Consultative Group for the Reconstruction and Transformation of Central America

"reconstruction must not be at the expense of transformation"

Reducing Vulnerability to Natural Hazards: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Mitch
A Strategy Paper on Environmental Management
Stockholm, Sweden  25-28 May 1999

This working paper was prepared by a team of the Regional Operations Department 2 of the Inter-American Development Bank, consisting of Alberto Uribe (Team Coordinator), Shigeo Sakai, Javier Cuervo, Henrik Franklin (RE2/EN2), and Pascal Girot (consultant), with the support of Sergio Mora-Castro (COF/CDR), Luis Ferraté, Isaac Perez (COF/CCR), Caroline Clark (RE2/SO2), and Stephen Bender (OAS).


Executive Summary

I.  Background

A.  Objective
B.  Impacts of Hurricane Mitch
C.  Natural Hazards in Central America
D.  Vulnerability Trends in Central America

II.  Environmental Management and Reducing Vulnerability to Natural Hazard

A.  Reducing Vulnerability
B.  Sustainable Environmental Management

III.  Environmental Management Instruments for Vulnerability Reduction

A.  Land Use and Watershed Management
B.  Environmental and Social Impact Assessments
C.  Environmental Education and Community Participation
D.  Institutional Framework and Economic Instruments for Vulnerability Reduction

IV.  Strategies and Policy Guidlelines for Vulnerability Reduction

V.  Inter-American Development Bank Strategies, Policies and Responsed to Disaster Mitigation Needs

VI.  References

Cover photo: NOAA/IMN image taken on 27th October 1998 of Hurrican Mitch, when it developed its greatest intensity (V Category).


  1. Economic Effects of Selected Disasters in Central America
  2. Human Impact of Mitch: A Devastating Toll
  3. Principal Disasters in Central America before Mitch
  4. Some Economic and Environmental Benefits of Watershed Management
  5. Tools and Measures for Environmental Management and Vulnerability Reduction
  6. Terminology on Disaster Mitigation/Prevention
  7. Technical Cooperation for Disaster Mitigation in Central America
  8. Eros Data Center International Program: Examples of useful web pages for vulnerability assessments


  1. Forest Conservation and Fragmentation in Central America, 1949-1993
  2. Population Density in Central America in 1994
  3. Selected Major Natural Disasters in Central America
  4. Pacific Corridor of Central America
  5. Proposed Commercial Corridor; Housing Destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and Nicaragua and Floods in the Rest of Central America (1988-1999)
  6. Forest Cover in Central America (1993) and Large, Small and Medium-Sized Watersheds
  7. Mesoamerican Biological Corridor



Human society and the natural environment have become increasingly vulnerable to natural hazards, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, and flooding. The situation is particularly acute in Central America, which is one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world.

Hurricane Mitch was devastating to the region; it took an enormous toll in human lives and caused billions of dollars of damage to property, infrastructure and services. Such events threaten the sustainable development of Central America, destroying years of development efforts and investments, placing new demands on society for reconstruction and rehabilitation, and shifting development priorities away from long-term goals while immediate needs are met. While large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Mitch draw international attention, these major events are only a part of the problem. Each year, the region suffers from literally hundreds of small and medium-scale events that together cause more damage and disruption than the large events.

Natural hazards such as hurricanes and earthquakes do not have to become natural disasters. With proper planning, including proper environment management, much of the risk can be reduced. The risks posed by natural hazards in Central America are exacerbated by social and environmental trends such as rapid urbanization and unplanned human settlements, poorly engineered construction, lack of adequate infrastructure, poverty, and inadequate environmental practices such as deforestation and land degradation. These causes must be addressed—immediately, in the ongoing reconstruction process following Hurricane Mitch—and in the longer term as well.

Land use planning and natural resource management, particularly watershed management, play a critical role in reducing risks in Central America and other at-risk regions. A variety of policies and tools are available that can be used to accomplish vulnerability reduction. Regulatory measures controlling land use can be enforced by public agencies. Another approach is the creation of economic incentives whereby stakeholders are encouraged to invest in environmental management processes.

Despite numerous efforts, vulnerability assessments have been largely absent in the design, location, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure in Central America. There are estimates that between 50% and 75% of the economic losses from Hurricane Mitch resulted from inadequate design and siting of housing, roads, bridges, and industry. Environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs) are an important tool for identifying and analyzing potential negative environmental and social impacts of infrastructure projects. Carried out from the initiation and through the conclusion of a project, ESIAs enable project planners to ensure compliance with regulatory standards and minimize potential negative effects.

Natural hazard vulnerability assessment is another important mechanism which considers the impact of a potential natural hazard on a project. Such an assessment, integrated into land use plans, assists in orienting infrastructure siting, and indicates appropriate construction or engineering measures to minimize damage caused by a natural event.

The creation of an adequate institutional framework with mechanisms to put vulnerability reduction measures into practice is of utmost importance. The cornerstone of this framework is a participatory system in which all sectors (government, private sector, civil society) take measures to prevent and mitigate vulnerability to natural hazards. Environmental education provides communities with the necessary skills to make informed decisions as well as the motivation to participate in and take responsibility for environmental management.

The Inter-American Development Bank has adopted a strategy that stipulates that all projects financed by the Bank include an analysis of natural hazard risks. A central aspect of this strategy is cooperation with Member Countries to ensure that projects are designed to improve or preserve the environment, and to reduce vulnerability to natural disasters.


A.  Objective

The objective of this paper is to analyze the lessons learned from the severe impacts caused by Hurricane Mitch and its relationship with environmental degradation trends in Central America. Drawing from these lessons, it conceptualizes strategic policy guidelines and environmental management instruments to reduce the vulnerability to similar phenomena in the future. Its main goal is to serve as an input to enhancing efforts of coordination and cooperation between donors and affected countries and within the region, aiming at decreasing future vulnerability and helping make the ongoing process of reconstruction and transformation more sustainable.

B.  Impacts of Hurricane Mitch

Hurricane Mitch, one of the most powerful and damaging storms ever experienced in Central America, struck between 26 October and 1 November 1998. A Category V hurricane, the event was characterized by intensive rainfall and high winds, dumping a year’s worth of precipitation in less than one week on the region, causing the overflow of rivers, floods, mudslides and landslides. Thousands of people were killed and left homeless. Mitch caused billions of dollars of damage, and left huge tasks of reconstruction, resulting in the loss of decades of development efforts in the region (Annexes 1 and 2).

