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



Disaster Risk Reduction as an
Essential Part of Sustainable Development
By Sálvano Briceño
Director ISDR Secretariat

During the last decades, the world has experienced a significant increase of human and economic losses caused by natural disasters. However, there exists no consensus if the frequency and severity of extreme events have also increased due to, for example, climate change. To mention just one of the most common catastrophes in the Americas, there is no evidence that currently earthquakes take place more often or if their intensity have increased in previous years. The reasons for experiencing greater losses are, more accurately, the increase of vulnerability throughout the world, caused by a number of development practices. The effects of climate change and the increasingly deterioration of the environment -deforestation and the reduction of both the quantity and quality of water, among others, allow us to foresee that these issues will represent a major concern in the near future.

Vulnerability to disasters is a function of human behavior. It describes the degree to which a socio-economic system is either susceptible or resilient to the impact of natural hazards. This is determined by a number of factors such as awareness of hazards, the condition of human settlements and infrastructure, public policy and administration, the wealth of a given society and organized abilities in all fields of disaster and risk management. It is also largely dependent on development practices that do not take into account the susceptibility to natural hazards. Risk reduction refers to activities taken to decrease both vulnerable conditions and the causes of these hazards, especially those related to drought, floods and landslides.

In order to tailor development policies aimed at reducing vulnerability, it is worth reviewing some of the global trends which make natural hazards turn into disasters. These are all related, inter-dependant processes, addressed comprehensively within the action plan that resulted from the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (1992), known as Agenda 21[1]. However, these processes have not been sufficiently emphasized from a disaster risk reduction perspective. These tendencies can only aggravate due to the lack of awareness or knowledge among the public and decision-makers regarding those factors and human activities that contribute to environmental degradation and vulnerability to disasters.

First of all, there is a close correlation between the trends of increasingly demographic pressure especially in developing countries, and particularly in least developed countries, escalated environmental degradation, increased human vulnerability and the intensity of disasters. Poverty and vulnerability to hazards are closely related and strengthen each other. The poor who exploit environmental resources for survival, increase both the risk and exposure to disasters, especially those triggered by floods and drought.

Secondly, the continued failure to manage natural resources (deforestation, degradation of productive lands, or pollution of rivers and oceans), as well as human settlements in fragile ecosystems and the increased demand of environmental services and products, are among the main trends of environmental degradation in developing and least developed countries. For example, river floods are aggravated or even caused by deforestation, sedimentation of rivers and other factors. Land degradation accelerates desertification and drought, which lead to food insecurity. The poor in developing countries are more vulnerable to these environmental changes than the rich.

Least developed countries are subject to the highest rates of population growth, with a projection to double in less than 30 years. Poverty and social and economic pressures make people more vulnerable by forcing them to live in dangerous locations, often on unsafe land and in unsafe dwellings as well. Disasters contribute to those factors that make people vulnerable –such as unemployment, political instability, poor economic conditions, and unequal distribution of wealth and lack of security. Disasters are also aggravated by these factors. Repeated exposure to disasters can lead into a downward spiral of chronic poverty.

Rapid urban growth, in particular, when accompanied by the influx of huge stream of poor unskilled migrants from rural areas is one of the main factors contributing towards increased vulnerability to natural hazards in many parts of the world. The accelerated, and often uncontrolled, growth of cities has contributed to the ecological transformation of their immediate areas, causing deforestation and the inadequate use of land. In addition, the lack of appropriate drainage systems and the excessive use of concrete and asphalt, which do not absorb precipitation, increase the volume and speed of rainfall runoff, thus making many cities more vulnerable to flash floods. Other factors contributing to the urban vulnerability include: lowering or rising of the water table, subsidence, loss of bearing capacity of soil foundations and instability of slopes.

The destruction of natural sources of life is one of the factors that forces people to seek a new future elsewhere, for example, by migrating to urban areas or uncultivated regions. In the 1990’s, 60 to 70% of urbanization was unplanned[2] , often in areas adjacent to industrial zones, known to be highly seismic or flood prone. In the past three decades, the urban population of developing countries has tripled to 1.300 million inhabitants. More people are being forced by the lack of choice to expand into disaster prone areas such as flood plains, landslide prone hillsides and deforested lands. When a disaster strikes, this causes another setback to the economies of the affected countries.

Sea-level rising will further exacerbate this situation in small islands and low-lying coastal areas. It is known that more than one third of the world population live within 100 km of coastline. Recent catastrophic earthquakes in El Salvador and Peru (and elsewhere in the world) highlight other current deficiencies and key trends in risk reduction, such as a poor understanding by decision-makers of seismic related risk, as well as the tendency of some builders to use the cheapest designs and construction materials to increase their profits in a short term.

