About UNEP UNEP Offices News Centre Publications Events Awards Milestones UNEP Store
UNEP Website GEO Home Page

Policy responses

Many countries, especially those located on islands, are vulnerable to natural disasters (see table below). The major concerns with regard to policy include the following (UNEP 1999):

  • deficiencies in disaster prevention, including the lack of zoning of vulnerable areas during the development planning process;
  • weak mitigation mechanisms;
  • deficiencies and limited use of anti-seismic building measures, as well as inadequate administrative arrangements and human resources for enforcement;
  • lack of insurance policies for low-income households; and
  • inadequate support systems for affected communities.

Improving management is critical to disaster reduction, especially non-structural mitigation actions using natural mechanisms. For example, wetlands reduce floods, woodlands reduce landslides and mangroves lessen the effect of coastal storms and extreme tides. In general, good land use maintains healthy ecosystems, provides resources and facilitates non-structural mitigation action. This strategy is particularly attractive in countries where risk insurance and structural mitigation come at a high price.

Vulnerability to natural hazards of Caribbean countries
  hurricanes earthquakes volcanoes floods drought
Antigua and Barbuda
Dominican Republic
Saint Kitts and Nevis
St Lucia
St Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
= high vulnerability = medium vulnerability = low vulnerability

Given the enormous economic, social and environmental burden of disasters, considerable attention has been paid during the past decade to disaster preparedness, assessment and mitigation. Many of the actions took place in the context of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). At the regional level, its mandate for promoting international cooperation in this field was supported by the Inter-American Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction held in Cartagena, in March 1994.

Vulnerability to natural hazards: a geo-referenced index for Honduras

Pre-existing conditions in the environment, demography, social system and infrastructure are among the major factors of vulnerability. The Centro Internacional de Agricultura (CIAT)-UNEP-World Bank rural sustainability indicators have generated a geo-referenced index of vulnerability that combines geographic information from four maps.

The environmental vulnerability map highlights areas at risk from landslides and flooding using data on forests, rivers, topography, slopes, soil permeability and vegetation. The population vulnerability map displays the population density per county and the social vulnerability map adds data on incomes and poverty. The infrastructure vulnerability map adds data on electricity lines and roads.

These four maps are then combined (see map below) to show the 60 counties of highest priority for disaster prevention and rehabilitation (top 10 in red, next 15 in orange and the other 35 in yellow). The information provided by the maps answers major questions such as why are some counties more vulnerable than others, what can be done about it and where should interventions be focused?

Source: Segnestam, Winograd and Farrow 2000

Several countries in the region - such as Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama - have created and strengthened national institutional frameworks in the area of disaster management. These include the Centre for Coordination of the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America, established in 1988, and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency, established in 1991. Under the auspices of the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Convention to Facilitate Disaster Assistance was adopted in 1991 and entered into force in 1996 (PAHO 1998).

Experience has shown the positive effects of planning and building institutional capacities. A fundamental element is to strengthen and standardize data production methods at a regional level, not only to prevent inconsistencies during emergencies but also to assess losses. Also important are efforts to identify the vulnerability of the territories and populations when faced with natural and human-made hazards (see box). The prevailing disaster response is directed towards risk management. It has a growing component of local and community participation, and makes non-centralized use of non-governmental organizations and citizen groups. Within this framework, a new vision is emerging: the development process must reduce risk by lessening populations' and territories' social, economic and environmental vulnerability.