reinsurance. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies claims that three times as many disasters took place in the ’90s as twenty years back.

Developing countries are the ones that will pay the steepest price for global warming. The reasons are many. The probability of devastating phenomena is greater in tropical areas. Moreover, these countries depend to a greater extent on their natural resources for their livelihood, and these resources face a greater threat. Finally, poverty and so-called underdeve-lopment produce weaker, more vulnerable societies.

A new record was set in 1998 for the number of annual disasters worldwide, according to Munich Rein-surance. The amount of damage caused by climatic phenomena reached US$92 billion, and 32,000 people lost their lives as a result, an increase of 50% compared to the previous record. Floods are not as dramatic as hurricanes or earthquakes, nor as spectacular as a volcanic eruption, but they are the most lethal of natural disasters, responsible for close to 40% of the victims. The magnitude of the problem can be seen from the fact that half of the world population lives on coastlines or along rivers and estuaries.

A year after hurricane Mitch, described as the Storm of the Century, we now know that it caused more than 13,000 deaths and economic losses amounting to US$30 billion in Central America, a region highly vulnerable to hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and floods, as well as epidemics of common diseases. The IFRC’s Disaster Report for 1999 estimates that the region has been set back 30 years. Almost 90% of the region’s economy depends on land-based transport, and infrastructure was severely damaged. According to an ECLAC report on the impact of hurricane Mitch and its economic, social and environmental implications, the cost of reconstruction will be US$154.6 million for El Salvador, $2,472.0 million for Honduras, $1,336.5 million for Nicaragua, $415.5 million for Guatemala, and $98.7 million for Costa Rica. In spite of many promises, foreign aid and investment has yet to accomplish “the transformation of Central America” that many talked about. Many of the provisional bridges built after Mitch collapsed during the 1999 floods.

Last year, the wave of storms and hurricanes continued, causing havoc in the Caribbean, Venezuela, the southeastern United States and Asia. In September and October, climatological phenomena in Central America caused floods and landslides. Hurricanes like Irene, José and Lenny affected Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Lesser Antilles. In the Caribbean, hurricane Lenny affected mostly the port and tourism infrastructure of Antigua and Barbados, St. Kitts-Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the island of St. Martin. The worst disaster of all hit Venezuela in December; it was described as the worst tragedy in the country’s contemporary history. As this magazine went to press, the full scale of the impact had yet to be confirmed, and the number of deaths were estimated at anywhere between 350 and 30,000.

Forest fires have increased, particularly as a result of the drought that preceded ENSO in Central America and in large areas of Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina. In Ascensión de Guarayos, in the Bolivian region of Santa Cruz, a great fire started in August 1999 as a result of slash-and-burn practices and the burning of waste near the town. The low relative humidity and strong winds made the fires spread rapidly, affecting dwellings and residents. According to the National Civil Defense Service, forests, farms and small communities were still being affected by the fires as late as December.

Central America and South America, particularly along the Pacific coast, are areas of high seismic activity. According to PAHO/WHO figures, some 100,000 people died in Latin America as a result of quakes in the 20th Century, and the number of the injured is much larger.

On 25 January 1999, an earthquake of 6.2 Mw was reported in Colombia’s Midwest, causing severe damage to the city of Armenia, including losses equivalent to 1.5% of the country’s GNP, according to the Centre for Disaster and Risk Studies (CEDERI) of the University of the Andes, Colombia. The Tehuacán earthquake of 15 June 1999 took place at 15:41:06, with a magnitude of 7.0 Mw; the epicentre was located southeast of the city of Tehuacán, Puebla, in Mexico. On 22 June 1999, a new quake hit the state of Guerrero, also in Mexico. On 11 July, a 7.0 quake on the Richter scale hit Guatemala; the epicentre lay in the Atlantic ocean floor, facing the coast of Izabal, the country’s main port and the area that was hardest hit by hurricane Mitch. On that same day, a 6.4 quake on the Richter scale hit Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras. In early October 1999, a 7.4 quake on the Richter scale rocked the Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca; strong rains and floods destroyed bridges and isolated communities, hindering rescue and evacuation efforts.

In Latin America, the hazards associated with volcanic eruptions include lave flows and pyroclastic flows, ashfall, mud flows and toxic gases. The degree of risk posed by a volcano is estimated on the basis of the recurrence of its activity. Volcanoes with a more frequent recurrence of activity (less than 100 years between episodes) are considered a greater threat that those with a less frequent recurrence. A wave of seismic activity has unleashed volcanic activity in many parts of the region, as can be seen in articles below from Ecuador, Mexico and Nicaragua.

This combination of hazards and risks requires integrated, multi-sectoral solutions, as proposed in the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

Sources for this article:
PAHO/WHO Nicaragua (