Latin America needs to improve disaster risk management, bank says
Written by: Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Governments in Latin America and the Caribbean need to do more to reduce the adverse economic and social impacts of natural disasters and allocate more funding to better cope with and respond to catastrophes, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
Unless governments focus more on disaster risk reduction, the region faces potentially crippling economic and social costs from natural disasters, including an expected increase in climate change-related disasters, according to the latest index on disaster risk management published by the IDB this week.
The IDB's index, first developed in 2005, aims to help Latin American governments better identify, gauge and reduce the risk caused by natural disasters.
Despite efforts to improve disaster risk management in the region as a whole, countries continue to lag, the bank said. Every country analyzed in the index showed unsatisfactory levels of disaster risk management, said Sergio Lacambra, a senior specialist in natural disasters and disaster risk management for Latin America and the Caribbean at the IDB.
"Governments, mayors and municipalities need to focus on risk identification," Lacambra told AlertNet in a phone interview from Washington. That includes identifying which communities face risks, better assessing the level of risk in each of those communities and finding out more about volcanic activity and earthquakes in regions at risk, he said.
COST OF NATURAL DISASTERS
Economic losses following natural disasters have increased in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent decades.
From 2000 to 2009, earthquakes, floods and tropical storms caused $34 billion in economic losses in the region, according to the IDB.
The IDB risk index shows that if Peru were hit today by a high-magnitude earthquake - similar to the one that hit Chile earlier this year - it could suffer economic losses of up to $15.8 billion, depending on the location of the quake's epicenter. A similar event could cause losses of up to $5.2 billion in Mexico and $3.8 billion in Colombia.
The IDB report singles out Central America and the Caribbean, in particular Honduras and Nicaragua, as the places in the region least equipped to cope with the impact of natural disasters and facing potentially the highest economic losses.
The countries are particularly susceptible both because they lie at the edge of the Caribbean hurricane belt and because they are among the poorest and least-developed nations in the region, which leaves them with fewer resources to deal with disasters.
Among the factors exacerbating the growing disaster risk in the region are climate change - which can bring more extreme weather - as well as population growth, unchecked rapid urbanization, poor land use, and deforestation.
Local governments need to play a more important role in urban planning in order to order to reduce the growing risk, the report said.
Municipal authorities need to enforce building regulations and make sure private companies respect them, in particular ensuring buildings are quake-resistant, Lacambra said.
With the exception of Haiti, most governments in the region have made progress in planning for emergencies caused by natural disasters, including setting up early warning systems and devising evacuation routes.
But much more needs to be done to reduce the risk posed by natural disasters, the report said. Instead of waiting for a disaster to take place, government authorities need to be asking what can be done now to minimize risk, Lacambra said.
LACK OF GOOD DATA
Planning for disasters brought on by more extreme weather events associated with climate change is a particular problem, he said, because knowledge about the potential impacts of such disasters at a community level is lacking.
Latin American governments are struggling to understand just how severe climate-related impacts will be, and how many people may be affected in the future, he said.
One problem is that climate change scenarios now available are too general to suggest specific impacts at community level. Further investment is required to translate climate change models and scenarios to the appropriate level of resolution for decision-making at the local community level, Lacambra said.
Scaling up and improving disaster risk management practices - including building protective walls along rivers, improving urban planning, building cyclone shelters, resettling communities living in flood-prone areas, protecting forests and coastal areas, and planting trees to prevent mudslides - are all initiatives governments can undertake to reduce the impact of natural disasters while mitigating the effects of climate change.
But getting governments to invest in such measures is often not easy.
"Politicians follow short-term instincts," Lacambra said, and getting them to pay to prevent disasters likely to occur after their term of office is difficult, he said.
The IDB is urging Latin American governments to set up emergency funds and take out disaster insurance plans to soften the economic impact of natural catastrophes rather than rely on expensive loans after a disaster.
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