Risk-Mapping and Local Capacities: Lessons from Mexico and Central America

Risk-Mapping and Local Capacities: Lessons from Mexico and Central America



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780855984205
Publisher: Oxfam Publishing
Publication date: 04/28/2000
Series: Oxfam Working Papers Series
Pages: 80
Product dimensions: 8.25(w) x 11.75(h) x 0.19(d)

About the Author

Monica Trujillo works for Oxfam GB in Central America as an Emergencies Support Person with special responsibility for gender and representation.

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Background to the risk-mapping exercise

Oxfam GB (hereafter referred to as 'Oxfam') has always been involved in a broad range of humanitarian aid programmes. It views emergency relief work as a way of addressing the needs that arise from poverty and suffering, and seeks through its interventions to optimise people's capacity to control the factors that affect them in their daily lives, as well as to influence humanitarian aid policies and practices in a wider context.

Emergencies and natural disasters which interrupt the processes of development, or which exacerbate existing instabilities and/or conflicts, often precipitate a crisis for the poor. In Mexico and Central America, Oxfam has long supported impoverished communities whose lives have been affected by natural phenomena and conflicts. Its aim in these circumstances is to strengthen the capacity of the poor and marginalised to bring about changes which are positive and sustainable, and to reduce their vulnerability in the event of emergencies or any other situations in which their basic rights are denied.

Oxfam's Programme of Preparedness for Emergencies in Mexico and Central America is an essential step towards providing an effective, efficient, and appropriate humanitarian response to emergencies in this region. The mapping exercise that forms the basis of this Working Paper represents a starting point in developing this programme. The mapping exercise had the following aims.

• To predict possible emergencies that might arise in the region and to ascertain their potential impact on those most affected.

• To identify the local capacity for emergency response within each country.

• To envisage the type of external assistance needed for an effective and appropriate response to emergencies.

The exercise began with a literature review, including Oxfam's own policy documents on the subject, in order to establish an institutional framework and to identify existing processes and initiatives within this field. An overall methodology was then agreed as a basis for defining the nature of the risks, vulnerabilities, and capacities in the region; for selecting the indicators and determining the variables and weightings to be used in assessing them; and for formulating tools for gathering, processing, and analysing information. Field visits were made to Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras, using the original methodology. In the second phase, the methodology and criteria used were broader, and visits were made to high-risk areas in Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua. Neither Panama nor Belize was included in the main exercise.


It is always a challenge to represent in simple terms the complex reality within which emergency situations occur, in a way that also allows one to visualise the key elements in an aid agency's decision-making process. As a point of departure, we assume that emergencies are not external to the on-going development processes, but are part of them. They constitute interruptions or crises which then have major repercussions on the development opportunities of a given community or area. Since disasters always have the potential to undermine development, measures to prevent, prepare for, and mitigate disasters should inform every plan and strategy for sustainable development.

We assumed that this methodology should be a tool for people who are not disaster experts, but whose depth of local knowledge and experience makes them experts in the conditions and potentialities of a given country, region, or locality. This study thus sought to develop a fuller analysis than one based on technical expertise alone, by combining relevant formal information with the accumulated experience of local actors. Although the methodology was devised to assess risks, vulnerabilities, and local capacities at a regional level, it can also be adapted for local-level application.

The threats to be studied were selected on the basis of the most frequent events or disasters in the region, though some were included because of the severity of their impact, rather than because of their frequency. The scenarios were those most likely to occur in Mexico and Central America, in order to provide a comprehensive view of the region, and the threat or risk of disasters, whether natural or of human agency. Qualitative and quantitative indicators were established. The first phase of the study sought to validate the methodology by testing it against a range of diverse and complex realities. Adjustments were subsequently made to take account of the fact that it was not possible to consult as many people in the region as had been hoped, and because not all the information we had expected to be available was accessible; hence we had to make use of some old data and also abandon some of the proposed indicators. Despite these constraints, we none the less achieved a fairly accurate level of approximation in the first phase of the exercise.

Physical characteristics of the region: an overview

Five tectonic plates meet in the area covered by Mexico and Central America, the movement and interaction of which determine the extremely high seismic activity throughout the region (principally along the Pacific coastline), which causes frequent earthquakes and occasional tsunamis (tidal waves created by quakes on the seabed). There is also an active chain of volcanoes right down the Pacific Strip, with the Tacana volcano actually linking Mexico with the Central American isthmus. In addition, four cyclogenetic zones are present in the Pacific and the Atlantic ocean masses, in which there is activity throughout the annual hurricane season (June–November).