This disaster was not only the result of natural forces: human mismanagement of identifiable risks also played a role. The damage was magnified by a variety of unsustainable practices, such as inadequate watershed management, uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources—including deforestation and hillside farming without soil conservation—and rapid urbanization.

Recent large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Mitch and Georges, and the earthquake in Armenia, Colombia have demonstrated the vulnerability of society as well. It is widely recognized that recent population growth, rapid urbanization and the socioeconomic structure in Central America have increased vulnerability of these countries to natural hazards.

While natural hazards are unavoidable, they need not always escalate into natural "disasters." As the first step in reducing vulnerability to future natural events, in particular for the most affected communities and regions, it is essential to consider the lessons learned from Hurricane Mitch and previous disasters, and take advantage of this information in order to incorporate adequate preventive measures in the ongoing reconstruction process.

C.  Natural Hazards in Central America

Natural hazards can be classified in different ways, but for practical reasons, we will separate them into two major groups: (1) meteorological phenomena, such as hurricanes, storms, droughts and floods; and (2) geophysical activity, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, mudslides, and tsunamis. Natural disasters occur when the forces of these phenomena interact with the vulnerability resulting from either anthropogenic or environmental origin. The relationship between a hazard and vulnerability generates a condition of risk; when this situation is inadequately managed, natural disasters occur. This is not always the fault of poor risk management—some degree of risk must be tolerated. There will always be events that produce disasters despite reasonable efforts to manage risks.

Central America is one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world. It is located on intensively active tectonic faults, has over 27 active volcanoes, and lies in the western extreme of the Caribbean hurricane belt (see Annex 3). With its mountainous terrain and complex river basin systems, landslides and flooding are common. These hazards are exacerbated by extreme weather events, such as those resulting from the El Niño Southern Oscillation phenomenon which periodically affects the region, and by altering rainfall patterns, leads to drought and wildfires or intensive rains, landslides and floods. There have been five El Niño events since 1982, and three of them have occurred in the 1990s. The 1997-1998 El Niño was significant, and set the stage for the kind of watershed response observed with the onset of Hurricane Mitch.

The catastrophic impact of Hurricane Mitch in Central America (Annexes 1 and 2) cannot be analyzed without considering what occurred prior to this hydrometeorological event. Mitch occurred after almost eight months of drought in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua caused by the El Niño effect. This predictable, slow-onset disaster created changes in agricultural practices and reduced the forest and vegetative cover, thus decreasing the water absorbing capacity of soils and reducing the resilience of the bio-geosystems in the region. El Niño also contributed to catastrophic forest fires in 1997, devastating over 1.5 million hectares of Central American forest. In this way, one phenomenon increased the impact of the next. The combined impact of the drought, unsustainable forestry practices such as deforestation, uncontrolled urbanization in high-risk areas, and obstruction of river beds all led to a higher negative impact from Hurricane Mitch.

Hurricane Mitch caused severe changes in the geodynamics in watersheds and hydrographical systems. In the majority of the zones that were affected by erosion, transport and deposition of sediments have drastically modified the hydraulic capacity of the river beds. The capacity to absorb high levels of water and run-off has been radically reduced in the Choluteca, Lempa, Ulúa, Cangrejal, Motagua rivers and in the Lake Amatitlán watershed, increasing the risk of floods, landslides and other geomorphologic processes. The enhanced fragility of many slopes due to the impact of Hurricane Mitch has increased the risk of future hydrometeorological events. There is real concern in the region that the next rainy season might cause similar problems as those experienced during Mitch, even assuming that rainfall patterns return to normal.

While large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Mitch draw international attention (Annex 2), these major disasters are only a part of the problem. Every year, the region suffers from literally hundreds of small- and medium-scale events that together cause more damage and disruption than the large events. In the last 30 years, 70 major disasters and over 90 smaller scale events were registered by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA). A pilot study of just three countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala) from 1990-1995 registered over 2,400 small-scale, local events.

In addition to these natural characteristics (geophysical structures, geology and meteorological conditions), the social and economic situation in the Region creates added vulnerability to the risks, with the continuous threat of disaster. Natural disasters threaten the sustainable development of Central America by destroying years of development effort and investments, place new demands on society for reconstruction and rehabilitation, and shift development policies and priorities often with long-term consequences. Even when the international community responds generously, the assistance rarely covers more than a portion of the costs borne by the affected societies. For the small economies in Central America, natural disasters can be particularly damaging. (Annexes 1 to 3 summarize the impact of some of these economic effects.)

D.  Vulnerability Trends in Central America

In addressing the relationship between social and environmental vulnerability and the occurrence of disasters, Wilches-Chaux (1993) states:

"There is no doubt that natural forces play an important role in the initiation of several disasters, however it is no longer the case that they can be considered the main cause of such disasters. There seem to be three fundamentals causes that dominate the disaster processes in the developing world, which is precisely where their incidence is the largest:

  • Human vulnerability coming from poverty and inequality;
  • Environmental degradation caused by land abuse;
  • Fast demographic expansion, especially among poor people."

In Central America, the social and environmental trends summarized below greatly exacerbated the damage caused by Hurricane Mitch, and increase the risk of future natural disasters.

A clear pattern of fragmentation and shrinkage of forested area has emerged in Central America (see Map 1). According to the Central American Commission for the Environment and Development (CCAD), only 10% of the original forests survive in the region, and more than 80% of the remainder are considered threatened (cited in Mohan, 1998). Furthermore, less than 2% of the original 550,000 square kilometers of tropical forests on the Pacific coast of Central America is intact. The main cause of deforestation is the expansion of the agricultural frontier, which can be traced to the pressure of population growth, settlement programs, unequal distribution of land, and weak land tenure systems.

The connection between deforestation and environmental disasters, as in the case of the destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch, is not well documented, but it is likely that they are strongly related. Forests play a critical role in stabilizing soil and storing water. When the forest is cleared, the forest canopy is opened, exposing the forest floor, reducing rainfall interception and infiltration into the soil. This results in an increase in surface run-off when it rains, and induces soil erosion and land degradation. Studies indicate that as much as a 75% increase in run-off is associated with forest clearing (Kramer et al., 1995). Excess silting of rivers and reservoirs results, and the incidence of downstream flooding can be greatly increased (Calder, 1998). Soil erosion also causes the loss of soil fertility and productivity, and increases the risk of landslides or mudslides on hills and in valleys.

