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close this bookIDNDR - Informs - Number 09-10, Special Edition, 1996 (IDNDR)
close this folderSpecial topic
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentForum: Cities at risk: Environmental degradation and urban disasters
View the documentForum: South America's local governments and disaster management
View the documentParaguay: Pilot project on Asuncion's coastal fringe
View the documentInternational seminar on the role of local governments in disaster prevention and mitigation 23-25 April, 1996
View the documentGovernment of Costa Rica promotes risk reduction program for vulnerable communities
View the documentFirst south American conference on local governments and organizations confronting disasters and emergencies

Forum: South America's local governments and disaster management

Maria Augusta Fernandez, Ecuador

Wally N'Dow, Secretary General of the Habitat II Conference, reports that by the year 2000 half of humanity will live in cities. By 2030, the urban population will be twice as large as that in rural areas. Peace and security, he claims, will not be achieved in a world in which growth is accompanied by the expansion of poverty. True security can only be attained when people's welfare is the guiding concern: health, safe and productive lives in an environment that encourages the full development of human potential.

South America's cities are no exception. Local governments cannot remain indifferent to the many problems their cities face. There have been significant strides in productivity and health, but little has been achieved in terms of safety.

South America's local governments have begun searching for measures to improve the safety of their communities. This new trend can be attributed to various factors, among them:

· The frequency, complexity and consequences of disasters have been on the increase as a result of the growing number of hazards caused by human action. Vulnerability has increased, particularly in urban areas, due to conditions such as high population growth rates, low income patterns among the majority of the population, lack of adequate infrastructure, the urbanization and feminization of poverty, an unequal distribution of public resources, lack of planning and homegrown development models, among others.

· The decentralization process under way in most South American countries empowers communities to deal with their own problems.

· Communities' awareness that their elected officials represent their interests better than central governments. They are better at responding to the need for infrastructure, mobilizing local resources, promoting participation and bringing people together to solve their own problems. By communities, we mean both the public and private sector, grassroots organizations and ordinary citizens.

· Central governments recognize that they cannot deal by themselves with the safety challenges posed by rapid and unplanned urban growth. Community demands, based on their own needs, offer the best routes to promoting political changes at the national level.

An evaluation carried out by USAID in 1996 in a number of South American local communities revealed a wide variety of institutionalized mechanisms for disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness on the part of local governments. Some examples:

· The City Council of Libertador, part of Greater Caracas, Venezuela, was not daunted by the lack of a clear national legal framework defining the role of local governments in safety matters. It went ahead and established the Municipal System of Emergency Mitigation and Response, made up of three committees: the Community Education Committee concentrates on awareness raising among the general population regarding what actions to take in the event of a disaster the Investigations Committee looks into the causes of disasters; and the Operations Committee is in charge of making sure that all logistical elements are in place if disaster strikes. During an emergency or disaster, all relevant institutions come together in an Emergency Operations Committee.

· Asuncion City Council in Paraguay set up a Municipal Emergency Council to design the Municipal Disaster Prevention and Response System. The Municipal System's structure is similar to the one proposed by the Central Government as a replacement for the current, outdated National System. The Municipal System assigns relevant community institutions and groups to a Prevention and Mitigation Committee and a Preparedness and Response Committee.

· Within the framework of the National Civil Defense Act, Quito City Council in Ecuador passed a by-law decreeing the establishment of the Municipal Emergency Risk Mitigation and Response System. The System covers not only natural disasters but also everyday emergencies, and contemplates mechanisms to prepare local authorities and emergency personnel, trough drills and other daily exercises, to ensure they can respond to catastrophic events.


When risk factors and public safety are included as basic components of local planning and management, the first crucial steps have been taken towards the establishment of sustainable cities.

The concept of "urban disaster" differs from the traditional definition of disaster, usually related to catastrophic events. In cities, more people die as a result of traffic accidents or polluted water or food, than as a result of earthquakes. Small but frequent urban landslides are not reported by the press as disasters, but if we look at cumulative impact we find they cause more loss of life and economic losses every year than those rare landslides identified as catastrophic.

