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


Mexico’s international technical cooperation
in natural disaster prevention

Marco A. Alcázar
Director General of Cooperation with Central America and the Caribbean
Mexican Institute of International Cooperation
Department of External Affairs, Mexico

One of the most dramatic lessons learned by our country in living memory was the earthquake that, in September 1985, caused profound grief and horrific destruction in Mexico City. However, international technical cooperation soon arrived in response to the disaster, and taught us a different kind of lesson. Under the leadership of Japan, this cooperation led to the creation of a National Centre for Disaster Prevention, CENAPRED, which is now an integral part of the General Coordination Bureau for Civil Protection of the Department of Governance (the Interior).

There is no doubt that this experience of foreign cooperation when it was most needed lies at the heart of Mexico’s commitment to work actively at the international level in the field of natural disaster prevention, as can be seen from our participation in several regional accords with the countries of Central America and the Caribbean, the Association of Caribbean States and the Rio Group, not to mention the positions sustained and promoted by Mexico in global forums.

It is in this spirit that our country has been working since 1995. Between December 1995 and December 1996, Mexico, in coordination with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), sponsored two workshops – in Barbados and Grenada – on disaster management, with the participation of all officials responsible for coordinating emergency management in the member states of that community of English-speaking island nations.

In July 1998, another workshop was held in Jamaica with Mexico’s support, aimed at introducing disaster management into the curricula of the University of the West Indies.

Mexico, out of a strong feeling of solidarity, has always been one of the first countries to provide relief to the victims of natural disasters in Central America and the Caribbean. In addition to sending humanitarian assistance, brigades of specialists from our armed forces and government departments are frequently deployed on the ground to provide emergency relief. These brigades have had a lot of experience working within Mexico’s borders to help rescue victims, rehabilitate basic service and provide civil protection, and we are happy to share their expertise with other nations.

However, our country, like our neighbours in Central America and the Caribbean, has learned that sending humanitarian assistance, however significant when it is planned rationally and in timely fashion, does not address the fundamental causes that turn a potentially destructive natural phenomenon into a full-blown disaster.

Accordingly, Mexico has been focusing on technical assistance aimed at prevention and civil protection, particularly after the damage wrought by hurricane Mitch last year. In the project we are currently implementing in Central America within the framework of the Regional Cooperation Programme adopted during the third Summit of the Tuxtla Dialogue and Consensus Mechanism, in which Mexico was represented by CENAPRED, the chief goal is to design or implement measures that reduce the impact of potentially disastrous natural phenomena, with special emphasis on the needs of the most unprotected sectors of our societies.

In its first phase, this project aims to establish collaboration mechanisms between members of the scientific community dedicated to disaster prevention and the institutions in charge of civil defense or protection. One of the objectives is to develop a training programme for vulnerability assessment, risk management and emergency response. In 1995, a seminar was held on geological risks, and others are planned on hydrometeorological hazards and urban vulnerability.

Besides the actions launched jointly with the Caribbean and Central American countries, Mexico’s technical cooperation efforts have expanded to the entire Caribbean basin, including an important South-South cooperation project with financial support from Japan for the countries ravaged by hurricane Mitch.

As the current chair of the Special Fund of the Association of Caribbean States, which brings together the islands and continental states of the Basin, Mexico is promoting four projects for natural disaster prevention. They were drafted by the Caribbean Centre for Disaster Research and Management of the University of the West Indies. One deals with modernizing building codes to withstand windstorms and earthquakes, and has an Internet component. Another seeks to develop a regional model for retrofitting key facilities and shelters. A third is aimed at developing a manual for dealing with all the stages of a disaster, and includes computer models. The final project seeks to develop a model for handling the need for temporary shelters after a disaster. Our efforts to secure financing from the international community for these initiatives are starting to pay off, which means that the projects should be launched sometime in 2000.

It is important to note that the building codes project will be implemented simultaneously by the University of the West Indies and the National Laboratory of Structural Materials and Models (LANAMME) of the University of Costa Rica, which should guarantee that the results can be applied both in the English and Spanish speaking countries of the Caribbean Basin.

In May 1999, Mexico was the promoter within the Rio Group of the Declaration on Technical Cooperation for Natural Disaster Prevention and Response, adopted during their 13th Meeting of Heads of State and Government, fulfilling the hemispheric aspirations of Mexico’s technical cooperation for disaster reduction. As a follow-up to the Declaration, the Ad Hoc Task Force of the Rio Group, which brings together disaster reduction, civil defense and international cooperation experts, made a series of key recommendations to the 14 governments of the Rio Group, which will soon be enlarged to accommodate five additional countries from Central America.

It is obvious that the efforts made so far have not been enough to guarantee the protection of lives and assets from the threat of natural phenomena, which have become increasingly hostile largely as a result of an accumulation of actions by human groups with access to advanced technology, and whose impact can be measured, for instance, in global climate change.

It is also clear that natural disaster prevention, aimed mainly at vulnerability reduction and risk management, is still not on the agenda of many communities, particularly those that, in order to secure their sustenance and livelihoods today, put themselves at greater risk tomorrow from phenomena such as floods, volcanic eruptions, or landslides.

Organized society’s role in vulnerability and risk reduction, and in the creation of a true culture of prevention, is not only crucial but central. In this respect, it is essential that organized social entities [1] should act permanently, instead of responding to emergency situations when they are already underway.

One of the key contributions that such entities can make is establishing networks with a basic working knowledge of building codes and land-use regulations, in order to support the authorities in their efforts to make sure that such standards are enforced.

Those who fight to prevent and mitigate the most destructive and overwhelming manifestations of nature do so from a variety of vantage points: research, social organization, technological adaptation, and policy-making. If they are willing to share their experiences, they will no doubt contribute to a future in which people lead safer lives and can enjoy the fruits of their labour without increasing the level of future risk. In this arena, Mexico has chosen international cooperation as its chief weapon against the devastating impact of natural disasters.

[1] We prefer the term “organized social entities” rather than the more common “non-governmental organizations”, which are defined negatively by what they are not and suggest a needless confrontation with the state.