Local governments and their contributions to the Hyogo Framework for Action: Lessons learned from the Telica River Commonwealth, Nicaragua

“The most important thing here is that we have achieved without money something that might have taken longer with money. Because of this, we are not thinking about how we are going to spend the money, but rather how we get results with the few resources we obtain from municipal taxes” Ansia Alvarez, coordinator of the Project for Strategic Planning with a Focus on Disaster Risk Reduction in Telica.

We all know that “small-scale disasters”, with their accumulative effects at the local level, cause more damage than large-scale events. This is why local governments must learn to manage such disasters. In this context, three municipalities in the Telica River Commonwealth, in northwestern Nicaragua, have developed some good practices.

This multi-hazard region, with a surface area of 1,374 km2 and a population of between 60,000 and 70,000 people, includes three rural municipalities (Telica, Quezalguaque and Larreynaga-Malpaisillo). The hazards relate to its geographical location—its proximity to the Maribios volcanic range, hurricane routes and geological fault lines that can cause seismic events. In addition to these natural risks, environmental hazards are posed by mining and single-crop farming, mainly sugarcane, rice and peanuts, practiced by large-scale landowners. Combined with a high poverty rate (68 percent of the population), these hazards represent a high-risk situation that can lead to disasters. The last major disaster that affected this area was Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Recognizing the common hazards they face in the Telica micro-watershed as well as their own capacity to cope with them, these three municipalities joined forces to establish what is now called the Telica Commonwealth. The Project for Strategic Planning with a Focus on Disaster Risk Reduction in Telica was established in the context of a DELNET training course on “Disaster Risk Reduction in the Framework of Sustainable Development,” facilitated by the International Labor Organization (ILO), with UNISDR support. The three agencies involved (ILO/DELNET, the UNISDR and UNOSAT) provided non-monetary incentives such as computer equipment, training, and participation in international conferences, to facilitate the planning process.

A positive factor was that the planning process did not have to start from scratch. International cooperation projects had been implemented previously in all three municipalities to strengthen the capacity of municipal and community-based organizations and provide equipment and early warning systems for a rapid and effective response to extreme natural events such as volcanic eruptions and floods, or to prevent a disaster. Now that the foundations of preparedness have been laid, the current approach focuses on reducing underlying risks and strengthening sustainable development.

What progress has been made to date in strategic planning with a focus on disaster risk reduction?

First, the common planning project, which had been approved by the previous administration and is being implemented by the current government, was saved. The mayors that took office in late 2008 pledged to proceed with these projects in a collaborative manner. The political will is there and, at the technical level, several activities are underway so that in a few months, a municipal development plan will be in place that includes risk reduction components and reflects the needs of all communities in these municipalities. To this end, the technical staff is holding regionwide participatory assessment workshops. The Commonwealth project coordinator meets once a week with the technical staff and holds joint working sessions to ensure mutual support among the three municipalities. One of the strengths that has helped maintain the emphasis on risk management is that a technical expert works in a municipal risk management office in each municipality. It has thus been possible to build on the work done by previous projects, consolidate community-based organizations and ensure the functioning of radiophonic early warning systems.

The establishment of an emergency fund in municipal budgets is yet another example of local governments’ commitment to strengthening rapid response to emergencies and financing small-scale mitigation measures. For instance, Telica allocated C$ 400,000 (approximately US$ 20,430) to this category for 2009. This represents 6.86 per cent of municipal funds and 1.16 percent of the total budget for 2009. The fund allows municipalities to take immediate measures without having to wait for cash transfers from the national government. The fund was used for the first time for prevention activities to halt the spread of the H1N1 influenza virus. To date, there has not been a single case in Telica.

Enormous efforts have been made to increase knowledge about risk. This includes mapping hazardous areas in all communities, marking evacuation routes and local safety areas, which, in most cases, are the schools. The challenge now is to validate all of this information, complement it with other sources and create a database to make it available for planning processes for each territory. Activities are also underway with the National Engineering University of Nicaragua to equip technical staff with a tool to address risk factors in the design of public works.

In addition to effective preparedness, education in disaster risk reduction, and the integration of risk management into municipal planning and works, governments must seek transparency in governance and include the public in decision-making processes. As the mayor of Telica explained:

“We mayors do not want to be the protagonists of development. We want the public to become actors so that what is done addresses their reality.”

A change in mindset is being observed among those who have understood that they cannot be mere bureaucrats, but rather effective managers of their territories. As a result of the work done by the project coordinator and the advisor appointed by the Commonwealth, the mayors have begun to grasp that a strategic plan is an appropriate tool for territorial management and governance.

Finally, what has sustained the process to date is the political commitment, the determination of the project coordinator, who leads the process without any remuneration whatsoever, the work of the technical team in all three municipalities and the support of the UNISDR. One of the successful aspects of the strategic planning project is that it ultimately belongs to the local population and did not originate in an external entity that comes in, triggered by a specific situation, and then leaves. Up to now, all of the resources have come from the three municipalities involved, and this contributes to the sustainability of the internal strategic planning process, thereby reducing disaster risk and contributing to sustainable development.