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close this book A world safe from natural disasters
close this folder Chapter 3: What puts Latin America and the Caribbean at risk?
View the document Natural hazards in Latin America and the Caribbean
View the document Geological hazards
View the document Hydrometeorolocical hazards
View the document Vulnerability
View the document The relationship between disaster and development
View the document Risk in Latin America and the Caribbean


A close relation exists between vulnerability to disasters and socioeconomic development. For example, the accelerated rate of urbanization in Latin America contributes to its vulnerability, and also leads to environmental degradation and to poverty, which in turn lead to the use of inadequate construction techniques. Other factors such as population growth and low levels of education are related closely to the problem of vulnerability.

The Accelerated Rate of Urbanization

Most developing countries worldwide have witnessed a rapid rate of growth in their urban population, while in developed countries, it has declined. This growth is not only due to birth rates, but to the trend to migrate from rural to urban areas, especially among population groups of limited resources that look to the cities for better access to services and greater sources of income. The result is often the creation of perilously situated settlements on the fringes of large urban areas.


Natural disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean have invariably shown that those with lime income and a poor quality of housing suffer disproportionately when disaster strikes. The poor, with lower levels of education, often live in improvised settlements in highly vulnerable locations, such as the slums on the landslide-prone hills of Rio de Janeiro, the slopes of volcanoes, or riverbanks. During periods of drought, the most affected are those who cannot acquire food. Most often, hunger results from a lack of money to purchase food rather than from the lack of food itself. Poverty is also the greatest cause of both internal and international migration, which poses serious challenges in terms of immediate assistance, as well as in long-term development efforts.

A study by UNDRO (1988) estimated that 95% of the deaths caused by disasters occurred among 66% of the population of the world's poorer countries. In Japan, for example, an average of 63 per sons die each year because of natural disasters. In Peru, a country with a similar incidence of disasters, the toll is 2,900.

Latin America and the Caribbean share a problem common to many parts of the world: not only do the poor receive a disproportionate share of the impact of the disaster itself, but they also are at a disadvantage during the rehabilitation and reconstruction phases. Prior to a disaster, this group depends on their limited income, often generated at home, for their daily survival. A disaster not only robs them of their source of income, but they cannot absorb the additional expense of purchasing materials for reconstruction. This accelerates the poverty cycle, which, in turn, heightens vulnerability to disasters.

Vulnerability of Constructions

The type of construction, as well as population density in the areas of greatest hazard, increase vulnerability. It is estimated that almost 90% of the victims of earthquakes are injured by the collapse of buildings, as was the case in Nicaragua in 1972 and in Guatemala in 1976. A similar situation occurred in Dominica in 1979 and Montserrat in 1989, where an estimated 90% of the housing that collapsed was due to non-compliance with hurricane or wind-resistant codes.

Most old constructions in Latin America, both housing and institutions, are made of adobe and unreinforced masonry. Adobe houses do not resist earthquakes in the same way as wood structures, which are lighter and more flexible. The weight of the clay tile roofs of many of these structures also contributes to their instability, as was the case in the earthquake of Guatemala, where many died as a result of collapsed buildings.

To a great extent in the Region, the infrastructure of basic services such as water and energy is old, and many countries lack the resources to maintain it properly. Weak infrastructure poses a great obstacle to providing uninterrupted services. In times of disaster, hospitals and educational facilities, which over decades have undergone structural modifications without taking into account safety considerations, put already vulnerable groups - children, the sick, and the poor - at greater risk.

Environmental Factors

The environment surrounding human settlements contributes to disasters. In some cases, these surroundings cannot be modified and people must learn to adapt to avoid the serious consequences inherent to the location. For example, soil type is a determining factor as to why earthquakes cause more damage in some places than in others. The earthquake of 1985 in Mexico had its epicenter off the coast of the state of Guerrero, 350 km to the southwest of Mexico City. The coastal city closest to the epicenter, Acapulco, suffered only minor damages, but the capital was devastated. Mexico City was constructed on the site of the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochitlán. Over the centuries, the lake which surrounded the Aztec capital as a moat had shrunk, leaving deep layers of clay, sand, and gravel beneath the surface. Unlike solid rock, Mexico City's soil transmitted seismic waves as rocking motions, similar to ocean swells, which many edifices could not withstand (see Box 3.6).

In other cases, man's attempts to modify his surroundings contribute to disaster situations. Deforestation, environmental degradation, and the irrational use of land create precarious conditions that multiply the effects of disasters. For example, deforestation leads to water runoff which contributes to flooding and landslides; the destruction of mangroves reduces the ability of coastal regions to resist tropical winds and high waves.

The use of advanced technology in commercial agricultural production can be harmful. When machines are used to farm fertile areas of a country, the rural labor force loses its source of employment and has no recourse but to move R. more marginal areas.

Drought conditions often are exacerbated by inadequate growing patterns, excess of pasture lands, indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources, deforestation, or inappropriate land conservation techniques. Deforestation in Haiti, due partially to the exportation of fine woods, and to the lack of fuel, contributed to drought conditions in this country. In Latin America, approximately one fifth of the territory is threatened by desertification, which can leave in its wake social unrest, conflicts, and mass migrations, in addition to hunger and disease.


Box 3.6


An earthquake of extraordinary magnitude, 8.1 on the Richter scale, caused extensive damage in a densely populated area of downtown Mexico City on 19 September 1985. The earthquake and its aftershocks caused the deaths of more than 10,000 persons; tens of thousands were injured and left homeless.

Approximately 33,600 dwellings were destroyed and 65,000 more suffered considerable damage. The health sector facilities were especially hard hit, with many hospitals and clinics destroyed. Nearly one fifth of the schools in the city were destroyed or seriously damaged. Also seriously damaged or destroyed were the water, electrical, and telecommunications systems in the central city.

The direct losses were estimated at $US3.8 billion. These losses included the urban infrastructure, public service facilities and their equipment, housing, heath and educational facilities, communications, small industry and businesses. The indirect losses were estimated at $US544 million and included the decrease of income and the increase in costs to small industry and business, communications, tourism, and the personal services sector. The total losses caused by the earthquake amounted to $US4.4 billion, making this natural disaster one of the most damaging in recent years in the Region.

More serious than the absolute losses is the effect which the rehabilitation and reconstruction had on the macro economics of Mexico. The effects are especially significant considering that the total losses represented only 2.7% of the GDP of Mexico. However, the disaster occurred at a time when the government was applying a policy of austerity in public expenditures; thus, banks had limited assets to meet the increased demand for credit and more external restrictions were foreseen. In the five years following the earthquake, the negative effect in the balance of payments reached US$ 8.6 billion in spite of considerable income from insurance and foreign donations. The fiscal deficit increased approximately $US 1.9 billion due to the expenses of rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The demands of the reconstruction required the Mexican authorities to revise their economic policy to accommodate greater needs for public funding, credits, and imports. The priorities for public expenditures were reoriented to reconstruction projects leaving many of the pre-disaster problems of the city unattended.

Source: Jovel, ECLAC, 1985. Reprinted from Disasters and Development. UNDP/UNDRO. 1991