Latin American Red Cross helps cut disaster risks
LONDON (AlertNet) - Disasters triggered by natural events killed 79,000 people in the Americas in the last 10 years, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
Red Cross representatives told AlertNet that advance planning and mapping risks were essential, although many people in the continent were vulnerable because of precarious housing and poor health access.
"The numbers of people affected in the United States and Canada are insignificant compared with countries such as Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala or Bolivia," said Pilar Morales Alliende, press coordinator of the Chilean Red Cross,
According to the 2002 IFRC World Disasters Report, poor people are usually hardest hit by disasters.
"They are more likely to occupy dangerous, less desirable locations, such as flood plains, river banks, steep slopes and reclaimed land," it says.
According to the reportPoor people are additionally vulnerable because capital assets bought with loans -- such as a sewing machine or a cow -- can be instantly destroyed in a disaster, leaving them with a heavy debt and no means of making a livelihood.
However, Morales told AlertNet: "Poverty is not the only risk factor. Ineffective building codes can permit construction companies to work in high risk sites.
"For example, when a Colombian volcano erupted in 1985, it devastated a city of 20,000 people, killing rich and poor. Wealth or poverty cannot save anyone, but a timely warning and an adequate risk map would have helped."
The Red Cross worked with communities to map risks, Morales said.
She said that the IFRC Pan-American Disaster Response Unit (PADRU), which is based in Panama, made sure that aid was distributed quickly and efficiently, at the same time as cementing local-level capacity for prevention, preparation and response and encouraging communities to create risk maps.
PADRU was established in early 2001.
"PADRU facilitates the acquisition and distribution of aid supplies within 24 hours, once a request is received," Morales said.
A Red Cross Inter-American Conference held in Chile last month, attended by Red Cross societies from throughout the Americas, came up with a regional action plan highlighting disaster mitigation and access to health services.
Every year, hundreds of Latin Americans are killed in scattered incidents of landslides and floods.
Mexican Interior Minister Santiago Creel said that the rainy season would begin this week, and he expected it to be a difficult year.
"The challenge our country faces from rains and hurricanes, especially on the coasts, is truly colossal," he said.
The hurricane season -- which affects Mexico and Central America from May to November -- batters both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts every year.
"All we can do is minimise the risks, minimise the harmful effects," Creel said.
Much of the continent lies along fault lines, and is vulnerable to active volcanoes and strong earthquakes.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated much of Central America, killing 18,000 people in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
"Hurricane Mitch set back the development of Honduras by 20 years," said Morales.
Massive mudslides in 1999 killed 30,000 people in Venezuela, and the following year two earthquakes a month apart killed 1,000 people in El Salvador.
Floods in Argentina in May 2003 killed at least 22 in the province of Santa Fe, and the Red Cross provided assistance to thousands of people evacuated from their homes.
Carola Gimenez of the Argentine Red Cross told AlertNet that the area was generally prepared for disasters, but in this case water had seeped into houses from the ground, something that would have been difficult to prevent.
She said flooding was receding, but infectious diseases were a problem.
The Inter-American conference focused on the problem of lack of access to health care, with 25 percent of the population of the Americas unable to access health services.
Morales said that Red Cross societies in the Americas were active in preventing and monitoring malaria, dengue fever and diarrhoea, providing health care for women and children, encouraging blood donation, first aid and local capacity.
"We also fight against stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS, working on prevention, assistance and support."
Morales said that access to health services could not be separated from poverty. "There is still a disparity between countries and among different groups within the population, so the poorest and most disadvantaged are the most vulnerable."
Gimenez said that Argentina's economic and political crisis had taken its toll. "There's more poverty, more malnutrition, more unemployment," she said.
She said the Red Cross was active in distributing food in the province of Tucumán. "It's one of the poorest in the country."
Morales said that some countries were successful in disaster mitigation, despite their poverty. "In Cuba, efficient planning and information dissemination through state media allows them to undertake evacuation procedures across the country almost simultaneously, as they did for Hurricane Michelle (in 2001).
"This shows that Red Cross societies need to conduct work in conjunction with governments, incorporating risk plans, urban development planning and disaster preparation."
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