“ More effective prevention strategies would save not only tens of billions of dollars, but save tens of thousands of lives. Funds currently spent on intervention and relief could be devoted to enhancing equitable and sustainable development instead, which would further reduce the risk for war and disaster. Building a culture of prevention is not easy. While the costs of prevention have to be paid in the present, its benefits lie in a distant future. Moreover, the benefits are not tangible; they are the disasters that did NOT happen. “

Kofi Annan

UN Secretary-General: “Introduction to Secretary-General’s Annual Report on the Work of the Organization of United Nations, 1999"
(document A/54/1)


However, there is a wide variety of ways in which disaster risk can be reduced as part of development policies. These involve regulatory and legal measures, institutional reforms, improved analytical and methodological capabilities, education, awareness, financial planning and political commitment.

Disaster reduction is aimed at motivating societies at risk to become consciously engaged in risk management and vulnerability reduction, beyond the traditional response to the impact caused by natural hazards. This reduction must be considered an ongoing process that does not focus on isolated events. Due to its own nature, this process is multi-sectoral and interdisciplinary, and comprises a wide variety of interrelated activities at the local, national, regional and international levels.

The lessons learned through the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (1990-99)[3]  have allowed for the establishment of four major goals in order to effectively reduce the impact of disasters, as the guiding principles for the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction[4] . These overall objectives represent the rationale and foundation of those actions to be taken by governments, regional bodies and civil society organizations. These goals are:

  • Obtain the commitment from public authorities. This objective needs to be addressed through an increased inter-sectoral coordination at all levels, risk management strategies and the allocation of appropriate resources, including the development of new funding mechanisms. For example, it is important to include risk reduction as one of the major inter-sectoral issues to follow up on Agenda 21.
  • Increase public awareness. This involves programs of formal and non-formal as well as public information and inter-disciplinary professional training. Needless to say that the media and school systems around the world have a crucial role to play.
  • Stimulate inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral partnerships and the expansion of risk reduction networks among national and local governments the private sector, academic institutions, NGOs and community-based organizations. This calls for efficient coordination mechanisms, such as appropriate institutional structures for disaster management, preparedness, emergency responses and early warnings. Additionally, a number of aspects related to disaster reduction must be incorporated into national planning processes at local and national levels.

· Foster better understanding and knowledge of the causes of disasters through the transfer and exchange of experiences and greater access to relevant data and information. The issues to be addressed in this context are the assessment and analysis of the socio-economic impacts of disasters, integrated disaster databases, strong response strategies, and early warnings as ongoing processes, as well as the promotion of scientific research and the development and transfer of knowledge and technologies.

Since the UN Conference on the Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the concept of sustainable development has become a widely recognized approach in development policies. However, disaster reduction, in particular, has not been sufficiently emphasized.

The Latin American and Caribbean Regional Preparatory Conference for the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) was held in Rio de Janeiro from October 23-24 . At the end of this meeting, the delegates adopted the “Rio de Janeiro Platform for Action towards Johannesburg 2002”, which highlights the importance of reducing the level of vulnerability to natural disasters based on planning and land ordering with strong ecological and economic foundations, as well as the promotion of civil society participation and the advance of a culture of prevention through education, public information and early warning systems.

This document, which refers to the issue of disasters in different paragraphs, proposes that during the Johannesburg Summit priority must be given to a number of inter-sectoral issues, such as “finances, science and technology, capacity building and vulnerability”.

We now have an inexorable opportunity to address disaster reduction at the World Summit on Sustainable Development and in the resulting Johannesburg Action Plan, as another important social, economic and environmental principle for a safer world. The World Summit should recommend specific actions related to increased international and regional co-operation, as well as the strengthening of institutional capacities to undertake disaster reduction initiatives at national and local levels, with regards to the assessment and monitoring of vulnerability, early warning systems, public awareness and information exchange capacities.

We hope that you find this issue enjoyable. We also wish to encourage you to send us your initiatives, activities, ongoing or implemented projects, and lessons learned, among others. This enables us to share all this information with the rest of our region.

1 Chapter 7, 11, 13, 17 y 18. ]

2 UNCHS, Risk and Disaster Management Unit, Urban Development Branch: ISDR public awareness kit, September 2001

3 Including the Yokohama Strategy adopted in 1994, as well as the strategy produced at the final event of the IDNDR, the Geneva Programme Forum in 1999, entitled a “Safer World in the 21st Century”, see UNGA Resolution A/54/219

4 ISDR Inter-Agency Task Force. Framework for Action for the Implementation of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, May 2001