Reducing disasters and avoiding economic and environmental losses: A priority in the Americas

Panama hosted the first session of the Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas.

Foto: Gustavo Wilches-Chaux

Foto: © Gustavo Wilches-Chaux

On March 17-19, 2009, representatives of governments, international institutions, NGOs, the academic and the scientific sectors, and focal points from each country in the region gathered at the Hotel El Panama to discuss how to reduce disasters in the Americas and how to make progress in identifying effective and priority areas aimed at achieving the goals established in the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA).

In this context, key aspects identified must be developed in the near future if we strive to make significant progress in the Americas. These aspects include the need to strengthen inter-institutional activities, the coordination of disaster reduction, climate change and development agendas, the strengthening of local actions and the empowerment of all communities involved.

Almost two years after the first session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, and only a few months before its second session, held in Geneva, Switzerland, the regional meeting took place in Panama. The event was organized by the United Nations Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR/Americas) and the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States, through the Executive Secretariat for Integral Development, and the Department of Sustainable Development (OAS/DSD).

The growing number of disasters in most countries of the Americas, as well as the existing level of vulnerability —particularly in countries and communities with a low development index and high poverty levels— make it necessary for countries of the region, cooperation agencies, institutions of the Inter-American and the United Nations systems, regional organizations, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, civil society, and the academic and scientific communities to join efforts.

The outcome sought by these joint efforts is clearly defined in the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters: “The substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries.” During the regional meeting, discussions were held to find ways to pursue this goal.

In the Americas, the 1994 Cartagena Declaration, the Yokohama Declaration and the Hyogo Framework for Action identify the links between risk and development. Only through sustainable development we can achieve safer, more resilient lifestyles and, hence, reduce risk not only related to disasters but to other key aspects of peoples’ lives and ecosystems.

During the three-day meeting, four plenary and nine thematic sessions were held. Each plenary and thematic session had a moderator, a rapporteur, and panelists who were identified ahead of time.

The outcomes of each session are available at

The thematic sessions of the meeting were: 1) Interinstitutional Mechanisms, Networks and National Platforms; 2) Heath and Safe Hospitals; 3) Water and Sanitation; 4) Urban Environments, Risk Reduction and Development; 5) Climate Chance and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR); 6) Education; 7) Communications; 8) Local Development, Risk Reduction and Good Governance; and 9) Knowledge and Information Management. Both the conclusions and presentations of each session are available online.

Pablo Gonzalez, from the OAS Department of Sustainable Development, stated that the Americas are perhaps the region with the most advanced positions on the issue of disaster reduction, adopted by the OAS member States. the Inter-American Strategic Plan for Policy on Vulnerability Reduction, Risk Management and Disaster Response (IASP), adopted in 2003 at the thirty-third regular session of the General Assembly, is a milestone in the Americas and a benchmark for the OAS as it moves away from the prevailing focus on humanitarian assistance towards integrated and multilateral cooperation for addressing the underlying causes of natural disasters: poverty, environmental degradation, the lack of risk assessment in public and private investments, and the lack of integration of risk management into development policy and planning in each productive, economic and social sector.

GS/OAS, PAHO, IICA and other Inter-American organizations must work together to avoid duplications and achieve a more effective and efficient level of cooperation. Regional intergovernmental organizations, such as SICA, CARICOM, ACS and CAN, must also work together.

Salvano Briceño, UNISDR Director, referred to the need to link Inter-American institutions with the capacity of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction system which, undoubtedly “will result in a stronger and more effective framework to support the needs of governments and communities throughout the region. This first session of the Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction represents a milestone in the development of new regional and global alliances and in strengthening the ties established in recent years.” Mr. Briceño also stated that, “It is very likely that the Copenhagen agreement, expected to be adopted in December 2009 or early 2010, will include natural hazard risk and vulnerability reduction as a key component for climate change adaptation. Should this be the case, governments will have more resources at their disposal for implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action.”


Approximately 300 people participated in the first session of the Regional Platform, including representatives of national governments and ministries, UN agencies, NGOs, international cooperation and financial institutions, the private sector and the technical scientific community. About 140 of those registered were from the countries of the region and 103 were from international and regional inter-governmental organizations, among others.

Out of the total of country participants, 39% were from Central America, 30% from South America, 20% from the Caribbean, and 11% from North America (the United States, Canada, and Mexico). During the plenary sessions, presentations were made by representatives of the Inter-American system, focusing on a vision of and an integrated perspective on risk management within the ACS, CARICOM, CAN and SICA systems. In addition, the conclusions of three independent studies in Central America, by David Smith, the hemisphere, by Stephen Bender, and the Caribbean States, by Franklin McDonald, were presented.

Key messages

  • The issue has been gaining political space in the region;
  • Better networking and horizontal cooperation is being achieved;
  • The emphasis of actions is still on response, although serious DRR research efforts can been seen, but they are still not linked to decision-making;
  • The need to continue counting on international cooperation and technical assistance is required by both countries and organizations;
  • It is foreseen that disasters will generate an enormous impact in different countries, especially regarding climate-related events;
  • The impact that the Hyogo Framework for Action has had on the design of policies and strategies in the different sub-regions and countries stands out. The HFA is often used as a reference point;
  • There is the need to link the development agenda to the ones related to disaster reduction and adaptation to climate change;
  • There is the need to invite civil society and get it more involved so that all its segments join and are part of the national, sub-regional and regional platforms; and
  • Risks should be looked at globally, but with DRR actions at the local level, and to this end, they should be included in a common agenda for the future.

The Regional Platform for the Americas is being established as a process and not as an administrative or organic structure, and is grounded in institutional arrangements and regional and sub-regional intergovernmental agencies, primarily the Inter-American system (OAS/GS, IDB, PAHO, IICA, etc.) and regional systems (MERCOSUR, CAN, CARICOM, SICA and ACS). The Regional Platform also includes other segments, such as academia and universities, NGOs, financial institutions, multilateral and bilateral donors.

The Regional Platform will be recognized by its political and strategic work, providing support to the National Platforms. Cooperating agencies are encouraged to continue supporting those countries and States that are the most vulnerable to disasters. In addition, the OAS/GS and the UNISDR are urged to convene a new session of the Regional Platform, which is expected to take place in 2011.

The meeting of the Regional Platform concluded with the participants’ commitment to devoting efforts so that disaster risk reduction in the Americas becomes a reality and not only an issue to be discussed and analyzed.