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Case study: La Paz Municipal Development Project

Alcira Kreimer and Martha Preece

Located high above sea level, in a deep valley surrounded by steeply sloping mountains, La Paz, Bolivia, is heavily subject to landslides and mudflows. Their incidence and severity are exacerbated by the squatter settlements on precarious land that have proliferated with rapid population growth. Reducing the city’s vulnerability to disaster called for strengthening the city’s institutional capabilities and expanding its investment potential, two goals of the La Paz Municipal Development Project that are unlikely to be achieved until there is a continuous municipal administration. Prevention and mitigation efforts often take longer than a policymaker’s term of office, and projects that address risk prevention do not always produce short-term political or economic gains. They must compete with and often lose out to more visible or politically rewarding projects. Given the difficulty of designing and enforcing land-use plans through “regular” channels, it probably makes more sense in a city such as La Paz to decentralize disaster mitigation and to emphasize community participation - to promote awareness of the need for such activities and to design disincentives that steer settlements away from high-risk areas and incentives for using disaster-resistant construction techniques.

Controlling natural risks is particularly important in urban areas. In developing countries in particular, many poor urban settlers, unable to afford properly serviced homesites, are forced to live in high-risk areas. Squatters are a serious threat to the urban environment, as they tend to dwell on precarious sites highly vulnerable to natural disasters.

The Bank has been involved in recovery from and prevention of disasters in several cities in developing countries. In recent years it has emphasized strengthening municipal ability to deal with environmental degradation. In seeking ways to help institutions integrate preventive measures into urban and municipal development efforts, the Bank - together with partner governments - has emphasized: (1) assessing urban vulnerability to natural hazards, (2) strengthening capabilities for managing disaster, and (3) developing efficient disaster prevention programs.

Bolivia’s vulnerability to disaster

About 44 percent of Bolivia’s population (6.9 million in 1988) lives in urban centers. The country’s recent pattern of urbanization is a function of economic factors and the unusually difficult climatic and geographic conditions of the Altiplano and Valles regions, where nearly 80 percent of Bolivians live. Migration to the once flourishing mining centers has given way to increasing flows of people from rural areas and from such mining towns as Oruro and Potosi to larger cities such as La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz.

About 1.2 million people live in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, which is located between 3,500 and 4,000 meters above sea level in a deep valley surrounded by steeply sloping mountains. The city’s vulnerability stems from its location in a narrow valley of unstable soil, broken relief, and torrential erosion that creates often devastating mudflows and landslides. Plessis-Fraissard (1989) describes La Paz as a city experiencing a continuous earthquake. About half of La Paz is unsuitable for development, and the city lacks administrative capability to enforce any land-use plan that restricts settlement in hazardous areas. La Paz has grown tenfold in the past 50 years, and has roughly doubled in size in the last decade. With no planning, low-income neighborhoods have spread up onto the slopes surrounding the city, further destabilizing the landslide-prone mountainside, where surface materials are generally unstable and rocks are liable to fall. Moreover, urbanization has brought deforestation, which further destabilizes the erodible soil. These problems are compounded by a dearth of basic infrastructure and by the common use of urban rivers for garbage disposal. The result is severe, recurrent floods and landslides. Each rainy season (November to March) is a constant threat to life and economic resources. As unstable terrain becomes saturated, houses are washed away. Development should not be allowed or should be controlled on about half of the valley slopes, but the municipal administration and institutions are too weak to design and enforce sound land-use regulations.

The cost of natural disasters. In the last few decades, rapid urban population growth, caused mainly by rural-to-urban migration, has exacerbated the frequency and severity of natural disasters. The damages produced by catastrophic events represent the equivalent of 1.5 percent of the city’s GNP (Masure 1986). Economic analysis suggests that the La Paz Municipal Development Project’s disaster management component would generate an economic rate of return between 24 percent (for landslide control) to 44 percent (for solid waste management and community education). The cost of disaster control would be about US$2.5 million, or $2.50 per capita, but annual losses from property damage alone are about $8 per capita. In other words, annual losses far exceed the cost of risk reduction.