Once land degradation sets in, it is difficult to stop; further degradation continues slowly but steadily. Rural people may eventually respond by abandoning the land, because it cannot produce enough for human survival. This vicious cycle is reinforced by the heavy tropical rainfall and extreme weather fluctuations, resulting in a higher probability of devastating natural and human-induced disasters. Unfortunately, extreme weather events and flooding are expected to increase with greater accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Population growth in Central America increases competition for limited resources, and forces the poor, who do not have access to land, to settle onto marginal land, often along riverbanks and unstable hillsides, in both urban and rural areas. Demographic pressure also induces an inflow of rural population to the larger cities, which results in rapid urbanization (see Map 3). In urban areas, poorly developed shanty-towns in marginal and risky areas is a common phenomenon; the development of urban infrastructure is outpaced by illegal, uncontrolled and unplanned urbanization. In rural areas, the expansion of the agricultural frontier near water sources is common, causing land degradation and soil erosion, thereby upsetting the balance of ecosystems and creating unstable conditions and hazards.

Social structures, especially unequal distribution of resources, is another cause of vulnerability. It is widely recognized that approximately 50% of the population in the region lives below the poverty line, and this socially disadvantaged population has to use short-term survival strategies without any long-term prospect or investment, i.e., day-to-day survival. Often their only choice is to settle on anything available to them—frequently this includes vacant lots close to landfills and waste disposal sites, polluting industries, or chemical and other hazardous plants without adequate safety measures. These circumstances create another type of vulnerability created by humans, causing the region to remain socially and environmentally vulnerable to eventual natural and man-made hazards.


A.  Reducing Vulnerability

Vulnerability is generally defined as any condition of susceptibility to external shocks that could threaten people’s lives and livelihoods, natural resources, properties and infrastructure, economic productivity, and a region’s prosperity. In this context, a hazard is the probability that a natural or human induced phenomena will occur. A disaster is the manifestation of vulnerability and the hazard with an impact that surpasses the coping mechanisms of the affected population.

Social and environmental vulnerability to natural hazards can be explained by several factors. As outlined in the previous section, recent trends in Central America that increase vulnerability to natural hazards are: population growth and density, rapid urbanization and unplanned human settlements, poor engineering of construction, lack of adequate infrastructure, inequities in social structure, poverty, and inadequate environmental practices.

Reducing social and economic vulnerability to natural hazards requires special attention at two levels:

  1. Analysis and characterization of hazards, which entails the assessment of the most vulnerable production areas, settlements and infrastructure, and adoption of risk reduction measures; and
  2. An institutional framework for implementing risk reduction measures using development policy instruments, contingency plans and environmental management tools.

When undertaking risk reduction measures it is also necessary to define the location of a potential hazard, its severity, return period and the probability of expected levels of loss. It is necessary to differentiate between very localized events and national, regional and global impacts. There are both sudden-onset events that can be predicted (e.g., volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or hurricanes in previously affected areas) and those which are more difficult to predict (e.g., earthquakes in previously non-affected areas). There are slow-onset events that are unpredictable (e.g., the creation of a hole in the atmospheric ozone layer), as well as slow-onset events that can be predicted (e.g., droughts and sea level rise due to climatic change).

Any effort to reduce vulnerability to natural disasters should focus on legal and instrumental aspects and on the institutional framework. Furthermore, vulnerability reduction forces us to consider stabilizing factors such as diversity and resilience—that is, the capacity of natural and social systems to absorb both exogenous and endogenous changes. For this purpose, it is not enough to focus on a set of policies and instruments, but also to understand the intimate relationship between natural and social factors.

B. Sustainable Environmental Management

Reducing factors that aggravate hazard

To reduce vulnerability, it is necessary to understand the factors that magnify or intensify the effects of natural hazards. For example, inadequate agricultural or livestock practices on the slopes of upland sections in watersheds may cause increased levels of erosion and increase vulnerability downstream. In this case it is important to take measures to manage the watershed by using, for example, sustainable agro-forestry, soil conservation, and fire control measures. The importance of protected areas as well as mountainous ecosystems, forests, wetlands, estuaries and marine environments in this context, should not be underestimated in relation to their capacity to absorb the impacts of such natural phenomena as Hurricane Mitch.

Vulnerability and risk analysis

A crucial element in reducing vulnerability to natural hazards is the analysis of human settlements and infrastructure located in high risk areas. The exposure of human populations to natural hazards depends on various factors: (a) location of settlements and infrastructure in areas prone to natural hazards; (b) inadequate design of infrastructure, both private and public; and (c) precarious socio-economic conditions that may increase a population’s vulnerability to disasters. The combination of these factors leads to what Maskrey (1993) describes as progressive vulnerability, leading to even higher negative impacts during an event.

Institutional framework

The creation of an adequate institutional framework and the mechanisms to put vulnerability reduction measures into practice is of utmost importance. Institutional responsibility for vulnerability reduction lies first with development departments and ministries (ministries of transport, housing and urban affairs), who are supported by operational entities (national emergency commissions, civil defense agencies), coordinating institutions (e.g., ministries of the environment and natural resources, commissions for sustainable development), and, finally, local governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

There is a clear need for institutional strengthening and more efficient coordination and enforcement mechanisms in the Region. In many cases, national agencies suffer from weak institutional structure and mandates; poor coordination of activities often leads to conflicts among the institutions and duplication of efforts. Responsibility for environmental management should be decentralized and delegated to local levels, supported by adequate oversight and coordination at the national level. The role of community organizations and municipalities in natural disaster prevention and mitigation is crucial. National authorities should establish standards and regulations and coordinate and follow-up on local efforts in risk management.

The roles of civil defense agencies and national emergency commissions need to be better defined, with a stronger focus given to preventive and mitigation measures. These institutions can be strengthened by improving their access to risk management information and enhancing the capacity at the local level to carry out vulnerability assessments and implement prevention and mitigation measures.

Economic assessment of options to reduce vulnerability

The negative effects of natural disasters may, from an economic point of view, be divided into two groups: those for which monetary value can be assessed and those for which such value cannot be assessed (e.g., loss of life, psychological impacts, and population displacement). As already outlined, several measures can be taken to reduce vulnerability. Conducting an economic comparison of different options helps policy makers to focus efforts on programs that provide higher expected benefits.

Such analysis has difficulties. A quantitative ex-ante economic analysis is based on predictable behavioral changes that can be valued. Natural hazard losses, however, do not follow a predictable pattern that generates reliable statistics. These hurdles can be overcome with (a) adequate information regarding the costs of designing and implementing mitigation measures, (b) adequate information about potential damages, and (c) useful simulation models for risk assessment.

