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Natural disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean: National, regional and international interactions - A regional case study on the role of the affected state in humanitarian action

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Patricia Weiss Fagen, Georgetown University

HPG Working Paper

1. Introduction

1.1. Latin America and the Caribbean region

Throughout its history the region that encompasses Latin America and the Caribbean - from Mexico south and to the east - has been among the most disaster prone in the world: Volcanoes, earthquakes, droughts and floods - the last, a consequence of the El Niño phenomenon and yearly cycles of major tropical storms widely believed to have been intensified by global warming. Comparing the years 1971-75 with 2002-2005, the frequency of droughts increased 360%, of hurricanes 521%, and of floods 266%.(1) Such increases are evident globally. However, scarcely a country in the region, which has a population of approximately 500 million, has escaped serious damage from disasters within the past two to three years. There is no single catastrophe of the dimension of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the 2008 Chinese earthquake, but the disasters affecting the region are relentless, frequent, and locally highly destructive. Approximately three-quarters of the population is estimated to live in at-risk areas,(2) and one-third live in areas highly exposed to hazards.(3) At the end of 2007, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that it had sent a record nine missions to the region during that year, out of a total of 14 globally.(4) In Central America and Mexico floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have occurred one after another. The Andean region is especially vulnerable to volcanic activity, floods and earthquakes; the Caribbean to hurricanes that come irregularly but unfailingly from late summer to late autumn. In almost every case, recovery has been slow and national development plans have been set back significantly.(5)

Latin America is fortunate in that the conflicts of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, once almost as pervasive as natural disasters, are largely in the past. A serious exception is Colombia where conflict persists and overlaps with natural disasters. The economic and social conditions that gave rise in large part to the conflicts have changed little over the past decade. Although Latin America and the Caribbean region is classified as 'Middle Income' in financial and donor circles, the overall figures mask extremes in economic inequalities in most parts of the hemisphere - combined with ethnic discrimination and general poverty. The poorer members of the population tend to live in the most at-risk places, and suffer the greatest losses.(6)

The ability of governments in the region to deal effectively with the altogether predictable disasters is uneven, although virtually all of them acknowledge their responsibility to meet the challenges of assisting and protecting victims. Each country has an established system for national disaster management, as well as criteria for engaging the international community. Actual institutional capacities to prepare for and deal with disasters vary considerably. Countries bordering on one another and more often than not experiencing the same storms and subject to the same kind of earthquake damage, nonetheless have quite different levels of preparedness and organisational arrangements (e.g. the range of response capacity among the Andean nations of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia; or the Caribbean island nations of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Governments in the region have usually looked to their respective Armed Forces to meet the emergencies that strike, but to varied degrees have installed civilian leadership for broader disaster management functions and to lead recovery efforts. An important distinction is the degree of decentralisation and leadership at departmental and municipal levels - all-important in responding to emergencies and even more so in activities aimed at risk reduction and prevention.

Disaster responses have improved in many LAC countries, but in most still are found wanting. International assessment missions (UNDAC) and other independent evaluations, some of which are cited here, have documented major gaps in coordination, in communications, and in citizen participation and awareness on the response side. And they have pointed to institutional weaknesses within disaster response and management mechanisms, nationally and locally. All the governments have pledged to prioritise risk reduction, prevention and preparedness, but when disasters have struck, the critics can always point to faulty infrastructure, hospitals that have not yet been made disaster resistant, water management systems that fail and, especially, to the presence of too many people living in extremely disaster-prone places. Governments in LAC largely depend on international funding for prevention and mitigation efforts.(7) This is the case even in the wealthier countries like Peru, Chile and Colombia which, while disaster-prone and committed to risk reduction and prevention policies, have mixed records in terms of investing their own resources in prevention and recovery projects. Both wealthier and more poorly endowed countries have sought internationally funded programmes and technical assistance for disaster response and longer-term prevention actions.

The two issues most often cited to explain why the governments in the region do not perform as well as they could in disaster management overall are (1) over-reliance on military sector leadership and (2) lack of political will to devote national resources to disaster management and particularly to disaster prevention, despite rhetorical commitments to the latter. In this regard, informants inside and outside of the international community underscored a dilemma for international disaster assistance. On the one hand international donor agencies and NGOs feel bound to respond to disasters and (to smaller extent) disaster recovery efforts when called upon by governments to do so. This in turn removes some of the urgency for governments to establish sufficiently funded mechanisms for response and early recovery, even if there are resources available for these purposes. As will be seen in the countrybased summaries below, national and local governments vie for visibility in responding at the outset of a disaster but cannot necessarily follow through. Additionally, it is the international agencies, more than the governments themselves, that are promoting and supporting disaster risk reduction (DRR) activities. The challenge then is to make such activities a national rather than an international priority. This report will argue that the efforts of a wide range of regional agencies addressing disaster management and risk reduction may produce this desired objective.

As will be elaborated, a number of internationally funded programmes of different kinds in Latin America are aimed at improving national and local capacities. Disaster management and response capacities seem to be growing in some countries and there are promising indications in others, albeit more slowly in prevention. When disasters strike, international emergency relief and support has proved lifesaving and essential. That said, there is concern in the region about the manner in which the international system has defined its disaster response roles, and the reduced levels of support from international donors for regional capacitybuilding programmes. The concerns are expressed not only among the Latin Americans affected by disasters, but also among international officials seeking appropriate and effective ways to build on existing resources and strengthen state capacities.

To a greater extent than in other regions, Latin American and Caribbean governments have established regional entities to help them define needs, share information and training opportunities, and elaborate projects. Similarly, the international community is operating regionally, sub-regionally and nationally to encourage inter-agency collaborative efforts across borders and among international organisations, donors and nongovernment agencies. What is truly exceptional in the Latin America/Caribbean region is the commitment of virtually every regional organisation to incorporate disaster management and disaster risk reduction in their institutional mandates and to 6 support national institutions in these areas. Since before the beginning of the present decade, regional entities devoted to governance, development, health, education and poverty alleviation have supported more comprehensive disaster management policies and tools.

1.2 Methodology

This report was prepared on the basis of written reports and interviews. The former are listed in the bibliography. The latter, also listed, included both face-to-face interviews and telephone interviews. These interviews represent (1) regional and disaster experts; (2) members of UN bodies and nongovernmental organisations working in the region; (3) national experts, including governments in the affected countries. Unless otherwise cited, the opinions and much of the explanatory information come from interviewees who are not cited by name in the text.

1.3. Overview

The pages that follow are necessarily superficial in covering 'affected government' responses and in elaborating the impacts and steps taken in specific disasters. The report is divided into three segments. First, the report describes the institutional structures and mechanisms put in place to deal with disasters. These include (a) the organisational networks that have been created at the regional and sub-regional levels to cope with and enhance responses to disasters and to link with national mechanisms in the member countries; and (b) the international organisations, including NGOs, operating regionally and nationally. The nature of the regional and international operations is a major focus of this report.

Second, referring to the disaster emergencies in 2007 in Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico, the report will elaborate actions taken during and after disasters, their consequences, and the shortcomings of national and international efforts. The case summaries will cover different aspects of each country's experiences that shed light on interactions between national and international actors and mechanisms.

Third, the report will review the shortcomings in both national and international disaster support, and discuss points of contestation and debate between and among international, regional and local entities.