In Wake of Floods, Bank Urges Venezuela to Protect Poor

Proposes policies to prevent loss of life and property
March 7, 2000 - Images of grief and destruction from torrential rains in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Venezuela) last December have been replaced by today's equaling gripping coverage of Cyclone Eline in Mozambique. But the tragedy continues long after the news coverage fades. As Venezuela starts to recover and rebuild, and with the rainy season looming close by, the World Bank is urging the government to take steps now to protect the economy and the poor.

Two weeks of heavy rain on December 15, 1999, resulted in flash floods, laden with soil, vegetation, and debris, hurling down the Avila mountain range to the coast. Areas where dense and informal urban settlements had sprung up over the years were swept under and destroyed. Walls of mud and rock, reaching almost 30 feet, smashed into the Vargas area north of Caracas, leaving behind a scene of destruction that mixed images of floods, earthquakes, and landslides.

The damage is estimated at $3.2 billion, or 3.3 percent of the country's GDP. Property and major infrastructure - such as dams, bridges, transport and electricity services - make up about 60 percent of the direct damage. The grimmest effect was the toll on human life, with at least 20,000 lives claimed. Because the disaster occurred at night, many more families may have disappeared than known. It was the country's worst disaster in 50 years.

The government responded swiftly, rescuing and evacuating some 120,000 people. About 200,000 people are still living in temporary shelters or with relatives, receiving assistance from local authorities, NGOs, relief agencies, and the military. Another 200,000 people are still without access to safe water in the state of Miranda. The huge task of clearing debris is ongoing, river channels are being cleaned, and the authorities are providing basic infrastructure and social services in affected areas.

"We can help Venezuela recover from this terrible human tragedy," says World Bank Country Director Andres Solimano, "and put in place the policies and mechanisms to ensure that whatever the vagaries of nature, their effect will not be so devastating."

"We are hoping to redirect existing operations swiftly to re-establish basic services," says Danny Leipziger, who heads the Finance, Private Sector Development and Infrastructure Department in the Latin America and Caribbean Region, "while at the same time working with the government to prevent future tragedies through better land-use."

Solimano and Leipziger's team several weeks ago presented to the World Bank's Board of Directors a proposal to do just that. It comes as the Bank in early February launched the Provention Consortium, a coalition of international partners that, among other things, will focus on building capacity in low-income countries to anticipate and prepare for catastrophes. (Click here for a related story.)

"Venezuela does not have the institutions in place to do this," says Arnaud Guinard, Coordinator of Disaster Management in the Bank's Latin America and Caribbean region. Guinard, in his presentation to the Board, said that Venezuela cannot afford any delays in setting up an effective response system. His proposal would help Venezuela build its capacity for mapping out risk-prone and vulnerable areas, and strengthen its disaster management system. Under the proposal, the Bank would also help Venezuela with dam safety, urban land-use planning, and regulations, and would provide financing to restore water services and for environmental management.

After the flood, the Bank's first emergency team arrived in Venezuela as soon as airports reopened in early January and began the process of prioritizing and strategic planning, providing policy advice which the country has now embraced, and restructuring loans to provide assistance. The Bank is now preparing plans for possible additional emergency financial support. Meanwhile, the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the Bank, in January approved a $30 million supplementary loan to help restore electricity.

"We need political commitment at the highest level," says Solimano, "and working with the government and the international community, we can help put in place the institutions needed to ensure that preventable deaths are prevented in the future."

Today thanks Joelle Dehasse with LAC for contributing this story, which was prepared for LAClink.