Disasters are an all-too-common feature of life in the Americas. Recent catastrophic events, such as Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998, the earthquakes in Peru in 2007 and in Haiti and Chile in 2010, have wreaked a colossal toll on the lives, communities and development prospects of the stricken countries. The Haiti earthquake alone claimed a staggering 220,000+ lives and displaced over 1.5 million people. Climate-related events also continue to wreak havoc, currently affecting over 3 million people across Colombia as widespread ‘super-floods’ submerge the country.
However, it is not just the mega-disasters that are spreading misery around the continent. Experts believe that small, localised disasters affect even more people continent-wide than the larger high-visibility events. A stark example was the tornado that struck the small town of Joplin in the United States in May 2011, tracing a nearly 10-kilometre path of destruction and killing over 100 people.
Experts also point to further trouble ahead. Climate change is contributing to a marked increase in hydro-meteorological events. With 189 million people living in poverty and the highest rate of inequality in the world, vulnerability to disasters is also increasing in the Americas. Poverty is forcing people into more risk-prone areas with greater exposure to hazards. Unplanned urbanization, environmental degradation and irregular migration are also joining to create a deadly cocktail of risks.
Still, there is nothing inevitable about the disasters looming on the horizon. There is much that communities, civil society and the private sector can do to mitigate today’s risks. However, they cannot succeed alone. Governments can and must play a critical leadership role. To do so, they need effective laws.