This past February Argentina suffered one of its worst catastrophes of the last 50 years, resulting in more than 4,000 affected households, around a dozen fatalities, close to 5,000 evacuees and a financial loss close to 200 million U.S. dollars. These numbers are merely an estimate of the damage caused by the storm, which shook the province of Cordoba earlier this year. This terrible disaster left us with a bad aftertaste, also reminding us how vulnerable humankind is to nature. The question arises, however: How prepared can we be in order to reduce such vulnerability?
Let us start by differentiating two concepts which are not synonymous; nature’s phenomena and disasters. Hurricanes, floods, landslides, earthquakes, drought, wild fires, etc., are an integral part of ecosystems and have played a part in the environment in which species have evolved; human activity, on the other hand, is often the trigger for disaster. Population density growth, whether natural or via migration, increases the impact on ecosystems. Disproportionate growth and inadequate natural resource management increase risks for the population. In other words, disasters are socio – environmental events, whose occurrence is a result of the social construction of risk.
Let us take natural hydric phenomena as an example. Water related disasters represent 90% of all natural disasters. Population increase results in a larger number of people exposed to impacts such as floods, draught, storms, landslides, among other water related threats. In addition, massive, uncontrolled deforestation increases habitat and population vulnerability to such threats. As trees are extracted from a given area, the soil’s capacity to absorb water is reduced, thus increasing the chances of floods and landslides. The ecosystem, being dynamic, may recover, but in many cases unrestrained exploitation allows no time for healing in order to mitigate negative impacts.
Looking back at Argentina, the NGO Greenpeace pointed out that less than 4% of the province of Cordoba’s native original forests are left. Even after the implementation of regulations aimed at the forest’s protection, unrestrained deforestation is still a problem for this country.
In 2014 the Inter-American Development Bank carried out a study in different countries, including Argentina, applying an indicators system. These indicators include the Index of Governance and Public Policy in Disaster Risk Management (iGOPP); which quantifies the extent to which government actions, policies and regulations include aspects related to disaster risk management. The study’s results demonstrate that, even though there are regulations for hydric resources environmental management in place, they do not include disaster risk management as part of their objectives. For a country in which 68% of all registered disasters have been triggered by hydro-meteorological threats, its regulatory developments and improvements are still not sufficient.
Broadly speaking the Latin America and Caribbean region lost over 158 million acres, approximately 7%, of forest area between 2000 and 2010. Besides that, financial losses caused by water related disasters have increased in the region in the last decade, reaching approximately 52 million U.S. dollars. In this region environmental damage, poverty, disproportionate urban growth and poor early warning systems increase the countries’ vulnerability while amplifying the impacts of natural threats.
It is important to first create laws and environmental policies that promote the recognition of the importance of maintaining ecosystems and, second, to take the measures necessary to help minimize those human activities which may potentially increase disaster risk in the future. Good urban legislation generally enables economies of scale oriented towards the environment and its protection, as well as disaster risk management. There is still a lot to be done in the region, but the first step to hamper disaster lies in identifying where we are vulnerable.
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