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

In the Spotlight: Communities


Experiences In Natural And Epidemic Disaster Mitigation, Prevention And Preparedness In Marginal Communities Of Guatemala City

Hughes Burrow, Engineer in Environmental
Health Médecins Sans Frontières Guatemala

Ever since Hurricane Mitch, the Swiss Chapter of Médecins Sans Frontières has redefined its urban operations policy to focus on both epidemic and natural disaster mitigation, prevention, and preparedness. Every year, during the rainy season, landslides and epidemic outbreaks afflict Guatemala City’s marginal settlements. Considerable resources and energy are spent responding to emergency situations that could easily be averted if the risk factors were eliminated or reduced. This paper seeks to share the experiences of Médecins Sans Frontières in working with Guatemala City’s most vulnerable communities.

Natural and Epidemic Disaster Mitigation,
Prevention and Preparedness Project

Development policies and disaster reduction

There can be no doubt that disaster reduction is intimately linked with sustainable development and economic growth. But although sustainable development policies will certainly contribute to reducing the vulnerability of the poorest, the process will be painfully slow and complex, the results long-term. The inhabitants of informal settlements cannot afford to wait. It is therefore necessary to consider short-terms actions and strive for disaster reduction through rapid impact projects aimed at managing environmental risk.

Rapid Impact Project (RIP)

A Rapid Impact Project (RIP) is a project that is implemented over a period of six to 18 months with the goal of achieving the largest possible impact in a short time. To attain this goal it is necessary to concentrate on high-impact activities, eschewing purely complementary actions. The key lies in assessing and strengthening the quality of community participation, deciding on priorities, making sure that actions match these priorities and obtaining high-quality technical advice. A RIP has two main advantages: it makes it possible to solve problems in a short time and it provides the option of developing additional projects in the future, since it involves the following steps that have a longer-term value:

  • Evaluating the functioning of the committee.
  • Assessing the degree of community participation.
  • Evaluating the degree and quality of inter-institutional cooperation.
  • Carrying out an in-depth situational assessment.
  • Gaining the credibility and confidence of the community.
  • Producing a feeling of accomplishment among community members.

General Objective:
To reduce the level of vulnerability of communities to emergency situations generated by natural and epidemic phenomena

Specific Objectives:

  • To reduce the impact of disasters through the execution of preventive, educational and informative activities.
  • To improve emergency response capacity through better inter-institutional coordination and cooperation.

Managing environmental risks

The vulnerability of hillside settlements is directly related to environmental risk factors. Any project must therefore focus on interventions aimed at improving environmental conditions by paying attention to the three essential components of the environment as a whole:

  • Drinking water: Improving supply in terms of quality and quantity. Improving the management of water supply to the home.
  • Physical infrastructure: Drainage systems for storm and ground water, pavement of roads, protective walls for preventing water from filtering into the subsoil and controlling the direction and strength of runoff water.
  • Reforestation: Planting adequate vegetation on slopes to fasten the soil and eliminate water through evapotranspiration.
  • Waste: Improving control to prevent the obstruction of drainage systems, the proliferation of vectors, and the weakening of soil cohesiveness.
  • Health: Supporting curative and preventive activities and epidemiological surveillance.
  • Emergency Preparedness: Producing a community emergency plan with the involvement of local stakeholders.

Physical Environment

Biological Environment


Works of infrastructure:

• Drainage system for storm water
• Pavement of roads
• Protective walls for roads


• Disposal of slag and other refuse
• Disposal of inorganic waste


Vector Control

Disposal of organic waste

Improved water supply

Improved access to health services

Transfer of skills and knowledge

Inter-institutional coordination and collaboration

Community Contingency Plan

The plan has two components : the community plan and the family plan. The goal is to involve community members and locally active bodies directly in the process of developing and executing the contingency plan. The plan must not concentrate only on emergency response, but also on prevention and mitigation measures that can reduce the impact of a disaster and improve preparedness. Thus, it involves activities to be carried out before, during, and after an emergency. There are two phases, the first aimed at assessing the situation, analyzing the findings and developing a plan of action, and the second focusing on the execution of the plan of action.

First Phase

  • Identify the settlements that are at risk and, within them, the homes that are most vulnerable to landslides.
  • Produce a pessimistic estimate of the number of families that might be affected by a disaster.
  • Identify and assess potential shelters in terms of access, size, drainage, availability of water and conditions for setting up latrines.
  • Identify the bodies or support groups present in the locality and their activities.
  • Identify the preventive measures that can be taken in each community.