The prevailing climate patterns, together with ecological deterioration, are resulting in irregular and changing rainfall patterns, which subject wide areas to a continuous fluctuation between increasingly severe floods and droughts. Other phenomena, such as earthquakes or tornadoes, affect only a limited area, but have a significant impact.

The region's economic structure is dependent on international markets and powers, with regard both to the sale of products (mainly agricultural) and the acquisition of raw materials and technology for the manufacture of basic goods. In general, wealth is highly concentrated among small, prosperous minorities who co-exist with a marginalised and growing majority who live in extreme poverty. A fairly uniform economic structural adjustment-model has been applied throughout the region over the last decade. Although this has led to an apparent improvement in macro-economic performance, there has also been rising unemployment, a depression in agricultural production (principally affecting campesino [peasant] producers and the indigenous peoples), and a widening gap between rich and poor.

The structural adjustment packages have also resulted in widespread cuts in basic services in the areas of health-care services, education, welfare services, and housing. Deepening poverty and widespread social exclusion have frequently resulted in the population of whole areas being marginalised. The most deprived areas and social sectors are also those most at risk from disasters of all kinds, a fact which in turn makes them more vulnerable still.

With the exception of Costa Rica, all of the countries in the region are now at a crucial point in their political history, in that they are all in an immediate post-war phase, or are currently experiencing armed conflicts. The processes of setting up institutions and mechanisms for democratic participation are still in their infancy. There is also great uncertainty, generated by a high degree of economic and social polarisation, and popular distrust of public bodies and political parties which have proved- unable to rise above sectarianism, making it difficult to reach a consensus or to prioritise national interests.

Outline of contents

The analysis of threats establishes the incidence and distribution of threats present in the region, and the particularities of each country with respect to probability, intensity, and area covered. The sectors and elements exposed to the threat are then analysed, in particular the threatened communities, agro-ecological conditions and the state of the economy, infrastructure, and services (risk analysis). This is followed by an analysis of vulnerability, defined as the relationship between the level of risk, local capacities, and the living conditions of the threatened community. The level of vulnerability can be modified according to certain trace indicators, including the capacity to predict occurrences, communication systems, the capacity of health-care systems, general levels of education, and levels of disease. A risk map also considers the wider factors that determine the conditions in which such communities live.

The risk map undertakes an analysis of localcapacities, by considering firstly the institutional framework for the management of disasters, regionally, nationally, and locally. Secondly, it assesses current capacities from the perspective of civil society. Finally, it considers initiatives for developing existing capacities, and the principal actors who have a role to play in this. It identifies steps already taken, and current shortcomings in the fields of prevention, preparedness, rehabilitation, and response; and then assesses these and establishes a framework for future priorities. Factors that indicate specific capacities are, among others, those related to the management of information regarding disasters: analysis and evaluation of the context and environment, coordination, and operational and management plans for working in emergencies.

An in-depth study of the current situation formed part of the risk map, but is presented only in summary form in this Working Paper since, by its very nature, such information is liable to change in a relatively short time. The focus here is on the capacity of institutions to tackle emergency situations in their different shapes and forms, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the key players in the region in the detection, diagnosis, planning, intervention, and evaluation of emergencies. This paper also considers emergencies in the context of development and establishes immediate and future challenges for work in the region.

The conclusions include an evaluation of disasters in the region, assessing progress and shortcomings in the fields of prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response, and restoration. This final section attempts to identify the principal players in the context of disasters in the region, and makes recommendations for likely scenarios.


Assessment of threats and risks

Identification and analysis of threats

In Central America, most natural phenomena that cause disasters are already well understood, and great advances have also been made in Mexico. However, regarding the phenomena associated with seismic activity there remain some unstudied areas (principally in Central America). The potential for seismic activity along the Pacific coasts has been comprehensively studied, but there is as yet no seismo-tectonic model to explain events of recent years along the Atlantic coastline, for example the earthquake in Limon, Costa Rica. Nor is there a model that could help to establish adequate building regulations, although significant efforts are being made in Mexico to identify seismic micro-zones, particularly in the metropolitan area around Mexico City.

The threats posed by volcanoes are better understood, as more is known about the dynamics of eruptions of the most dangerous active volcanoes. Mexico, for instance, has carried out an exhaustive study of possible scenarios in the event of the eruption of Popocatépetl (just outside Mexico City), including a rigorous mapping process, warning systems, and an operational plan in the form of a signalling system. But there have been no such detailed studies of other highly dangerous volcanoes in Mexico. Throughout Central America, important work has been done with the help of CEPREDENAC (the Co-ordinating Centre for the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America), and several maps are now in existence. However, these do not adequately cover the risks and possible scenarios.

