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

Partners in Action


Reducing Urban Seismic Risk in Developing
Countries-The Radius Approach
Carlos A. Villacís, Ph.D.
Technical Director, GeoHazards International, Palo Alto, CA, USA

Urban seismic risk is steadily increasing worldwide, especially in developing countries. Among the many reasons for this increase are the urbanization process that is taking place worldwide, the lack of planning and resources of cities to accommodate this very fast urban growth, the lack of appropriate building and land-use codes or the lack of mechanisms to enforce them, and, most importantly, the lack of awareness of communities and their leaders. This lack of awareness has kept members and institutions of communities from participating in or supporting risk management initiatives. In most cases, due to lack of awareness and information, the members of the society actually increase the risk by making uninformed decisions.

Multi-disciplinary initiatives that properly consider the complex social, political and economic aspects of society are required to effectively reduce the risk associated with natural disasters. Unfortunately, a large majority of risk-related activities in most of the world’s communities have focused on the evaluation of the risk (in many cases, of only the hazard) carried out by technical people. Most of the efforts and resources have been used in studies to produce reports, maps, papers and conferences that have not been utilized by the community. Very few actual actions have resulted from those studies, and there has been almost no progress in the incorporation of the community in the risk-reduction processes. There is a general, and mistaken, perception that earthquakes (and other natural disasters) are “technical” problems that have to be dealt with by technical people. In reality, the effects of natural disasters on a community more accurately reflect the social, political, and economic problems of that community instead of the level of technical knowledge of its scientists.

There are two things that are required for the effective reduction of a community’s risk. The first requirement is that the entire community take ownership of the problem. All members of the community have to recognize that the existing risk is their problem and, therefore, it is their responsibility to solve it. It is neither the responsibility of international organizations nor the responsibility of just one sector of the society (the government or the technical people, for example). Disasters affect everybody, and it is everybody’s responsibility to support and participate in initiatives that increase the preparedness of the community for the disasters. The second requirement is that the community build up its capability to manage the risk. There must be the technical, institutional, political, legal, and financial frameworks that allow the effective and coordinated implementation of necessary risk management activities. All efforts have to be focused and coordinated to avoid implementation of isolated and ineffective actions, stop unnecessary repetition of efforts, make good use of what has already been done, and most efficiently use the scarce resources available for these activities.

With this in mind, the Secretariat of the International Decade for Natural Disasters Reduction (IDNDR) of the United Nations adopted the methodology developed by GeoHazards International (GHI, to implement the RADIUS (Risk Assessment Tools for Diagnostic of Urban Areas Against Seismic Disaster) Project. The current ISDR Secretariat will continue to follow up on this initiative. Working in close collaboration with local people in nine cities around the world, the project evaluated the seismic risk of those cities, prepared risk management plans based on those evaluations and, most importantly, raised awareness of the community on seismic risk and affordable measures to reduce it. Members and institutions of the society participated actively throughout the project and committed efforts were made to set up the conditions that would allow the establishment of long-term initiatives to reduce the seismic risk. The project made the best use of existing information and counted on the knowledge, insight, and expertise of local people to ensure that the products and results reflected local conditions.

Nine cities were selected for the implementation of the RADIUS project’s case studies. They were Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Antofagasta (Chile), Bandung (Indonesia), Guayaquil (Ecuador), Izmir (Turkey), Skopje (TFYR Macedonia), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Tijuana (Mexico), Zigong (China).

The RADIUS case studies were designed with the specific objective of initiating long-term risk management processes in the cities where the project was implemented. For that purpose, the case studies had three main tasks, to 1) assess the city’s seismic risk and develop an earthquake scenario that describes the effects of a probable earthquake on the city, 2) prepare an action plan describing activities that, if implemented, would reduce the city’s seismic risk, and 3) set up the conditions that would facilitate the institutionalization of risk management activities in the city.

To produce realistic results and raise awareness of the community on the seismic risk, involvement of the various sectors of the society was ensured throughout the project. The program of activities included meetings throughout the project in which key representatives of the community were first informed about the progress of the project, and then asked to provide their feedback. Additionally, through coordinated work with the local media, the project ensured that the general public was consistently informed about the progress of the project’s activities and its achievements.

As one of the most important activities towards the institutionalization of risk management activities in the cities, RADIUS promoted the establishment of an organization to coordinate risk management activities. In each city, an organization was selected (or created if a suitable one did not exist) to coordinate, monitor, and advocate risk management efforts.

Implementation of the prepared Action Plans has already started in several of the RADIUS cities. In Latin America, for example, the government of Antofagasta, Chile has allocated one million dollars to relocate six schools that were found to be located in areas with potential tsunami risk. Furthermore, three small neighboring cities of Antofagasta have started similar projects using the RADIUS methodology. In Guayaquil, Ecuador the Municipality created the Unit for Risk Management of the City which, among other things, will be in charge of implementing the Plan prepared by RADIUS. A new building code is also being prepared to control seismic safety of both existing and new construction. In Tijuana, Mexico the Municipality has allocated funds for the implementation of microzoning studies, whose results will be used for city planning. In addition, the industrial sector of Tijuana asked the Municipality for assistance in the estimation of its seismic risk, and it offered to financially support seismic safety efforts for schools in exchange for the Municipality’s assistance.

RADIUS proved to be important and effective for several reasons. It produced tangible results such as earthquake scenarios and action plans that are already being used. RADIUS made significant progress in raising awareness of the community on seismic risk and in incorporating the various sectors of the society in risk management activities. The project has had an immediate impact in the cities where it was implemented, and actions are already being taken to reduce seismic risk. The ultimate goal is to establish long-term, institutionalized efforts to manage that risk. RADIUS was intended to be the first step towards this goal. The responsibility for the continuation of these efforts lies on the shoulders of all the members and leaders of each of the nine communities. The enthusiasm and commitment with which the project was adopted and the good results obtained seem to indicate that there is a reasonable probability that these efforts will be continued in the future.

For more information about RADIUS, visit

or contact one of the following people:

Dr. Carlos Villacís, GeoHazards International

Ms. Etsuko Tsunozaki, ISDR Secretariat, United Nations
Fax: 41-22-917-9098/99