What do climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have in common? The pandemic, in addition to evidencing from a health perspective several of the vulnerabilities typically related to climate change, has also revealed opportunities to develop greater resilience to overcome catastrophes in our cities. It has been proven that the cities that have offered the best responses to the pandemic have also known how to pre-identify their risks. As a result, they were able to provide a unified, evidence-based response.
Being prepared for natural disasters is a shared responsibility
The management of the pandemic can be compared with the prevention of climatological catastrophes. However, for the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, the pandemic has made it clear that scientific knowledge, although critical, is not enough to generate the necessary actions to prevent disasters. There is also a need to appeal to the incentives of politics and basic human psychology.
The event ¨Building Resilience: Lessons Learned from New Orleans and Central America¨ precisely seeks to analyze, from the perspective of mayors and disaster experts, the incentives that enhance the role of communities in prevention policies and actions. Involving citizens in risk prevention is the cornerstone for building resilience in our cities.
At the IDB we are fully aware of the important role that communities play in the development of their environment. For example, while analyzing concrete actions in informal neighborhoods in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, we observed that, although neighborhood improvement programs were able to increase the coverage of services and equipment, a mere intervention in infrastructure was not enough to observe a comprehensive and sustained reduction of disaster risk conditions. The role of the community was also of vital importance.
Why is it important to identify and involve the population in disaster prevention?
The identification of actors, and the understanding of their roles and interests, constitute a fundamental element for any strategy aimed at disaster prevention to last over time. These dynamics include, among others, the integration of communities, the generation of knowledge, and the improvement of governance. The role of the population in this entire process not only allows better risk prevention, but also a tangible improvement in people’s living conditions.
The IDB has developed analysis methodologies that allow the design of interventions that, in addition to mitigating existing risks, contribute to addressing the root causes of disaster risk. That is why our cities can, and are called to be, fundamental actors in building their own resilience.
The IDB’s work with the beneficiary communities of urban interventions demonstrates the importance of generating alliances with local “knowledge” as a basis for defining the type of infrastructure to mitigate the effects of climate change. In turn, infrastructures must be considered with a comprehensive approach, supported by a solid diagnosis to achieve an optimal combination of social and civil infrastructures that allows reducing the vulnerability of the population.
Which are the main lessons learned to build efficient infrastructure aimed to reduce disaster risk in our cities?
Some of the main lessons to optimize how civil infrastructures aim to reducing disaster risk are:
• Having adequate knowledge of risks: reduce a type of natural risk (eg flood) without having a good knowledge of concomitant risks (eg landslides that are activated by erosion associated with the floods themselves) and / or social problems (eg garbage dumps, crime, etc.) may lead to specific risk reduction investments contributing to increase it.
• Carrying out a detailed analysis: for example, in the case of flood control infrastructures, aspects such as maintenance and the effect of the infrastructure on the different types of flooding (rainwater, river, etc.) must be carefully analyzed.
• Increasing the resilience of infrastructures: approaches based on increasing the resilience of investments against flooding, withstanding a certain level of flooding, may be more suitable than approaches based on specific flood control works that sometimes tend to transfer the risk.
The modular and flexible methodology of disaster risk and climate change analysis for civil and social infrastructure projects has tools such as ¨criticality cubes¨ and ¨failure mode analysis¨. These tools make it possible to apply a multisectoral perspective in the risk analysis of infrastructure projects, while identifying and managing the variables that can contribute to the construction of risk. Based on experiences from projects managed by the IDB, the application of failure modes analysis has made it possible to identify and prevent the problems mentioned in the lessons learned from the design.
Finally, resilience cannot be conceived without a long-term vision in which the maintenance of the works can be carried out by the users themselves. Without them, the infrastructure initially thought to protect against natural risk can generate additional problems of environmental or health risks.
The big question: How to build resilience to climate change in our cities?
Today human actions have become the main cause of environmental change. Climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change and ocean acidification are among the main challenges we face. These tensions have the potential to generate widespread social, cultural, economic and health impacts. In order to create resilience, planning and investments must be nurtured by the territorial knowledge of the population, enriched by their participation in the design and execution processes, using tools connected with institutions, both formal and informal.