International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Meetings & conferences on disaster reduction

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


Is health infrastructure less vulnerable?
Jean Luc Poncelet, PAHO/WHO

In 1985, after the Mexico City Earthquake, feelings of depression were common among professionals involved in disaster response, particularly those who had focused on preparedness efforts, many of whom had been involved with the PAHO Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief Coordination Programme since its creation in 1976. Their gloom was due to the magnitude of the disaster, but mainly to the frustration of knowing that colleagues who had been trained to rescue and save lives had their hands tied by the structural or functional collapse of several health facilities. In fact, many of them lost their own lives within those same facilities.

That same year, the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia underscored the limitations hampering disaster preparedness efforts, and the urgent need for a giant step forward in the Americans to reduce the causes of risk, working in a more sustained fashion, and ensuring that health facilities would continue to operate during and after a catastrophe. The key was to preserve vital infrastructural lifelines such as hospitals, health centres, water-supply and sanitation systems, key laboratories, rescue and coordination centres, and other critical facilities that could save lives.

The launching of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) in 1990, including a Regional Unit for Latin America and the Caribbean, ensured that awareness of the need for disaster reduction remained high in the region and, in constant collaboration with PAHO, helped to establish a wider alliance to deal in a more systematic fashion with vulnerability reduction in vital facilities. The first task was to approach a broader group of professionals, such as architects and engineers, and institutions such as universities and construction guilds. This led to the production of guides and standards for reducing the structural vulnerability of buildings, at first in the case of hurricanes in the Caribbean, and later also involving earthquakes, based on the experiences of South American and Central American countries. Around that time, for instance, an analysis was made of the successful retrofitting of hospitals by the Costa Rican Social Security Fund.

It quickly became apparent that reducing structural vulnerability demanded that the functional aspects of hospitals be taken into account. There was also a need for support from policy-makers and health sector management, as well as other key sectors. The meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, followed by the World Disaster Reduction Conference in Yokohama, Japan, in 1994, were key links; the culmination, for the health sector, was the Mexico conference, cosponsored by the IDNDR Secretariat in 1996. Many of the recommendations of that conference1 were implemented as a crucial first step towards reducing hospital vulnerability. Similar forms of cooperation took place in the water-supply sector, which is crucial to maintaining health in the aftermath of a disaster.

The Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), which will succeed the IDNDR Secretariat, will be another PAHO partner, and together we will continue to cooperate towards the common goal of disaster reduction.

1 These recommendations and other documents are available in full text
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A decade for greater transparency in humanitarian assistance
Jean Luc Poncelet, PAHO/WHO

Even though in the 1980s there was some interest in disaster management, it did not go much further than a relatively limited group of organizations and professionals. At the beginning of the Decade, PAHO promoted the development of a tool called SUMA (Disaster Relief Supply Management), with a view to improving the management of all kinds of humanitarian assistance shipments. This was a multi-sectoral effort based on the highly valuable contributions of experts from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. In the first few years, the project was limited to inventorying supplies at the point of entry. Later on it became a system that strengthens the management of humanitarian assistance at every stage of the process.

The experience acquired after the El Niño phenomenon of 1997-1998, hurricanes Georges and Mitch, and the use of SUMA in East Timor, showed once again that its implementation allows governmental and non-governmental organizations to prevent the duplication and inappropriate use of relief supplies, and provides a clear and accurate picture of the real flow of emergency aid. The key factor accounting for such successes is the political will displayed by governments, NGOs, UN agencies and bilateral agencies to handle such supplies in a transparent fashion. This has also been made possible thanks to the large number of training professionals involved, and the awareness that has been raised through the IDNDR and many other institutions.

The Decade comes to a close leaving behind a trained corps in Latin America and the Caribbean, available to the region and beyond, which can support the efforts of anyone interested in promoting a more rational, efficient and transparent use of humani-tarian assistance. It also sets the stage for a culture of transparency in supply management and, more important still, helps to make sure that the shipments sent are truly aimed at satisfying the urgent needs of the affected population, and do not simply reflect the internal needs or perceptions of donor countries or agencies.

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