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

Socios en Acción


Regional Consultation: “Local Management and Risk Reduction within Human Settlements located in the Caribbean Basin”
By Jaime Valdez, consultant

This Regional Consultation, convened by UN-HABITAT and the ISDR, was held with the purpose of setting priorities, establishing actions and defining the primary goals of an upcoming program for regional cooperation, aimed at reducing risks in human settlements in the Caribbean Basin. One of the major outcomes achieved was the introduction of different basic elements required to start an interesting, strategic and sustainable process related to this particular issue. On this occasion, a number of national and regional, specialized and non-specialized actors gathered and decided to promote the agreements reached during this meeting, as well as to join efforts to strengthen local management and reduce risks in the countries of this region.

A number of efforts have been devoted to address risk reduction in this region. These endeavors, however, have not been part of any strategy developed to put into practice concrete and sustainable solutions. In the mid-90s, for instance, the Coordination Center for Natural Disaster Prevention in Central America (CEPREDENAC), the Center for the Sustainable Development of Human Settlements in Central America (CERCA), and the Central American Community Network for Risk Management, among others, with the collaboration of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), made efforts to raise awareness regarding risk situations in human settlements. At that time, however, key actors paid little attention to this issue and did not take all due measures. As a result, these and other efforts did not bring about the outcomes expected. On the other hand, MINURVI, during its tenth meeting, held in Panama City in the year 2000, decided to incorporate risk management into the priorities of the Regional Action Plan, and prepared a program for regional cooperation, in collaboration with UN-HABITAT and ECLAC.

It is worth mentioning that participants went above and beyond the main goals of this consultation by designing a strategy for addressing this issue, as well as by agreeing upon a number of follow-up actions to be taken. In this sense, this Regional Consultation represented the starting point of a process aimed at achieving sustainable and safe development in human settlements. Representatives of participating countries and regional organizations, as well as participants at large, committed themselves to foster and implement the agreements reached during this gathering, in line with their own competences and within their respective scopes of work.

Main Issues addressed by the Participants

During this Regional Consultation, presentations developed by various participants highlighted the fact that this region has made some progress in the process of raising awareness regarding the importance of disaster management. Currently, all these countries have National Plans and have established structures (modern or in the process of being reorganized) for emergency situations and disaster reduction. As a result, actions taken are more efficient when facing this type of situations. At the regional level, the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) and the Central American Integration System (SICA) have included risk-related issues in their agendas and have established appropriate regional structures for risk management. In spite of this significant progress, there still exists a number of gaps particularly in terms of decentralizing actions and measures taken, as well regarding the approach used, which has led to addressing emergency situations, but they have not been prevented. Along these lines, it must be taken into account that local governments do not have enough resources or power for adequate management. Finally, there is a lack of spaces for effective and broad-based participation of civil society and communities at large, and both housing sectors and local governments remain weak when it comes to implementing actions to address the aforementioned issue.

The negative and increasingly impact of disasters was also highlighted during the consultation. For said reason, it was considered necessary to take immediate actions to cope with the most severe effects brought about by disasters. It was also recognized that, due to the particular geographical position of the Caribbean Basin, as well as its geological and climatological complexity, a large number of natural phenomena take place. This is why the region has to face multiple threats; vulnerability, however, is the result of a process developed mainly by human beings, influencing and changing the environment in a negative manner. This process is exacerbated by development patterns that eventually increase existing vulnerability in fragile societies, especially because these trends deplete renewable and non-renewable resources, which represent the basis of nature when enduring natural disasters.

Another aspect touched upon during this event was the alarming poverty conditions in which larger sectors of the population live. In this sense, it was stated that those structural changes experienced by national economies during the last decades have contributed to increasing these conditions and to broadening the gap between the rich and the poor. In general, approximately 60% of the population lives under the poverty line in these countries. In other nations, this percentage is even higher, such as in Nicaragua with 82%, Honduras with 74%, and Guatemala with 68%. In these countries almost 50% of the total population lives in extreme poverty conditions. Along these lines, it was highlighted that there exists a close connection between poverty and vulnerability. Both statistics and recent events prove that the poorest countries, municipalities, neighborhoods and people are the ones enduring the gravest consequences of disasters.

Presentations also referred to a number of strategic themes, such as the lack of effective housing policies, physical planning and land zoning; the absence of adequate construction standards or control and follow-up mechanisms; overexploitation of urban areas; concentration of population and settlements in reduced spaces located in capital cities or areas that are not suitable for urbanization processes; migration out of rural areas into major cities; fast and uncontrolled urbanization processes; and inadequate and non-functional design of overcrowded buildings, among others. These are some of the elements that have increased urban risks. In addition, the location of settlements in areas prone to risks and the situation of the population who lives in informal settlements (apart from the recognition of corresponding authorities) worsen this condition. The current situation of housing and human settlement sectors was considered one of the most critical social areas in this region. It was stressed that physical planning, land zoning and urban development are processes that must be consolidated. Housing shortage in Central America has reached approximately 3.5 million units. Furthermore, current production capacity can hardly respond to 50-70% of vegetative growth. It is also worth mentioning that at least 50% of all Central American families lack adequate housing.

Participants also made reference to the prevailing features that characterize centralized States in the region. Municipal autonomy, decentralization and local democracy are incipient and uneven processes, which vary from country to country. Two decades after this process started, this trend continues and local governments have not been enabled to gain more power, participate actively in decision-making processes, and have more access to both resources and information. In spite of all these structural limitations, broader participation of civil society and productive sectors has been promoted, in order to fill in the gaps that weaken these democratic structures. In this sense, FEMICA pointed out that real democracy will not be established if there is no will to strengthen local bodies and promote broad-based participation of civil society.

Final considerations

One of the main conclusions and analysis of this Regional Consultation was awareness raised and the broad consensus reached among the participants with regards to risk management, as a concern that belongs to society at large; not only to specialized bodies. The concept of risk must be interpreted from a broad perspective and a viewpoint related directly to sustainable development. It was considered imperative to promote the strengthening of an updated and appropriate legal framework, adapted to existing circumstances, and to establish mechanisms that guarantee a process of control, implementation and follow-up. Similarly, participants recognized that aspects related to physical planning, and urban and land zoning are key elements to reduce existing risks and achieve sustainability through those actions and measures taken.

Recommendations were made by the participants and representatives of various sectors, regarding the need to promote more equitable development patterns, establish the conditions required to foster ongoing processes and programs for national and regional cooperation, aimed at reducing risks in human settlements, and exchanging information among the region on issues related to physical planning, land zoning and preparedness.