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


Seismic Risk and Social Behavior
By Virginia Rodriguez de Acosta
Architect and Specialist in Prevention, Mitigation and Integrated Management of Disaster-Prone Areas, Architecture, Urbanism and Design School, San Juan National University.
Telephone / fax number: 0264 4342556.

Current Situation in Latin America

Seismic risks represent a natural and distinguishing characteristic of certain regions throughout the world. However, the risk of a catastrophe depends on both the level of seismic hazard and the existing vulnerability in a given habitat.

During the last two decades, the destructive consequences of disasters –particularly those caused by earthquakes– have increased, given that greater concentrations of population have been affected, as well as their cultural properties and material goods. This has brought about considerable losses and damages in different countries and regions.

According to information provided by the United Nations, it is expected that in the next century more than 50% of the world population will live in large urban areas. In the year 2000, 16 out of the 20 most crowded cities were located in developing countries. Based on these facts, in the year 2025, 80% of the world population will be concentrated in these countries.

In the specific case of Latin America, there exists a high level of concentration, in terms of population growth and economic activities. Along these lines, it is considered that 75% of the population in Latin America resides in urban areas, but this figure will reach at least 85% in the upcoming decades.

This rapid urbanization process also increases the impact of natural events. It is clear then that poor countries, in particular the poorest sectors among the population, are the ones enduring the gravest effects of such impacts.

“Problems related to natural disasters should be understood as unresolved development issues, given that disasters are not natural events per se, but situations resulting from the relationship between natural elements and the organization and structure of society. In general, policies related to urban and regional development, along with sectoral economic and social plans, do not take into consideration disaster-related issues and, on occasion, worsen vulnerability.

Disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean represent an increasing problem and their impact is each time more severe, due to development patterns and trends implemented in these regions.

Population growth and urbanization processes; land occupation trends; poverty among larger sectors of the population; the use of inadequate organizational systems, and the pressure exerted on natural resources have continuously increased people’s vulnerability in the presence of a large number of natural hazards.”1

Disasters and Natural Phenomena

If we thought that natural disasters depend solely on a natural event or phenomenon, without taking into account any type of human influence on their occurrence, we would be implying that humankind is completely defenseless against nature. This would also produce a general passive behavior, surrendering to what is inevitable.

By understanding natural disasters, -taking into account both the importance of a “natural phenomenon” and the level of vulnerability in a given habitat-, we will be able to recognize that the risk or probability of a disaster depends not only on natural elements, but also on social, economic, political and cultural factors related directly to human beings and their development. All these elements make a certain habitat more or less vulnerable. This particular view of disasters also facilitates our work, at both individual and social levels, aimed at reducing the risks and probabilities of a catastrophe caused by a destructive event that might take place in a particular region.
The Importance of Prevention

“Disaster” is not synonymous with “phenomenon”: A seismic phenomenon is “inevitable”; it depends on nature. A disaster is “evitable”; it depends on human beings.

It is worth mentioning that acquiring knowledge of nature’s behavior is as important as understanding human behavior in a seismic area. The latter allows us to incorporate an active element of prevention; that is, take actions not only during an earthquake and, therefore, a potential disaster, but also before the occurrence of a natural phenomenon. This would also enable us to control the possibility that a disaster might occur, by monitoring the levels of vulnerability and taking adequate measures related to all those physical, social, economic and cultural elements found in a particular region.

In terms of international funds allocated to managing natural hazards, more than 90% of these resources are used during emergency situations and subsequent reconstruction stages. Lessons learned at the international level, however, prove that the impact of natural events may be reduced if risks are identified and mitigation measures are taken in advance. Benefits resulting from the reduction of vulnerability are greater than the costs incurred when taking these actions.

Human behavior may and must be used as a primary tool to reduce one of the most important causes of disasters: the level of vulnerability that is found in a given habitat. This implies changing individual and social behavior, translated into concrete actions taken by both governments and civil society, and aimed at preventing and reducing risk factors.

A Culture of Prevention:
Responsability to Face Vulnerability

If we are aware that we have become very vulnerable societies in the presence of natural and anthropogenic hazards, we will promote the change needed in social behavior and practices, in order to stop putting at risk current development possibilities and those of future generations.

Disaster reduction is a commitment of all. It is therefore necessary to promote a culture of seismic prevention among State institutions and civil society at large.

The role of the media and the formal education system, at all levels, are appropriate and powerful tools to make changes in social behavior and to advance both community commitment and participation, in order to develop actions for seismic prevention within the whole provincial territory.