A comprehensive economic analysis of mitigation measures starts with information about the different types of events (e.g. earthquakes, hurricanes, severe rain, droughts, etc.). When assessing the economic impact of natural hazards, the magnitude of the event, expected consequences and associated costs, and the probability of occurrence must be taken into account. Usually there is a correlation between these variables: extreme events with a low probability of occurrence cause higher losses, while more frequent and moderate events tend to have lesser impacts. Any study about the economic incentives of reducing vulnerability is, therefore, probabilistic in nature.

Once the potential events are identified, mitigation measures can be determined. Information is needed on the cost of the measures and the associated mitigating impact. A check of the model is that higher investment costs should mean higher mitigating factors. For each measure, or combination of measures, the expected economic benefits of reducing vulnerability are the expected avoided costs resulting from natural hazards. The basic premise when assessing different vulnerability reduction measures is the consideration of two scenarios:

Scenario 1: No investment in vulnerability reduction measures is made. The expected costs are a function of the probability of occurrence of the event and the associated damages.

Scenario 2: Mitigation measures are taken at a cost, and as a consequence, total damages are reduced. In this case the expected costs depend on the probability of occurrence, the associated damages (which are a fraction of the damages in scenario 1), and the investment in mitigation measures.

The economic reasoning behind investing in vulnerability reduction measures comes from a comparison of the costs incurred in the two scenarios. Given a specific natural hazard event (with an associated probability of occurrence), the point at which a dollar amount of investment in vulnerability reduction measures is justified is such that the expected damage costs are larger than the expected costs if no investment takes place.

However, the main goal is not simply to determine whether or not a measure is justified, it is, rather, to examine several possible measures and determine which ones deserve priority attention. The objective is not to eliminate all potential negative consequences resulting from all natural events. It may be more cost-effective to identify and invest in specific programs that aim to reduce the impacts of events that may not be extreme but do occur more frequently. For example, the justification for watershed management programs may come from their effectiveness in mitigating the effects of severe and recurrent tropical storms (flooding). While such programs will not prevent the impact of an event such as Hurricane Mitch, they can reduce damages.

The assessment of different options, therefore, requires information about the following:

  • Type and location of events;
  • Probability of occurrence;
  • Expected damage;
  • Cost of mitigation measures (type and location); and
  • Factor by which damages are reduced with the introduction of mitigation measures.

When reliable information for a comprehensive analysis cannot be collected or the analysis becomes extremely cumbersome, a second instrument is the use of key indicators. Social, environmental, financial, and other indicators can reflect potential impacts and their severity. Costs for reconstruction and recovery and the impacts of the disaster on a nation’s gross domestic product could provide an estimate of the value of the services lost.

In assessing the cost of damage to natural resources, economists generally assign value to "services" provided by these assets. Environmental services include, for example, geo-hydrological features, atmospheric gas regulation and habitats. Services provided to humans by natural resources include, but are not limited to, commercial uses of renewable uses (waterways, water provision, agriculture irrigation, timber harvest, etc.), recreation, health, and passive use. A wide range of economic methods have been developed to assess natural resource damage. These are divided into indirect and direct methods (Kopp and Smith, 1993). The indirect method establishes the value of services by observing behavior related to the services provided by a natural resource. One of the limitations of indirect methods is the inability to estimate passive use of natural resources. This limitation is overcome by direct methods. Direct methods (such as contingent valuation) estimate both use and non-use values of the services provided by the resource. The cornerstone of these methods is to ask the beneficiaries directly about the economic values they place on the services.


A.  Land Use and Watershed Management

Humans use land and natural resources for several purposes: (1) to grow food for people and livestock, and to produce materials such as lumber for construction; (2) to develop cities, towns and villages with residential, commercial, industrial, and public areas; (3) to provide linkages and transportation in developed areas, from small roads to large highway systems; (4) to exploit mineral and water resources for multiple purposes; and (5) to protect areas for conservation and preservation.

The impacts of natural hazards are magnified by unplanned and inadequate human activities, including development of hazard prone areas and insufficient safety measures. Structural vulnerabilities are found in most urban and rural areas. Advanced and integrated land use planning and natural resource management (dynamic and participatory) play a critical role in reducing vulnerability to hazards..

Land use planning establishes priorities for different types of land use for limited areas, according to certain environmental and socio-economic criteria, such as vulnerability reduction and disaster prevention. To guide and motivate the activities of related stakeholders in land use, relevant policies and a mix of tools and instruments may be utilized. Among these are:

  1. Regulatory measures, including zoning, regulations, and other types of land use controls designed and enforced by public agencies;
  2. Economic incentives, such as taxation schemes and subsidies that can orient location of activities;
  3. Property rights, which provide land tenure security to promote long-term investment in land use improvement by landowners and/or users. This measure is particularly important for squatter communities in urban and rural areas that are not located on hazard-prone land;
  4. Infrastructure development, where location and design should be guided by technical and environmental criteria to manage risk in hazard-prone areas;
  5. Provision of public education and information, which can promote voluntary conservation and participation from the private sector and from the general public. Dissemination of various types of assessments is essential. Public awareness of issues and environmental concerns about sensitive or hazard-prone lands can help landowners and/or users to make better decisions and undertake voluntary conservation.

Land use planning and management

Land use planning and management is the most commonly used instrument for regulating land use, which in urban areas divides land use into districts or zones (such as residential, commercial, industrial, etc.) and enforces standards and codes for buildings and other structures. Zoning can also be used to regulate rural areas and susceptible environments such as wetlands, steep slopes and especially significant ecosystems, and to restrict use in hazard-prone areas. In order to implement and enforce an adequate land use management strategy (zoning), the public sector should possess sufficient financial, technical, and managerial resources, as well as authority for enforcement. Public participation and consultation are essential inputs for confirming the assumptions, perceptions and analysis of planners and for ensuring that proposed decisions meet local needs and address local concerns.

A land-use planning program is typically based on the following methodology (Uribe and Ogata 1980). At the first stage, environmental aspects (geomorphology, geology, hydrogeology, hydrography, soils, flora and fauna, climate and environmental dynamics, such as erosion and pollution processes) and socioeconomic dynamics (economic activities, demography, development programs) of the area, including its potentials and limitations regarding anthropogenic use and economic development are identified and analyzed using a variety of methods and instruments. In the first phase of the study these include literature review, interpretation of aerial photographs, satellite images and maps, and in the second phase, direct field studies and community surveys. A geographic information system (GIS) provides a useful tool with which to analyze and present these data, using a series of overlays on territorial maps. The working scale at this level should provide for regional analysis.

