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

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


A local experience in community participation
Guillermo Valotto, Municipal Director of Civil Defense, Mar del Plata

Risk management at the local level requires a well articulated system of interconnections in each neighbourhood between the municipal authorities, provincial or national institutions, NGOs, grassroots organizations and the private sector, not to mention volunteers such as the ones involved in the project described below, Alerta.

In July 1997, after several months of technical preparations, an intersectoral programme called Alerta was launched in response to the hydrometeorological disturbances caused by the El Niño phenomenon, which caused frequent floods in vulnerable neighbourhoods, particularly those of the most disadvantaged sectors of society. Alerta is a municipal effort supported by Civil Defense and the Department of Quality of Life of the Municipality of General Pueyrredon, the capital of which is the town of Mar del Plata. Stable residents number 620,000, and they are augmented by the arrival of 5,000,000 tourists each year.

The chief goal of the Alerta programme is to guarantee a prompt and effective response by Civil Defense to natural disasters in vulnerable neighbourhoods, particularly in an area called Partido de General Pueyrredon.

The programme promotes the training and organizing of volunteers and community organizations so that they can coordinate their response to natural disasters. Interested neighbours and civil society organizations can participate in a nine-week course taught by professionals from Civil Defense, the Department of Quality of Life of the municipality, the Mar del Plata Sanitation Works, the Camuzzi gas company, another company called Empresa Distribuidora de Energía Atlántica, the Firefighters’ Corps of the Province of Buenos Aires, and volunteers from the Sierras de los Padres and CORPS Survival Groups.

After the training was complete, participants were provided technical assistance by Civil Defense and municipal social workers to design their community organization, which will intervene in all phases of natural disasters (including their prevention), and inform the neighbours about the correct way to behave to mitigate and respond to an emergency.

The methodology applied was as follows:

  1. Neighbourhoods were selected on the basis of a vulnerability assessment with input from municipal social services.
  2. Stakeholders were invited to participate.
  3. Volunteers were trained for nine weeks.
  4. Municipal social workers helped neighbours and grassroots organizations to design their proposal for a neighbourhood organization which would respond to all phase of natural disasters. Two months after the course was completed, each group presented its final proposal.
  5. Social service representatives met periodically with the new disaster prevention groups to follow up on their activities. They still meet regularly.

Alerta Volunteers are being handed special ID to facilitate their community prevention and response efforts. Moreover, they all meet once a year to network and exchange experiences and ideas.

What has been achieved after two years of work?

  • Mechanisms and an organizational network are in place to respond effectively to emergencies at the local level. They were successful during the floods of April 1998.
  • Volunteering efforts are now carried out within a well-planned organization that has been designed in participatory fashion.
  • A channel now exists for community intervention and the development of citizens’ organizational capabilities.
  • There is a network of 37 groups made up of more than 250 volunteers, with a clear definition of their role. They have made the programme’s objectives their own.
  • Agreements are in place with community institutions (grassroots, religious, social and sports groups) about how to intervene in orderly fashion in emergency response and the setting up of emergency shelters.
  • The Provincial Department of Quality of Life and the Provincial Senate have endorsed the initiative and granted official institutional recognition to the volunteer groups.
  • An outstanding degree of inter-sectoral integration has been achieved among municipal departments (quality of life, civil defense and others), provincial institutions (the firefighters of the province), civil society organizations (volunteer firefighters, the CORPS groups) and private organizations such as EDEA and Camuzzi.

What next?

The Programme’s Technical Team wants to give greater emphasis to local risk management. The intention is to integrate the organization and training of volunteers into a broader proposal for urban management.

In neighbourhoods such as these, effective risk management is nothing less than a component of sustainable development. The search for change must involve all social stakeholders; hence the need to engage in institutional capacity building.

For more information, please contact:
Equipo Técnico del Programa Alerta
La Rioja 3851 7600 Mar del Plata