The Bank’s involvement

When a Bank team began to prepare the Municipal Development Project, disaster mitigation in La Paz seemed a pipe dream. Social, political, and economic constraints - and the extent to which large sections of the La Paz region were at risk - seemed formidable. And the site presented serious physical and managerial problems. The main problems were: (1) deficient infrastructure and services, which have contributed to rapid erosion and chronic landslides, (2) a weak municipal administration, particularly in personnel policy and management, and (3) too little policy attention to education and awareness programs that encourage local involvement in prevention activities.

The Bank’s involvement in the La Paz Municipal Development Project was geared to support the government’s strategy of strengthening municipal management of urban development programs through rational land-use planning, suitable building codes, and the provision of basic services. The Bank’s strategy emphasized management and control of natural risks through planning, information, and community organization, taking into account the limits imposed by the area’s natural risks.

The La Paz Urban Development Plan was of great help in formulating the Bank’s disaster management program. The plan was produced by a team of ecogeologists and urban planners, with technical assistance from the French government. Commissioned by the mayor of La Paz in the late 1970s, the plan aimed to strike a balance between the city’s siting restrictions and its future development needs. Relying on a series of environmental and socioeconomic studies, the technical team produced detailed maps identifying areas where natural risk was high and where construction was suitable. According to their studies, only 19 percent of the urban area was suitable for development, rehabilitating another 35 percent of the region was economically viable, and the rest of the land was unfit for urban settlement. Special conservation and preservation measures were recommended, such as the creation of recreational parks and the promotion of agricultural activities and afforestation. The technical report found the potential for urban expansion in the cuenca of La Paz to be extremely limited. Most of its land is unstable and geotechnically unsuited to building and some of the marginal land would require high-cost development for rehabilitation.

Of particular significance were the criteria and methods used to determine the types of prevention and mitigation measures to be implemented. The Bank team tabulated a ten-year inventory of disaster occurrences and property damage in 10 zones in La Paz. The premise of the analysis was that risk and property damage were foreseeable and quantifiable and so, therefore, were strategies to reduce the probability of disaster. Priority for allocating financial resources and for determining the types of mitigation activities to be implemented was then defined by two criteria: the probability of a hazard’s occurrence (imminent, probable, or possible) and its probable gravity (very severe, severe, or slight). Finally, recommended actions and their priorities were synthesized in a time table that included the construction of civil works, land-use planning, and procedures to prevent uncontrolled “irregular settlements.”

The Project

The La Paz Municipal Development Project was designed to help the municipality strengthen its administrative and fiscal capabilities and redress critical shortcomings in hazard control and the city’s infrastructure. About 35 percent of the project was devoted to natural disaster mitigation, mostly of landslides and floods. Risk management was addressed in a comprehensive way, integrating environmental, institutional, and social considerations. The urban development and infrastructure component addressed disaster management and control by:

· Providing basic services to selected neighborhoods, including water, drainage, and pedestrian walkways.

· Providing flood and erosion control along drainage basins (landslide prevention works and land-use regulations and procedures to prevent irregular settlement).

· Designing and implementing a garbage collection and disposal system and a street cleaning system and developing a laboratory of bromatology and sanitation control.

· Providing community education about urban services, civic duties and responsibilities, and local participation in hazard reduction and emergency recovery activities.

The component to improve local administrative and institutional capabilities focused on:

· Consolidating planning and control.

· Strengthening tax collection, budgeting, and financial and investment planning.

· Increasing revenues from property taxes and improving development planning and the management of urban services.

· Strengthening community relations and promoting local participation.

The urban transport component addressed the low-cost rehabilitation of major access roads, basic improvement of the street network, and the rehabilitation of municipal vehicles and equipment.

