Contingency plans for coping with disasters: A need that cannot be postponed

Foto: J. Jenkings

Foto: © J. Jenkings


This article is based on a presentation called “Methodological Aspects of a Contingency Plan” made by the author (who was then a member of the Commission’s Technical Committee) at the “Bi-national Seminar for the Development of a Modus Operandi on Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in Cases of Emergency and for the Preservation of Ecosystems,” held in San Cristobal on June 28 and 29, 1991 at the meeting of the Colombian- Venezuelan Commission for Border Issues.

Both the presentation and this article are based primarily on the experiences gained during the development of the “Contingency Plan of the Eastern Coast of Lake Maracaibo,” better known as Plan COLM, and the activities taken by the author during the last few years in the field of disaster risk reduction.

Risk reduction management in Venezuela

The disasters caused by the hydro-meteorological phenomenon that battered a considerable portion of Venezuela in December 1999 (see “Un experto damnificado o un damnificado experto,” EIRD Informa, Number 1, 2000 and “A cinco años de la tragedia de Vargas,” EIRD Informa, Number 11, 2005), and other hydro-meteorological related disasters that have continued to hit the country since then, have made it clear once again that there is an urgent need to prepare our population to cope with these disasters, regardless of their origin (natural, technological, anthropogenic, or environmental) through preparedness, dissemination of information, and the development of appropriate contingency plans.

These plans will not eliminate the negative effects of such disasters on the population, the environment, and the infrastructure, but it will contribute to mitigating them.

While isolated and local efforts have been made in Venezuela in this sense (I refer to the Contingency Plan for the Eastern Coast of Venezuela, known as PLAN COLM), we are very far from having local, municipal, state, and regional plans within a national policy of disaster risk mitigation. This article aims to present the most relevant conceptual aspects of a contingency plan, regardless of its area of implementation (local, municipal, state, regional, or national), as well as the problems that must be addressed when preparing for disasters, disseminating information, and establishing plans, and what some of the solutions to those problems might be.

The importance of contingency plans

The need to plan and prepare to prevent and mitigate the effects of disasters is not as evident as it should be, since there is a resistance on the part of the population in general and of the ruling class in particular to confronting an inevitable truth: disasters arising from natural phenomena have occurred, do occur and will continue to occur.

This resistance is understandable in some ways, but it is not necessarily acceptable. In a world like ours, wracked by thousands of problems, and with millions of people seeking to meet urgent needs, it seems almost natural that our decision-makers (whether government officials or private enterprise leaders) would tend to be involved in solving the most immediate day-to-day problems, leaving the less immediate problems for later. Less immediate problems are not necessarily less important, however, and that is the case with disaster response, mitigation, prevention, and management.

To try to convince —to educate— our political and private enterprise leaders to commit what, in the end, are very modest resources for planning for disaster prevention and mitigation will be a fruitless exercise if we do not keep in mind how low a priority these activities generally are for these leaders. We must begin by raising their awareness and by educating them.

All planning activities (related to the development of contingency plans) include actions to instruct ourselves and others about how to act in a crisis situation. In perhaps more conventional terms, when we talk about training and education, we are referring to the dissemination of information to different audiences, in various ways and at different levels of education —to raise public awareness (defining ahead of time what is “public”).

So far we have been talking about “contingency plans” in one context or another. But perhaps we should talk about “planning” instead of talking about a “plan.” A plan must be dynamic, living. It must be practiced using exercises and drills in the daily life of the people the plan is aimed at. A contingency plan must contribute to raising awareness of risk among the population.

The primary goal of a contingency plan is, therefore, to minimize the social and economic impacts caused by a disaster. The key word here is minimize because no contingency plan, no matter how well designed, prepared, and practiced, will be able to totally eliminate the negative effects of a disaster, regardless of its origin or scale.

A successful contingency plan must:

  • Reduce response time in an emergency, whether there is prior warning (such as in the case of hurricanes, storms, floods, and volcanic eruptions) or not (as is the case with earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides, fires, or explosions).
  • Make systematic, ordered, and efficient what would be arbitrary, chaotic, and inefficient without a duly conceived of and practiced plan.
  • Control contingencies through good decisions and consistent actions.
  • Comply with legal standards.

Conceptual framework of a contingency plan

A successful contingency plan must be based on a conceptual framework such as the following:

  • Goal
  • Risk analysis and definition of the affected area
  • Collection and analysis of basic information
  • Mapping
  • Inventory of buildings and service infrastructure • Demographic information (censuses and surveys)
  • Analysis of scenarios/ impact assessment
  • Warnings
  • Development of a specific plan
  • Dissemination of information
  • Training and education (exercises and drills)
  • Updating and refining.

Finally, we must devote more efforts to raise awareness among decision-makers, both government officials and private parties, in order to prepare contingency plans aimed at mitigating the negative effects that disasters due to natural origen have on the population, the environment, and development processes.

For further information, please contact:
Juan Murria
Director, Risk Research Center,
Universidad of Falcon (CIR UDEFA)
Punto Fijo, State of Falcon, Venezuela