The next phase of a land-use planning program defines homogeneous areas, using natural and socioeconomic criteria and focusing the level of analysis to a more detailed scale. Potential uses are identified, including proposals for protected, as well as vulnerable areas, according to different criteria. A land-use zoning plan can then be prepared, including area- and sector-specific norms and guidelines, a regulatory framework, as well as site-specific environmental and social management plans. The environmental and social management plans for individual projects developed in each type of area, will also depend on the results of environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs), which are described later.

A fundamental aspect of land-use planning is the establishment of property rights and mechanisms to regulate land tenure, thereby clarifying land ownership and boundaries to occupants of illegal settlements. Legalizing land tenure encourages occupants to participate in long-term investment, including improvement of poorly constructed housing to withstand hazards. However, this must be done in accordance with vulnerability and environmental planning, so that land tenure provisions do not encourage further invasion and settlement in hazard-prone areas.

Watershed and coastal zone management

Watershed and/or coastal zone management is a subset of land use planning. A watershed, or catchment, is broadly defined as the geographic, topographic delineation of an entire water body system and the land that drains into a stream system. We typically distinguish between the upper watershed, high in the hills or mountains, the middle watershed, and the lower watershed where riverbeds are generally wider and topographical contours diminished. A watershed may cover both rural and urban areas, and may be subdivided into: (1) lakes, rivers, estuaries, wetlands, reservoirs, stream channels, and ground water recharge areas; (2) agricultural land; (3) forested areas; (4) urban areas; and (5) other areas, such as those used for mining or transportation. While the watershed is fundamentally a hydrologic unit, it is often used as an ecological, socio-economic, or political component when planning and managing natural resources since it constitutes an integral unit with physical characteristics that make it relatively homogenous and differentiated from neighboring areas.

Watershed management is the process of planning, organizing, and implementing land and water uses with their mutually interacting elements on a watershed, to provide desired goods and services. The primary objectives of watershed management are to stabilize soils, water flow, and improve water quality, but they are not limited to ecological management systems.

In theory, the concept of watershed management encompasses environmental, social, economic, political, and all other related issues that affect development and conservation. This would include vulnerability and disaster mitigation, human health, food production, environmental protection and conservation of natural resources. In practice, however, choices need to be made regarding the specific uses that will receive highest priority. Policies and activities then need to be undertaken in order to ensure that these uses are supported or enhanced without unduly affecting other uses or users. In addition, due to the nature of continuity of water flow, management efforts should not be limited to a specific site, but should take into account the watershed’s entire area of influence. This constitutes an important reason to consider and utilize watershed management as a critical concept and practice in planning for achieving long-term sustainable development.

Goods, services, and benefits associated with watershed management can be categorized as having either market or non-market values. Market goods and services include water for drinking, hydroelectric power generation, municipal and industrial supplies, food crops, animal products, fuel-wood, lumber and other wood products, and fisheries. Because these goods and services are tradable, their market values are clearly identified. On the other hand, non-market values of watershed management, such as flood control benefits, sediment control of reservoir and dams, landslide and mudslide control, aesthetic values, and wildlife habitat protection are difficult to quantify in economic terms. Annex 4 presents examples of some of the economic and environmental benefits of watershed management.

According to economic theory, water use pricing should reflect the real opportunity cost of the resource. Hence, in situations where water is scarce, tariffs would discourage wastefulness and would also reflect a system of economic incentives to deter contamination and promote conservation and rational use.

For efficient and effective management practices, broader watershed-based management instruments and approaches can be developed according to the objectives and problems to be solved. Some of the instruments and conditions to meet watershed management objectives are: (1) economic, such as benefits and incentives; (2) regulatory, such as zoning and conservation ordinances; (3) property rights or land tenure security aiming at long-term and sustainable investment practices; and (4) education, training and information for voluntary participation.

As a part of land-use planning considerations, watershed management demands good information regarding hydrological balances that account for the supply of water and its uses (domestic consumption, irrigation, industrial use, transportation, etc).

Practices of watershed management differ according to the stakeholder, objectives, types of land use, and location. For example, in upland agricultural areas, soil conservation practices such as agroforestry, contour cultivation, terracing, slope stabilization and revegetation are common soil conservation practices. For non-agricultural areas in the uplands, watershed management should include practices such as protection of critical areas and forests, zoning for risks and hazardous areas, channel improvement, and regulation of forest harvesting.

Although watershed and coastal zone management is effective and useful in long-term development and conservation, there are several constraints and problems in implementing it. First, from the administrative perspective, watershed projects/programs involve several agencies, such as local governments, agriculture, forestry, environment, livestock, and public works agencies. In addition, projects affect upstream and downstream areas and impact multiple communities. Coordination of these agencies and communities is difficult to achieve effectively and sectoral bureaucratic mechanisms may create conflicts in planning and implementation. A first step in ensuring sustainability in watershed and coastal zone management projects is to create the basis for an adequate institutional and legal framework, designed to manage and solve resource use conflicts with an intersectoral approach.

The second major constraint to implementing watershed management projects is that they require long-term commitments of resources and efforts and tend to focus on preventing potential losses rather than increasing benefits. Projects rarely benefit from immediate improvement of local or national economies, or show immediate visible benefits.

Most of the issues concerning watershed management are also valid for coastal zone management. Coastal areas integrate part of the watersheds in Central America. Among the many benefits of coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves, wetlands and coral reefs, their vital role is as protective barriers for inland areas against tropical storms (Wilkinson et al., 1999). These important resources are suffering from over-exploitation and deterioration due to, for example, mariculture and salt production expansion, uncontrolled tourism development, and poor coastal water quality due to increasing sedimentation and contamination from land-based sources (Rodríguez, 1998).

B.  Environmental and Social Impact Assessments

Over the last two decades, governments, development institutions, NGOs, and, increasingly, the private sector in Central America have established environmental and social impact assessment policies and procedures that are being used in a wide range of development projects (World Bank, 1995). The financing and approval process for projects in both the public and private sectors use environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs) as a tool to identify, analyze, quantify, and prevent or mitigate the negative environmental and social impacts of projects and activities. The question remains as to how effectively this important tool is being used.

