Request for papers on urban risk: Very encouraging findings emerge from the growing interest in this subject in the region


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On the occasion of the fist session of the Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, held in March 2009, a call was issued to individuals, organizations and institutions in the region to present technical articles on practices, experiences, and research on topics related to risk management in cities of Latin America.

The results were gratifying: 30 abstracts were received, from which 21 technical articles were chosen for presentation. Finally, 15 of these were selected for a publication that is one of the products of this initiative. From a geographic standpoint, the countries of the Andean and Central American sub-regions were better represented. Thematically speaking, the articles cover a broad spectrum of issues in three primary areas:

  1. Design and implementation of risk reduction programs and projects in cities;
  2. Evaluation and appraisal of disaster risks in urban environments; and
  3. Community-based participation in risk management in cities.

The 15 selected articles offer a good cross-section of the realities of disaster risk management in our cities. They describe relevant experiences in post-disaster recovery processes involving local governments, together with universities and other stakeholders from civil society. They also demonstrate the pivotal role of NGOs in implementing risk management projects at the local level, as well as the ongoing interest in developing methodologies for the evaluation of hazards, vulnerability, and risk. Many of the contributors showed significant interest in the analysis of disaster risk problems from a social perspective. The articles also show how universities and NGOs, and occasionally local governments, are spearheading efforts to document risk management processes and practices. At the same time, there are few documented experiences concerning technological risks and finally, very few articles addressing the major cities in the region.

Five of these papers were presented during the first session of the Regional Platform, held in Panama. Below, we present a summary of each of these, as a preview of the publication that we will soon deliver as a contribution to disaster risk reduction in our cities.

From recovery to development planning: the case of flooding in the city of Treinta y Tres, Uruguay

Authors: Adriana Piperno and Pablo Sierra, ITU, School of Architecture, University of Uruguay.

This paper analyzes the “recovery-development” process in the town of Treinta y Tres, Uruguay (with a population of approximately 33,000 people) following extraordinary flooding in May 2007. The study focuses on actions with a regional impact, examines the role of stakeholders and the outcomes, successes, and difficulties from the standpoint of priorities for action. Three moments stand out: during the early recovery phase, the university assisted the local government to set up an information system in the floodable area, which facilitated the response, as well as the regional planning efforts by local and national technical experts. Later, once a semblance of “normalcy” had been restored, the local government revisited its public policies to incorporate risk-related issues. Precautionary measures were identified at the territorial level and existing social programs for upgrading habitats were reworked. Finally, and with the help of the central government, progress was made in designing instruments to be used in land use planning and urban water management, such as the Management Plan currently under public review.

Study of resilience in natural disasters in six neighborhoods of La Paz, Bolivia

Author: Luis A Salamanca, National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR-NS), Bolivia

This article presents the findings of a case study on vulnerability and resilience in communities located along the eastern slope and Río Abajo in the La Paz valley, where mudslides and floods are regular occurrences. It offers a comparative analysis of vulnerability and resilience to disasters experienced by residents in both areas — the first a poor peri-urban area and the second a mixed area (featuring high-income families as well as farmers). Residents are aware that they live in unstable areas, but the former lack the necessary resources to live in safer areas, and are therefore very exposed and must address their problems through formal and informal channels. The latter address rehabilitation issues individually. In both cases, in the absence of advocacy groups, they are unable to place their concerns on the public agenda. Without any visibility at the government level, or even among those living in high risk areas, it is very difficult to build resilient communities. Consequently, in the aftermath of disaster, those with financial resources are able to rebuild, while the most vulnerable are not.

Methodology for the analysis of vulnerability and risk in buildings of urban centers during floods and earthquakes

Author: Olga Lozano Cortijo (PREDES), Peru

The Center for the Study and Prevention of Disasters (PREDES) presented this methodology, which was designed and used in the “Disaster Risk Management Component for Land Use Planning in the city of Calca, Calca District, Cuzco Region, Peru,” as part of the Participatory Pilot Project for Local Disaster Risk Management in Calca District, Cuzco Region. The methodology was prepared by PREDES, in association with Welthungerhilfe (German Land Action), and promoted and financed by the Andean Community Disaster Prevention Project (PREDECAN). This is a methodology for the analysis of vulnerability and physical risk of floods and earthquakes in buildings in general, and urban emergency services and public places in particular. The methodology is based on semi-quantitative methods that have been adapted to the conditions of small municipalities, which, like Calca, lack the information and technological capacity found in large cities.

Disaster preparedness in unstable settlements of the metropolitan area in Guatemala City, Central America

Authors: Edy Manolo Barillas and Maribel Carrera, Oxfam Great Britain, Guatemala City

The article describes the experience of implementing a disaster preparedness program (DIPECHO) in three areas of the metropolitan area in Guatemala City, beginning in 2004. In an effort to empower communities and strengthen ties to the National Coordinating Body for Disaster Reduction (CONRED), the program has worked in areas such as the demarcation of areas susceptible to landslides; the evaluation of risks and community capacity; the organization, training and equipping of communities for disaster response; implementation of rain monitoring and warning system; development of emergency plans and information activities, and community and institutional education and communication. Since the goal is to create a model appropriate to an urban context, efforts to develop effective links between communities and public institutions are critical. Nonetheless, it has been the small steps taken in practice that have persuaded and encouraged the stakeholders that these programs work and that the search for a model must be a collective undertaking.

The complex dynamics of urban poverty in the metropolitan area of Guatemala City, and its institutional density, poses many challenges to achieving an appropriate risk reduction model. Meanwhile, although weaving relationships can be an arduous process, it also lays the groundwork so that disaster preparedness in places where communities are so vulnerable can lead to a more comprehensive and sustainable framework.

Flood risk in the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, México (study on ecological management and urban development)

Authors: Miguel Ángel Vásquez Sánchez, Gloria Espíritu Tlatempa, Horacio Morales Iglesia, Guillermo Montoya Gómez and Darío Navarrete Gutiérrez, Southern Frontier College, Institute of Sciences and Arts, Mexico.

The article presents the findings of a study on ecological management and urban development in the city of Tapachula, which has 190,000 inhabitants and is the second most important city in the state of Chiapas. The city was affected by Hurricane Stan in 2005. The purpose of the study was to understand the physical, social, and economic conditions of both the city and the municipality of Tapachula. The target area was examined from the urban, municipal, regional, state, and border perspectives. The methodology included an epistemological approach to the concepts of vulnerability, risk, disaster, management, ecological/ land use planning, and urban development, with a priority on geo-morphological methods of land use and urban planning. The main findings of the study demonstrate the need to approach this city —and others with similar conditions— from the standpoint of urban-rural interaction, with a vertical watershed management focus, and a horizontal-regional focus on rural development through road networks and socioeconomic conditions. They also spotlight the need to protect and effectively manage natural areas, including those in urban settings, and to promote Tapachula as an enlightened territory and a sustainable city.