Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Catch 22 of natural disasters for poor countries

Weekend events gave us another example of a poor nation who has trouble taking preventative measures against natural disasters. Instead, when the disaster happens, it spends all of it's resources cleaning up the damage. It becomes a cyclical pattern that a country is unable to stop.

El Salvador suffered severe flooding over the weekend. Downpours of rain caused giant mudslides. The death toll from the flooding now stands at 130. In addition, 7,500 people are without homes.

From the IPS, writer Edgardo Ayala explains the poor warning systems that need to be upgraded.

Environmentalist Ángel Ibarra, president of the Unidad Ecológica Salvadoreña (Salvadoran Ecological Unit, or UNES), cited a World Bank study which estimates that 90 percent of the population lives in areas at high relative risk of death from two or more natural hazards.

But Ibarra said the problem of natural disasters is magnified in the country because of the serious environmental deterioration on one hand, and the lack of policies to pull people out of poverty and social exclusion on the other.

Most of the victims of catastrophes like flooding and mudslides are poor people who live in shacks in dangerous areas along riverbanks or hillsides.

He also told IPS that El Salvador lacks adequate disaster prevention and preparedness policies. "When these problems happen, it's always as if it were the first time. We have a 'picking up the dead' policy. We only react after something happens."

So although El Salvador, located on the earthquake-prone Ring of Fire and in the path of hurricanes, frequently suffers natural disasters, followed up by reports calling for an improved early warning system and other prevention measures, the system rarely functions when it is needed.

"We also suffer from socio-environmental and institutional vulnerability," added Ibarra, pointing to the dearth of coordination between the different state agencies.

Starting last Wednesday, the weather reports were forecasting heavy rain over the weekend, and the government declared a "green alert." But the alert was not upgraded to orange until late Sunday morning, when deaths had already been reported in several parts of the country.

The national meteorological service, SNET, forecast 100 mm of rain. But late Saturday night and early Sunday morning, 355 mm fell in just four hours – a downpour even worse than the rainfall that accompanied Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when 400 mm fell in four days.

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