Despite efforts, quality control and vulnerability assessments have been largely absent in the design, location, construction, operation and maintenance of infrastructure in Central America. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimates that the direct cost of replacing the lost and damaged infrastructure in the region after Hurricane Mitch is some US$5,000 million (Caballeros, 1999). Between 50% and 75% of the economic losses of goods and services during this event resulted from inadequate land-use planning (e.g., the construction of housing too close to rivers and the inadequate design and siting of roads, bridges and industry) (Caballeros, 1999). To a large extent, this damage could have been prevented or reduced with the appropriate use of both land use planning and ESIAs.

The ESIA is carried out ex-ante, enabling project planners to forecast and prevent negative environmental impacts, and to establish management mechanisms that will ensure compliance with regulatory standards and minimize the negative impacts on the natural and social environment. The ESIA is viewed as the first stage in a project, and an active planning element throughout the design of a project. It should enable the preparation of adequate mechanisms for monitoring, follow-up, management and enforcement, thereby ensuring acceptable environmental and social performance throughout the entire lifetime of a project, including after project conclusion (Uribe, 1986).

In general, any ESIA should focus on these four basic questions (Uribe, 1986):

    1. Which is the best alternative to the proposed project? Alternatives should be formulated, including the case in which no project is implemented.
    2. How can the project be designed (size, location, technology, management, monitoring schemes, community participation and education, enforcement) to reduce negative impacts and to increase positive impacts on the natural and social environment?
    3. What impacts will the project have on the natural and social environment?
    4. What impacts will the natural and social environment have on the project?

A critical element of the ESIA process is the active involvement of all social groups potentially benefiting or suffering from the project (Uribe, 1986). This is important not only in terms of democratic process, but it also assists in identifying what a population perceives as the potential social, cultural and economic impacts of a project. Stakeholder participation in the design and follow-up of infrastructure projects in Central America should be facilitated.

Natural hazard vulnerability assessments

In addition to assessing the potential impacts of a project on the natural and social environment, the impact of the environment on a project merits extensive analysis. This is especially important in the context of mitigating the effects of natural disasters. For example, during Hurricane Mitch a large industrial warehouse containing pesticides and other agro-chemicals was flooded, due to its location, which was too close to the Choluteca River (Nouvelle Observateur, 1999). Large quantities of environmentally toxic substances were carried to the Gulf of Fonseca, with possible consequences not only for marine and coastal productivity (e.g., commercially important shrimp farming), but also on public health. In this case, a more in-depth vulnerability analysis could have prevented negative impacts on the infrastructure and on the environment.

A natural hazard vulnerability assessment considers the disaster history of a planned project site (for example, previous occurrence of floods and landslides) and analyzes potential vulnerability using such tools as remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS). Annex 8 presents samples of Web pages developed by the U.S. Geological Survey that provide easy access to vulnerability maps and data on the Internet. This assessment, integrated into land use plans, would orient infrastructure siting, avoiding high risk areas. In medium- and low-risk areas, appropriate measures and construction codes should be considered that ensure not only that the construction will have a minimal negative impact on the environment, but that the area is not highly vulnerable to natural hazards. For example, in the case of roads, natural and artificial barriers and buffer zones (e.g., tree plantings) could be planned, adequate drainage systems designed and built, and watershed management investments promoted. Analysis of data produced by hydrometeorological monitoring and forecasting systems, including early alert and warning systems, is another important element in the design and execution of any infrastructure development project.

Institutional capacity for implementing and monitoring ESIAs

The methods and application of ESIAs vary in the region due to differing legal structures and institutional capacity. The competence of authorities and officials responsible for reviewing the quality of the ESIAs is a critical aspect of the assessment process. High quality training in this matter is of utmost importance. The capacity must also exist to control, follow-up and enforce compliance with environmental and social protection measures, as well as to develop economic incentives for compliance. Finally, the inclusion of preventive environmental and social measures in bids and contracts will contribute to the sustainable development of infrastructure projects.

C.  Environmental Education and Community Participation

The devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch in Central America were not only the result of natural forces. As already mentioned, contributing factors were inappropriate human activities such as deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, and over-exploitation and irrational use of natural resources. These activities decreased the resilience of the ecosystems and increased their vulnerability to natural hazards. To a certain extent, these problems result from the population’s lack of knowledge about the direct and indirect consequences of their activities on the natural environment. Environmental education is an essential and powerful tool for successful environmental management and decreasing vulnerability to natural hazards.

The goal of environmental education is to foster a preventive attitude towards environmental problems. It increases public awareness and knowledge about environmental issues, including ecological processes and the effect of anthropogenic activities on the environment, including the role of sustainable environmental management in decreasing vulnerability to natural hazards. Furthermore, it provides the public with the skills necessary to make informed decisions and the motivation to take responsible actions concerning the environment. An environmentally educated population, living in a democratic society that promotes community participation, can greatly enhance the conservation and sustainable management of the environment.

The countries of Central America have declared, through the Alliance for Sustainable Development (ALIDES), that both formal and informal environmental education, as well as community participation in environmental management, are important for achieving sustainable development in the region (ALIDES 1994). Despite the efforts and projects underway, more emphasis needs to be given to environmental education at all levels of society. There is a need to educate political decision makers and planners, corporate leaders and other influential actors in society regarding the importance of protecting the environment. Information campaigns using various sources of media (TV, radio, and newspapers) play a role. Perhaps the strategy with the greatest long-term impact is to focus on the youngest generations in society. Environmental education based on life experiences should begin during the earliest years of life. These experiences play a critical role in shaping life-long attitudes, values and patterns of behavior toward natural environments (Tilbury, 1994). They may be accomplished by the school system and/or informal education opportunities. If designed correctly, an environmental education program focusing on children and teenagers can also have a spill-over effect on older generations.

Formal and informal education curricula

Environmental education should be integrated in the curricula at all levels of the formal and informal education system. Development projects aiming at modernizing or reforming the educational sector in the region should reflect this goal.

Irrespective of the school level, environmental education programs should have certain characteristics. For example, especially in secondary school, environmental issues should be approached from a multi- and interdisciplinary standpoint, using a research-oriented and participatory methodology (Uribe, 1992). This is in contrast to classic school curricula, especially in the sciences, which are often discipline-based and emphasize abstract theoretical problems. Most classic school curricula are predefined and static, whereas a curriculum in environmental education should be emergent, dynamic and oriented toward problem-solving in that the content arises as students focus on specific environmental problems (Hart, 1998).

Environmental education programs should be collectively oriented, with groups of students approaching an environmental problem in a multi-disciplinary manner. As McClaren (1987) emphasized, active teacher participation is essential in any environmental education program. Depending on the school level, the length of projects can vary, with up to an entire school year for secondary school students. Schools or communities can form "ecology clubs" and both teachers and students can become environmental monitors (Uribe, 1992).