Far from being purely physical phenomena, disasters have a strong political connotation. Should elected officials wait until a catastrophic event has hit their constituencies before they include in their agendas prevention and response strategies'? Should local governments take the initiative in developing institutionalized risk management mechanisms, or should they wait for changes in national legislation?

Moreover, the need to involve local authorities hi disaster management is self-evident. They are in the best position to respond to community needs when the normal functioning of a city has been disrupted. They are constantly responding to urban disasters, whether their role has been institutionalized or not. There is an urgent need to discuss how to turn this de facto response into a formal item in the municipal agenda. Although there are few examples of models fully in place in the region's municipalities. there is a wealth of experiences which can provide many valuable lessons. We who are accountable to local urban communities must learn these lessons and apply them.

Decenio Internacional para la Reducción de los Desastres Naturales DIRDN 1990-2000

Is it time, for instance, to incorporate risk management in all investments, both public and private, made in South America's cities?

How should local authorities and the community be trained to play a successful role in risk and public safety management?

Traditionally, local governments and communities have given priority to infrastructure, education and health. But surveys show that safety is also considered crucial. Perhaps it is time to view safety, in the widest possible sense, as an urban service.

Maria Augusta Fernandez is Region al Disaster Consultant for the Regional Urban Housing and Development Office for South America of the U.S. Agency for International Development. You may contact her by e-mail at the following address:

mfernandez @


The National Emergency Bureau (ONEMI) of the Ministry of the Interior, in accordance with the Chilean government's modernization strategy, pays special attention to the need for coordination by strengthening the institutional technical role and convening all relevant actors, without excluding any organizational level.

In this sense, institutional development is fully compatible with ONEMl's role as an inter-sectoral planning and coordinating department and its mandate to incorporate hazard, vulnerability, risk and resource assessments into the country's development plans.

This process of modernization is guided by the clear understanding that protecting the population from natural or anthropic hazards is part of the comprehensive protection which every citizen seeks and is entitled to. Efficient and effective response calls for political, cultural and economic decisions that can greatly benefit society, particularly the most disadvantaged of its members.

Therefore, urban planning must be part of a process that integrates disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness. One of the main goals of urban planning is to guarantee physical safety in the event of adverse phenomena. Disaster mitigation will be achieved by adapting in an appropriate manner to the causal factors of disasters, as well as by adopting measures to counteract accumulated vulnerability conditions.

ONEMI has signed an agreement with the Chilean Association of Municipalities to ensure that these concerns are taken up at the local level.


The emphasis placed by ONEMl on its Institutional Development Project is based on a management policy designed to be congruent with its mandate. It must be understood as a commitment to action at the service of citizens. Efficiency and effectiveness in public administration are valuable not in themselves but instrumentally, to the extent that they help to reach a substantive objective: improving the community's quality of life. This conception has guided ONEMI's institutional work in the development of three strategic components of emergency management during and after an event:

· Education is crucial for the promotion and dissemination of a culture of prevention and mitigation. What is required is changes in lifestyles and attitudes.

· Infrastructure can only be considered holistically if it is correlated to emergency and disaster mitigation.

· Fighting poverty will remain ineffective untiI adequate emergency and disaster prevention and mitigation policies are in place, since society's most vulnerable groups are always worst hit by such events.

All efforts aimed at the country's economic and social development will not be as efficient and effective as hoped for until emergency and disaster management becomes one of their cornerstones. Institutional policies must therefore focus on:

· Preventing natural phenomena from fuming into disasters.

· Mitigating their impact.

· Reducing and, whenever possible, preventing technological disasters.

· Preparing adequately so inevitable disasters cause the least possible damage.

· Coordinating effectively the response to a disaster that has surpassed local response capacity.

Planning does not necessarily culminate with the final draft of a plan. It is an ongoing process that includes preparing and drilling for emergencies and disasters.

For more information, contact: E-mail: