Vol. 4, No. 1 October 1998
Lessons of El Niño for Disaster Mitigation
In early 1997, warning of a major El Niño event on the way gave some advance time to prepare. But while considerable investments were made in protecting infrastructure, little was done to build sustainable institutional disaster management capacity. Obviously, the early warning was insufficient to reduce accumulated risk levels or to make up for the lack of a permanent and institutionalised disaster risk reduction capacity. Nonetheless, mitigation could have been far more effective if it had been based on systematic information on risk patterns derived from the scenarios of past El Niño events.
In 1983, Peru's northern coast received exceptional, destructive rains, while the southern highlands suffered a severe drought. Five other El Niño events occurred between 1891 and 1992. The most heavily rain-affected regions in 1982-83 received the same volume of rainfall in half the time in 1998, overwhelming the capacity of post-1983 mitigation works. Other regions, like Trujillo and Ica, that had a history of past El Niño disasters but were not affected in 1983, suffered "surprise" floods. And drought expected in the south did not materialize; but farmers had already sold cattle or refrained from planting based on the early warning.
According to the DesInventar Disaster Inventory, the recent El Niño left 292 dead, 13,162 houses destroyed, 540,134 people affected, and a total economic loss estimated at more than US $2,000 million. Reconstruction is now beginning, but it is questionable whether it will lead to a real reduction in vulnerability and risk, or will simply replace destroyed infrastructure until El Niño recurs. At the same time it is unlikely that much of the reconstruction budget will be used to build a sustainable institutional capacity in disaster risk reduction, particularly at the local and municipal levels.
The 1997/98 El Niño event highlighted yet again the need to focus on long term reduction of risks and not just on short term responses to emergencies. Effective, efficient disaster risk management must address the processes which give rise to hazard and vulnerability patterns. This requires the active participation of local governments, communities and other stakeholders in risk analysis and the identification of risk reduction strategies. To achieve this, it necessary to decentralise national disaster management systems, change their focus from emergency to risk management, and eliminate barriers to civil society participation. The highly centralized response and lack of institutional capacity for disaster risk management, particularly at the local level, were major barriers to the effective management of the 1997/98 El Niño event.
Each El Niño event is different, but there are recurrent patterns. Systematic data on the impact of past El Niño events is particularly valuable for informing pre-disaster risk reduction activities and post-El Niño reconstruction. Small and medium-scale disasters in non-El Niño years can provide vital insights. If this kind of information had been accessed by government authorities before the 1997/98 El Niño event, they could have foreseen and mitigated the major "surprise" disasters which occurred in Trujillo and Ica.
Finally, while the government and international attention has focused on the impact of El Niño on macroeconomic indicators such as GDP, it is necessary to remember that El Niño also affected thousands of vulnerable households whose economic losses did not contribute much to aggregate statistics because they already had little to lose. The focus of reconstruction on strategic economic infrastructure and sectors threatens to leave these households as vulnerable, or more so, as before. The question is, can risk reduction for these highly vulnerable sectors of Peruvian society become a program priority for the multilateral lending institutions supporting reconstruction, and, if so, how ?
-- Andrew Maskrey and Jose M. Sato
Andrew Maskrey is the coordinator-general of LA RED, based in Peru. LA RED is a network for social studies on disaster prevention and management in Latin America. Jose Sato works with LA RED on the implementation of DesInventar, a disaster information database for Latin America.
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