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It is the same old story. ‘Natural’ disasters causing fatalities and widespread damage. Last month, Mexico was hit by two low-intensity category 1 storms (with winds of 74-95 mph). The result?
Extensive losses across the southern state of Guerrero, where Hurricane Manuel brought heavy rains, extreme flooding and landslides, in which 72 people lost their lives and 56 municipalities were declared a disaster area. The storms and landslides wreaked havoc on Acapulco, the capital of Guerrero, destroying the homes and livelihoods of some of Mexico’s poorest families.
Much of the loss of life and damage could have been avoided.
The truth is local governments in Mexico are not investing in disaster risk management, despite being repeatedly hit by a range of environmental hazards, and notwithstanding a massive push by the National Disaster Prevention Centre (CENAPRED) to ensure all states and municipalities have undertaken risk assessments and mapped hazards, exposure and vulnerability.
Scratch the surface and it is easy to see why municipal authorities allow property developers to build on the coast in hurricane-prone areas, destroying the mangroves that offer natural protection against storm surge. The high value of these properties and the tax revenues provide adequate incentives.
On the other hand, post-disaster recovery projects such as relocation of settlements or retrofitting of buildings are of enormous value to the construction sector and can be lucrative for local politicians, although new sites offered to low-income families are often inappropriate.
Politically, the benefits of any investment in risk management will not be visible quickly (and maybe not during a politician’s term in office), especially when hazards are infrequent.
These are all essentially governance problems and highlight the need for a better understanding of the diverse sets of actors involved in collective action to manage risk and how institutional arrangements shape these decisions.
Lack of funding is commonly believed to explain inaction in managing disaster risk at all levels, but this assumption requires further analysis.
Mexico was one of the top 10 recipients of international DRR funding, receiving $586.28 million from 1991 to 2000, most in the form of a loan from the World Bank to finance a disaster management fund. Thus, the problem is not the lack of funds, but their management and, in particular, the lack of attention paid to building local capacity and incentives to assess and manage risk.
As attention turns to a successor agreement to the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 (the current global blueprint on reducing disaster risk), governments seem to be recognising governance as a critical gap, highlighting broader stakeholder involvement and strengthening local capacities as priorities for the successor to the HFA in statements submitted to the Global Platform on Disaster Reduction in May 2013.
TACKLING ROOT CAUSES
ODI is working in Ecuador, Colombia and the Caribbean to better understand how collective decisions are taken to manage volcanic risk across spatial and temporal scales. The UK Research Council-funded Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas (STREVA) programme is partnering with local research and monitoring partners in these countries to analyse risk and promote institutional learning and disaster risk governance reform.
We have also provided insight and analysis to the so-called ‘resilience agenda’, promoted by Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID), USAID and other donors. Resilience thinking can be transformative when put into practice, prompting more inclusive, multi-sectoral planning aimed at enhancing people’s ability to manage evolving risks and address the root causes of vulnerability (not just the symptoms).
Getting resilience/risk reduction on to the political agenda is not easy, and even in countries like Mexico - with a mature inter-governmental disaster management system and what the World Bank refers to as ‘one of the most sophisticated disaster financing vehicles in the world’ - the prevailing governance regime is heavily biased towards ex-post response measures, not reducing risk.
Until this changes, the Mexican economy and the most vulnerable members of society will continue to suffer heavy losses from geological and hydro-meteorological hazards that are not catastrophic.
Emily Wilkinson is a researcher with the climate and environment programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and Michaela Carvajal is an ODI intern.