Response to local environmental concerns

Another characteristic of a successful environmental education program is that it responds to perceived local environmental concerns and directly involves the community (Breiting, 1998). This can be achieved by school projects focusing on specific environmental issues that are important to the community, such as reforestation, environmental monitoring or the identification of risks posed to the community by natural hazards. Activities such as community surveys directed by students, school or community environmental fairs, as well as easily accessible public environmental information centers can lead not only to increased environmental awareness among students, but also by the community at large. Partnerships between educational institutions and the broader community should be encouraged. An example is the direct participation of students and project groups in helping the municipal administration with certain services, such as environmental monitoring.

Protected areas and ecotourism projects also enhance a population’s environmental knowledge. For example, over 100 protected areas in Central America have environmental education programs (CCAD, 1998). As mentioned earlier, various forms of media (radio, TV, newspapers) can also be used to enhance a preventive culture towards environmental problems.

D.  Institutional Framework and Economic Instruments for Vulnerability Reduction

The institutional and legal framework necessary for vulnerability reduction comprises several aspects. The cornerstone is a participatory system in which all sectors (government, private sector, civil society, etc.) take measures to prevent and mitigate vulnerability to natural disasters, and to respond when the event occurs. The required framework is two-dimensional. On one side, it must recognize different roles for the different sectors. The second dimension relates to different spheres of action at the time a disaster develops.

The overall objective of this institutional framework is to minimize the negative impacts caused by natural events. It must be designed so that policies leading to effective environmental management receive adequate attention. Natural hazards usually have a greater effect, both socially and economically, on low-income segments of society because they lack adequate defense mechanisms and often reside in more vulnerable areas. An effective institutional structure for vulnerability management begins with the acceptance of this fact, and must aim to correct it, thereby benefiting society as a whole.

The institutional framework has the following three basic objectives relating to vulnerability reduction:

    1. Timely identification of potential hazards. The objective is to maximize the ability to predict natural events. This entails the strengthening and coordination of public and private institutions dealing with information management, telemetry, meteorological modeling and other forecasting tools. It requires an organized structure with a reliable information network, and communication channels with all segments of society, particularly those most involved in the processes of disaster prevention.
    2. Timely response to emergencies. The objective is to maximize the operational response to an emergency by activating warning systems and using communication systems to minimize the loss of life, damage to housing and infrastructure, etc. This requires coordination of activities conducted by response institutions (civil defense, volunteers, fire units, medical units, etc).
    3. Rehabilitation and reconstruction management. The objective is to make the most of all efforts oriented towards reconstruction and rehabilitation. When possible, this means not only restoring the conditions existing prior to the event, but improving those conditions, taking into account vulnerability and risk analysis. This involves reorganization of productive activities, welfare enhancement for the population affected, land-use regulation, etc.

The role of government

Each level of government plays a different role in vulnerability reduction. It is crucial that these roles conform to a coordinated strategy: overlapping functions and responsibilities weaken resilience to natural hazards. In putting an effective strategy in place, each level of government must have a clear understanding of its role and specific responsibilities within the overall system. Adequate resources need to be made available.

The government does not need to take on all of the tasks to ensure a well-functioning system. However, the efficiency and effectiveness of institutional arrangements adopted by other segments of society depend on how well designed, coordinated and responsive government strategies (at all levels) and plans of action are.

Key areas for government action include:

    1. Defining an institutional network for land use zoning with participation of local, regional, and national entities;
    2. Strengthening and harmonizing environmental legislation by identifying institutions responsible for environmental management and providing them with precise mandates;
    3. Strengthening monitoring systems and institutionalizing warning mechanisms;
    4. Requiring risk analysis in infrastructure plans, programs and projects; agro-industrial services; and forestry activities;
    5. Decentralizing the decision-making process to the local level, transferring financial resources, technical capability, and mandates; and
    6. Promoting the sustainable management of renewable natural resources.

The role of the private sector

Depending on the economic activity in which private agents are involved, they have different incentives to engage in vulnerability management. For example, the agriculture sector is particularly sensitive to flooding, while the industrial sector suffers more from events that have a significant impact on infrastructure. A vulnerability reduction strategy must recognize these differences to address the best way in which each sector can contribute. This involves, among other things, integrating the expertise developed to handle hazards into vulnerability management; the interest private agents have in reducing potential costs created by the disasters; and the need to foster productive activities as part of reconstruction efforts. The institutional and legal framework should provide comprehensive regulations whereby private agents find it in their best interest to be actively involved in vulnerability management.

The role of civil society

Civil society comprises many groups, including communities, minority groups, NGOs, churches, volunteer organizations, etc. Institutional and legal structures should be participatory in design, and incorporate input from all these groups. But it should not stop there—good vulnerability management means identifying a role for each interested group in a way that ensures that all necessary actions are taken. For example, NGOs can play an important role in promoting the adoption of conservation practices. Churches and volunteer organizations can be very helpful in relief efforts and educational campaigns. Indigenous groups have a distinct interest in preserving forestry and their input is valuable for watershed management programs. In short, there are many groups that have something to offer in managing vulnerability. The challenge is to maximize these contributions in reducing negative impacts.

Using economic instruments to reduce vulnerability

Cost of implementing vulnerability reduction measures and plans is a key issue. Ideally, the system would include an incentive structure whereby economic agents would choose development activities that reduce vulnerability as well as satisfy production objectives. An optimum mitigation scenario would thus be achieved at the least cost.

There are two general areas in which policy makers can take economic measures to reduce vulnerability. The first relates to decisions on public and private sector investments such as infrastructure (agriculture and manufacturing facilities, structural improvements for roads, etc.), communication services, warning systems, etc. These investments improve preparedness and reduce the devastation faced when natural events take place.

The second area, which is as important as the first, and has traditionally been underestimated, relates to the role of policy makers in promoting practices that reduce vulnerability. Typically, there are two approaches. With the first approach, they may try to enforce the adoption of practices leading to vulnerability reduction. These are the so-called "command and control" regulations where regulatory institutions dictate and enforce norms. Examples are the strict enforcement of land-use zone regulations prohibiting crop production or banning unsustainable agricultural practices in up-stream areas. Command and control regulations demand a major effort on behalf of the regulatory agencies, both in terms of information and enforcement.