In the field of hydro-meteorology, the relevant authorities are generally well informed, but need to become better at predicting the progression and the trajectory of cyclones. Better research on floods is also needed, for instance in connection with the droughts associated with the El Nino phenomenon. We need a clearer understanding of this type of threat and the potential risks for agricultural production, which are particularly relevant to campesinos and small-scale producers on rain-fed land in marginal and hillside areas.

In Mexico, various bodies are responsible for identifying the threats associated with potential risks, particularly the National Centre for the Prevention of Disasters (CENAPRED), the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (SARH), and the Institutes of Geophysics and Geography of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UN AM), all co-ordinated through the National System for Civil Protection (SINAPROC). Costa Rica has a significant network of institutions in the various fields of earth sciences such as geology, vulcanology, and geophysics. These include the University of Costa Rica (UCR), the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE), the Seismology Observatory of Costa Rica (OVSICORI), and the National Institute of Meteorology (INM), which works in meteorology and climatology.

Guatemala and Nicaragua have reached what might be called an intermediate level in their understanding of threats and risks. Much of the relevant research takes place in place in Guatemala's National Institute of Seismology, Vulcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology (INSIVUMEH) and at Nicaragua's Institute of Earth Studies (INETER). However, their scant financial resources prevent them from retaining qualified staff and maintaining their research work. For instance, it is expected that INSIVUMEH may soon be broken up, with some areas of study being transferred to the universities, and others being privatised.

The bodies responsible for identifying threats and potential risks in El Salvador were being reorganised at the time of the study. A new Environment Ministry will have responsibility for the most important vigilance systems, and for determining regulation and control in the use of natural resources. In Honduras and Panama, the responsibility for these services lies with a range of different bodies. In both countries, the relevant institutions are experiencing serious financial difficulties, particularly the meteorological service in Honduras, where inadequate funds are undermining the stability of the workforce and jeopardising the very existence of this body.

The activities of these institutions vary greatly in quality and quantity. They consist in the production of basic and thematic maps, which show various phenomena and their respective risk zones. Projects range from those of Mexico and Costa Rica, where an Atlas of Threats is available (which in Costa Rica is integrated in a modern geographic information system), to countries like Panama, where more specific initiatives are taking place in mapping the risks of volcanoes, earthquakes, and floods. One common problem is the scale of these risk-mapping exercises. In Mexico, the 'risk atlas' is on a scale that allows for an analysis of risks but not for possible emergency scenarios to be visualised. Equally, the content of the Central American maps is general and on a very small scale, which means that they cannot be used for sensitive emergency operations.

A significant gap across the region is the lack of multi-phenomena analyses and maps. Generally, phenomena are considered independently of each other (according to the specialism of the institutions carrying out the study). This does not allow for integrated analyses of risks and the relationships between them, though this would improve the work in the field of emergency prevention in a region where all types of threat are potentially present. For the purpose of the Oxfam risk-mapping, the threats considered are those which cause the most significant damage in human, material, and economic terms: hurricanes, floods, drought, landslides, tsunamis, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, and, particularly in Mexico and Guatemala, frosts and hailstorms.

In the case of tropical cyclones (storms and hurricanes), it is possible to identify the areas that are statistically most frequently affected. However, cyclones may also affect areas not featuring in the statistics, for example, Hurricanes Joan in 1988, Gilbert in 1993, and Cesar in 1996. It is difficult to show the precise areas at risk of flooding and landslides in a study at this level, though significant steps have been taken (see Maps 2 and 3). Depending on the topography, coastline, and vegetation, floods and landslides are most likely to occur in the areas statistically most affected by cyclones and seismic phenomena. In general, the Atlantic Coast is more susceptible to tropical storms and floods, while the Pacific Coast is more susceptible to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and droughts. However, cyclones affect both of Mexico's coastlines.


Excerpted from "Risk-Mapping and Local Capacities"
by .
Copyright © 2000 Oxfam GB.
Excerpted by permission of Oxfam Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, 5,
Abbreviations and acronyms, 6,
Preface, 7,
1 Introduction, 10,
2 Assessment of threats and risks, 13,
3 Assessment of vulnerability, 27,
4 Assessment of local capacity, 51,
5 Progress and needs in disaster management, 61,
6 Lessons and challenges, 66,
Resources and finance, 68,
Conclusions, 68,
References and background reading, 69,
Index, 70,

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