By Danilo Valladares
The growing frequency of weather-related disasters in Central America has led to greater organizational efforts for risk management and emergency response. But during the most recent storm in the region, the fruits of these efforts were still not visible.
The latest tragedy to strike Central America was Tropical Depression 12-E: at the time of writing, a total of 91 fatalities had been recorded, while more than a million people suffered some form of losses and damages in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Guatemala. And this does not include the damages to agriculture and infrastructure, which will take more time to assess.
The storm reached the region on Oct. 12, and since then there has been an endless series of emergency situations created by flooded rivers, landslides and collapsing buildings.
The governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua declared a “state of calamity” to gain speedier access to funds for emergency relief work.
According to Williams De León of the Volunteer Firefighters of Guatemala, the fear instilled by deadly Hurricane Mitch (1998) and greater inter-institutional coordination has led to a change of attitude toward disaster risks.
“A lot of people realized that Guatemala is very vulnerable to the climate and now they are more organized,” he told Tierramérica.
Since 2004, disaster committees have been created at the regional, departmental (provincial) and local levels, with representatives of all levels of government, the private sector and civil society groups involved in emergency relief and prevention.
A 2010 standard established basic criteria for construction, and in July safety standards were established for public buildings.
The firefighters have reported an increase in requests for risk assessments by both public and private institutions, particularly those seeking to align themselves with international standards such as ISO 31000:2009, which provides principles and generic guidelines on risk management.
Nevertheless, “there is still a need for more safety standards, the allocation of more resources for risk management, and taking the issue to the classrooms: we need to promote a general culture of prevention,” said De León.
For his part, activist Guido Calderón of the non-governmental Citizens’ Alliance for Risk Management of Guatemala believes that the most effective strategy is to “give greater importance to what is cheapest, which is prevention. But we haven’t managed to do it yet,” he commented to Tierramérica.
For example, the National Coordinating Committee for Disaster Reduction, with an annual budget of five million dollars, was not even able to pay the salaries of its 238 employees, much less respond “efficiently” to the recent emergency situations, reported the committee’s secretary, Alejandro Maldonado.
Over the last 12 years, since Hurricane Mitch, which was followed by Stan (2005) and Agatha (2010), the region has seen thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of people affected, and severe economic losses and damages that have further worsened the prospects of impoverished populations, especially in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
There is no longer any doubt that the reason for this rise in extreme weather events is global warming.
“The natural variability of the climate has increased in frequency and intensity,” José Milán, director of the Center for Climate Change Research and Technology Transfer at the University of Commercial Sciences of Nicaragua, told Tierramérica.
“In the last 30 years, the temperature in this country has increased one degree, while the global temperature has risen 0.7 degrees over the course of a century. Precipitation has decreased by between six and 10 percent in the Pacific, and has increased 25 percent in the Caribbean,” he noted.
What can the region expect? “Damage to crops of corn, beans, rice and coffee, which are very important for food security; decreased availability of water; significant damage to biodiversity and infrastructure; and an increase in diseases like leptospirosis and dengue,” he replied.
Milán believes it is urgent to strengthen regional risk management institutions and build civil society capacities for disaster response.
But Central America also needs to speak with a single voice in discussions on climate change.
The region accounts for less than 0.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2009 report, “The Economics of Climate Change in Latin America and the Caribbean”.
But it is one of the regions hardest hit by the impacts of climate change, and extreme weather events are expected to increase by between five and 10 percent in intensity this century, says the same report, published by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
René Ramos, coordinator of the non-governmental Program for Capacity Building in Disaster Risk Management in Central America, based in El Salvador, believes that prevention is “the best” that governments can do after dealing with emergencies.
Risk management should be “an integrated effort, which involves all sectors of society, since it is not merely a problem of ministries of the environment or public works,” he maintained.
Some progress has been made. The 2010-2013 operating plan for the Center for Disaster Prevention Coordination in Central America includes measures ranging from strengthening technical know-how to creating a network of shelters for the displaced.
The region’s governments also adopted the Central American Policy for Integrated Risk Management in 2010.
But in practice, little has changed. In this region of 43 million people, not a single country has adopted a land use and zoning law aimed at eradicating the longstanding practice of building homes on mountain slopes and river banks.
Even worse, according to Calderón, in Guatemala natural disasters are viewed as a source of income by government officials and businesspeople who make “juicy deals” with funds allocated for reconstruction efforts.