Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 10, 2007
'Unnatural' disasters make the poor their main targets
Hurricanes, 'quakes are natural, but poor suffer more due to human decisions
By BARBARA FRASER
"The phenomenon may be natural, but the disaster is the result of human action."
- Guido Eguigure
Eguigure cited the case of a banana and palm oil plantation whose owners built a higher retention wall along the left bank of a river after Hurricane Mitch swept through Honduras in 1998.
In subsequent storms, when the water rose, instead of following its natural leftward course, the river was forced over the right bank, where low-income residents had built their homes.
That underscores another problem: the inherent inequality of these unnatural disasters.
People who have money can hire architects and engineers, buy land on high ground or in a safe place, follow building codes and obtain insurance.
Those who barely scrape by - day labourers like Cardenas in Ica who earns $5 for an eight-hour shift picking cotton or asparagus - "build as they can, using their own means, and with no technical oversight," said Pedro Ferradas.
Ferradas is manager of the disaster prevention and local governance program for Practical Solutions-Intermediate Technology Development Group, a nonprofit organization in Lima, Peru.
Priced out of safe urban areas, the poor build on unstable hillsides, flood plains, sandy areas or old landfills, fashioning their dwellings out of inexpensive materials that also may be unsafe.
Most of the buildings that collapsed during the two-minute earthquake in Peru were constructed from mud bricks that had been made by hand and dried in the sun.
In such houses, a sharp jolt causes vertical cracks at corner joints, Ferradas said. The longer the shaking lasts, the worse the damage.
His concern is that in remote areas "where people have lost hope of assistance" residents may simply patch over the cracks, making their homes more vulnerable to collapse in the next earth tremor.
Adobe houses can be made more earthquake-resistant. Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency, sponsors a program in Ecuador to help rural residents reinforce their homes, said Aaron Skrocki, CRS' South American emergency program manager.
But Ferradas said information about such methods has not been widely disseminated in the rural Andes, so it is rarely used.
In any event, reinforcing buildings is only part of the solution.
In Peru and other Latin American countries, "cities grow exponentially" with little or no urban planning, Ferradas said.
Planning for housing in rural areas is even worse. If policies do exist, they are designed for formal building, but 70 per cent of the housing in Peru is built informally by people who occupy land and then gradually construct a dwelling as they can afford to purchase materials.
Disaster prevention is also lacking. After the earthquake, Peruvian Health Ministry officials in Pisco told CNS that when they called meetings to discuss emergency plans local mayors seldom attended.
Policymakers must take into account the real costs of disasters. Not only do they take lives and destroy infrastructure, but they also exacerbate economic problems. In rural areas, natural disasters are among the key events that push families over the brink into poverty.
But policies alone are not enough to reduce the damage to people's lives, property and dreams when earthquakes or hurricanes strike the region, Eguigure said.
As long as the concepts of progress and development depend on the unbridled consumption of natural resources and the gap between the rich and the poor widens, natural phenomena - which may become more frequent and intense with climate change - will take an ever-higher toll, he said.
"Natural resources were given to human beings to use wisely, but the wealth of the earth has been expropriated by a small group of people. There are limits to how long nature can withstand the actions of human beings."
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