The project also aimed to institutionalize disaster management and emergency readiness in La Paz’s municipal agencies. Agencies responsible for different aspects of disaster prevention, mitigation, relief, and recovery were to be coordinated within an efficient organizational framework; contingency plans to facilitate communication after a disaster were to be prepared; and an early warning system, including emergency assistance procedures for disaster victims, was to be established. Municipal employees were to receive training on various disaster-related topics, such as communications, urban planning, flood and landslide control, and infrastructure needs assessment.

Constraints on developing institutional capability

Reducing risk called for strengthening the city’s institutional capabilities and expanding its investment potential. It was estimated that the municipality could invest US$18.0 million per year, or $18 per capita. This would provide the funds needed for maintenance and erosion control works. Little progress has been made so far for several reasons, among them the frequent changes in administration. The project’s long-term objectives of institutional strengthening are unlikely to be achieved without political as well as institutional consensus on long-term goals and priorities. Reorganizing the cadastre to improve public revenues, which is central to project sustainability, has been delayed by protracted technical discussions. A conservative estimate of revenues lost to delays is US$10 million a year.

This is typical of the barriers to achieving realistic disaster mitigation and prevention when an administration lacks continuity. As Persaud (1989) points out, even when cost-benefit analysis indicates the logic of investing in disaster prevention and mitigation activities, politicians and policymakers do not necessarily concur on the priorities. Prevention and mitigation efforts usually have a longer time horizon than the policymakers’ term of office and priorities must survive many competing demands. Projects that address long-term risk prevention do not always produce short-term political or economic gain, so day-to-day planning and more visible or politically rewarding projects often take precedence. The La Paz Municipal Development Project illustrates the financial and administrative difficulties that may be encountered in trying to reduce disaster vulnerability.

The need to create incentives

Despite considerable administrative efforts to control the unplanned expansion of human settlements, population pressures remain and destructive land use continues. Ironically, steps taken to stabilize slopes have encouraged illegal settlements and overpopulation in high-risk zones, undermining efforts at disaster prevention. Aware of the need to control risks, the administration has intensified efforts to encourage sound building practices and to establish the framework needed to promote community participation and to educate citizens about hazard control. Reversing La Paz’s land-use pattern will take political leadership and appropriate policy changes to support community initiatives. To achieve a sustained commitment to disaster prevention and mitigation, the administration should create incentives for local participation and get communities involved meaningfully in construction programs and land-use planning.

As Christian Delvoie (1990) points out, people will not participate in land-use and construction programs they do not perceive to be in their best interests. Local participants in a project must be assured of reaping the benefits of their involvement. La Paz should explore such alternatives to a regulatory approach as providing services, construction materials, and technical assistance to encourage safer building systems. An understanding of social, cultural, and ecological conditions and of people’s perceptions and attitudes must be incorporated in project design. Public education through mass media will help keep future developments from falling victim to natural disasters and must become a priority.

This project achieved four things. First, the civil works, especially the flood and erosion control components, were completed as the result of the municipality’s dynamic entrepreneurial approach. Second, the project paved the way for environmental programs sponsored by the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), the European Community (EC), and the German Technical Assistance Agency (GTZ), among other aid agencies. Third, the project has helped build up the municipality’s investment capabilities, which were negligible before the project. This has increased the level of funding and resources available to finance new actions. Finally, the Bank’s main contribution to this project has been the promotion of risk management as an integrated process.

This project illustrates the need for a flexible approach to helping governments in hazard prevention and mitigation efforts. Planning and control of land use require incentives and the full participation and support of local communities. Given the administrative and institutional difficulties of designing and enforcing land-use plans through “regular” channels, emphasis should be placed on developing in the people a strong sense of control in coping with natural disasters. Emphasizing the social nature of natural disasters calls for a proactive rather than a reactive stance. Developing disincentives for steering settlement away from high-risk areas and incentives for using disaster-resistant construction techniques is probably the best approach to setting realistic mitigation and prevention goals for a city such as La Paz.