Second Phase

  • Carry out an education and information campaign.
  • Monitor and follow up on the implementation of the plan.
  • Carry out preventive activities.
  • Prepare shelters.
  • Establish and sign agreements with locally active agencies and NGOs.
  • Engage in all necessary logistical preparations.

Community Education, Training and Information

What To Do in the Event of an Emergency?
When disaster strikes, support groups can rarely intervene immediately. The first to act are the members of the affected community. It is therefore important to train community leaders and families on how to organize themselves.

Community Leaders


Supervise and order the evacuation Decide what to evacuate
Contact support groups Locate evacuation routes
Carry out a census of affected families Locate shelter
Identify priority needs Provide first aid
Inspect and quantify damage Behave suitably in the shelter
Coordinate and organize donations

Provide information to the community


Shelter Management

It is necessary to train shelter managers on the proper standards for resettling and organizing the victims. It is important not to overcrowd the shelters in order to prevent epidemics and have a better control of available resources. The families must also be trained on how they must behave to prevent tensions and loss of control. The following issues must be discussed:

• Standards of behavior in the shelter.
• Spatial organization.
• Overall functioning of the shelter.

Prevention and Mitigation Measures

As already noted, measures must be taken at two different levels: that of the community and that of individual families.

Natural disasters

In order to mitigate disasters resulting from landslides, activities must be carried out that have a rapid impact and concentrate on the most significant risk factors.

Community activities

Family activities

Clean and rehabilitate existing drainage systems Control runoff water in their backyards
Cut down trees and heavy branches on sharp slopes in public lands Cut down dangerous trees or branches in private lands
Reforest critical public areas
Reforest critical private areas
Clear roads and evacuation routes
Clear exits from the home and access to evacuation routes
Manage solid waste in critical sectors

Raise the awareness of highly vulnerable families about the risks they are facing

Epidemic Disasters

In order to prevent epidemics, the community in general and families in particular must take simple measures. Leaders can collaborate with health centers and other relevant institutions present in the area.

Community activities

Family activities

Inspect and repair water supply network Ensure hygienic water management in the home
Ensure proper hygiene of people who handle food Ensure proper food hygiene in the home
Maintain and clean public latrines Maintain and clean family latrines
Manage solid waste in public areas (vector control) Handle domestic solid waste (vector control)
Control vectors (eliminate refuse in public areas) Control vectors (eliminate refuse)
Coordinate with local health center Practice personal hygiene


Execution and Strategy

Community participation

Communities must participate fully in the process by identifying their own needs, choosing the best options, executing the necessary works, carrying out educational and planning activities, and evaluating the project as it unfolds. Project communities are the most vulnerable; their members have suffered disasters in the past, and they are fully aware of existing risks. There is a correlation between the level of vulnerability and the willingness to engage in community participation. Another factor that affects community participation is the age of the community. Families in more recent communities are more motivated to improve themselves; they have squatted in new land in the hope of starting over, and there is a certain dynamism and freshness. The residents of older communities have become accustomed to living in precarious conditions and have a tendency to look at diarrheic diseases as a fact of life. In these circumstances, there is less motivation; attitudinal change will take longer.

Technical Feasibility

It is important to ensure that any intervention is realistic from the point of view of sanitary engineering. The right technical options must be chosen based on costs, the potential impact of an engineering project, and the capacity of the community to execute, operate and maintain the necessary works. As the projects are being carried out in areas where no one else has chosen to build, due to infrastructural difficulties, it is important to have realistic goals: never strive to eliminate risk factors completely, but only to reduce them.

Inter-institutional Coordination

It is important to assess both the policies and the helpfulness of the various departments of the local Municipality (water, waste disposal, etc.), of the Ministry of Health, and of the NGOs that work locally. Are they willing to collaborate with technical assistance, the provision of services, organization or education? An agreement must be negotiated and signed with each agency, stipulating all the responsibilities of the parties.

Transfer of Knowledge

The project has been designed to favor the transfer of knowledge by training community workers in the construction, operation and maintenance of drainage systems. The project also seeks to improve public awareness of environmental matters.


To date, our experiences have been positive. We have been able to propose rapid and acceptable solutions to problems the communities themselves have defined as priorities. We are looking forward to evaluating the project to determine whether it can be replicated in other communities.

For more information, please contact:
Dr. Antonio Girona Vidal, General Coordinator
Dr. Olaf Valverde, Coordinator of Urban Projects
Hugues Burrows, Mitigation Projects
Médecins Sans Frontières, Swiss Chapter
5a. Calle “A” 1-57, zona 3 Guatemala City
+502 232-9685, Fax +502 220-0556