With the second approach, policy makers can use economic instruments such as financial, fiscal or price incentives. These are known as "market-based" mechanisms. For example, instead of obliging landowners to engage in production activities with long-term sustainable watershed management, it may be more cost-effective to create an incentive structure whereby the landowners make a rational decision opting for these activities. They would bear the cost of poor decisions and benefit from investment in environmental management. The implementation of such mechanisms also carries costs, but they should be considered along with other options when putting together a strategy.

Several market-based mechanisms can be used for this purpose and need to be carefully analyzed to ensure that they are appropriate for specific country circumstances. Financial incentives include credit access and interest rate regulations for landowners that engage in conservation practices. Fiscal incentives include tax exemptions or production subsidies for production activities that lead to environmental protection. Another option is lump-sum transfers that reward economic agents for their commitment to such practices. On the other hand, fiscal disincentives, such as fines for land use that is incompatible with long-term sustainable management based on environmental land use planning, greatly contribute to the design of the incentive structure needed.

Another mechanism is price incentives which entails the development of markets that the economic agents opting for conservation practices find profitable. This requires market prices or premiums that recognize the benefits society derives from production activities or land use choices that reduce vulnerability through environmental protection. For example, up-stream farmers engaged in soil conservation or non-timber production from forestry should receive a premium on their output. It must be possible to differentiate these products for this approach to be successful. "Eco-labeling" is one possible solution.

In summary, the use of economic instruments to promote the adoption of production activities framed within measures and action plans that reduce vulnerability is a sound approach and should receive more attention from policy makers. In many cases this requires sector reforms that strengthen the institutional capacity to provide necessary incentives. Such goals should not only be pursued by governments but also by other entities, such as multilateral organizations.


The first step in mitigating hazardous events – vulnerability reduction – is to recognize the importance of "preventive concepts" rather than "responsive strategy". In other words, addressing hazards and vulnerability "before" rather than "after" events occur. Disaster response is a passive and temporary action with high costs in terms of money and human lives. On the other hand, the vulnerability/reduction concept is proactive as it can reduce the probability of loss before it becomes a real threat or a real tragedy, and will minimize the magnitude of damages. It is also cost-effective, since it reduces emergency, recovery, and reconstruction expenditures. Therefore, it is vital to prioritize "vulnerability mitigation", and make this strategy a part of, or even central to the development process in disaster-prone countries.

It is possible to reduce vulnerability using integrated measures such as appropriate policies and development plans, tools and measures, education and information, and stakeholder participation. These policies and measures, sustainable development, and vulnerability reduction (disaster prevention) are all interrelated. Environmental and natural resource management is the other key element in vulnerability reduction; it is essential to place continuous emphasis on implementing long-term environmental measures.

General policy guidelines and key issues for implementing vulnerability mitigation are proposed for consideration by the region and each country. There are many relevant policies and issues; six critical issues are highlighted below.

  1. Political commitment with vision of long-term sustainable development. A vision and scope of a broader, long-term, concept of development including social and environmental vulnerability reduction is one of the key elements of all sustainable actions. Political commitment to reduce a country’s vulnerability by means of development actions, legislation, allocation of financial and human resources, political decisions and actions is essential. As a first step, setting priority areas for investment and institutional capacity, associated with formulating comprehensive national vulnerability reduction plans and environmental management plans should be established and executed.
  2. Environmental management and social development should be an important part of development plans. Environmental and social concerns should be integrated at every stage of planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of all programs, projects, and activities, and be included in related institutional and legal frameworks.
  3. Integrated regional approach to vulnerability mitigation. There is an important regional dimension to environmental management to reduce vulnerability to natural hazards. For example, watersheds often cross national boundaries and action (or inaction) in one country affects others.
  4. Institutional capacity building. In order to reduce vulnerability to social and environmental hazards, the public sector and concerned stakeholders should be institutionally organized, adequately staffed and trained. Without adequate institutional capacity, plans are never effectively realized, nor can enforcement be properly executed. Targets of training to build institutional capacity will include central and local government officials, local leaders and communities, NGOs, and, especially, populations vulnerable to hazards.
  5. Community participation. Adaptation of a participatory development approach is essential, since it is almost impossible to accomplish a nation’s vulnerability reduction plan with only the public sector’s "top-down" efforts. Basic to the participatory approach is for "people to become agents of their own development" (DAC 1993), and to promote involvement and active participation of the general public and other stakeholders in a country’s development. This approach can produce maximum results by using "bottom-up" and "empowerment" concepts, which give local communities and concerned stakeholders the knowledge, power, and motivation to meet their needs and handle vulnerability mitigation with self-reliance. Examples of efficient and effective vulnerability reduction practices are pollution control and man-made hazard reduction with private sector participation or natural resource management with local community participation. Public awareness, adequate formal and non-formal education, and appropriate, transparent information dissemination are also essential for this approach.
  6. Utilization of tools and measures. Appropriate tools and measures – including state-of-the-art technology – are available and should be applied judiciously to implement vulnerability reduction and long-term development. The previous chapter explains some of these measures and instruments, including land-use planning and zoning, watershed management, environmental and social impact assessments, vulnerability and risk assessments, environmental education, public participation and economic incentives. Annex 5 provides an additional explanation of tools and measures.


The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has adopted a Comprehensive Strategy on Natural and Unexpected Disasters. This strategy stipulates that all projects financed by the Bank must include an analysis containing natural hazard risk assessments. The IDB has also adopted specific environmental and social procedures for approval of projects. Bank policies also assert the need for active consultation with the stakeholders of all projects.

The Bank’s objectives in this area are:

    1. To assure that, in all projects financed by the Bank, environmental aspects are considered and appropriate measures are taken to avoid adverse environmental impact and reduce vulnerability, with due attention to economic and social costs and benefits;
    2. To cooperate with member countries (via governments, public and private institutions, etc.) through loans and technical cooperation for the financing of projects designed to improve or preserve the environment and specifically to implement vulnerability mitigation; and
    3. To assist in the development, transfer and utilization of science and technology in the field of environmental management considering its influence on vulnerability. The Bank also helps to strengthen national institutions working in this field.

Specific responses to natural disaster mitigation

The Bank implements the following options, among others, to help rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts:

    1. Loans from the Emergency Reconstruction Facility to make financial and technical resources available to the country stricken by a natural disaster and to cover the immediate expenses of restoring basic services to the population;
    2. The redirection of non-disbursed balances of approved loans within the same sector or across sectors;
    3. New emergency operations to be used when redirection is not possible. Some examples of recent IDB emergency loans are the Emergency Road and Water-Supply Infrastructure Project in Honduras and the Emergency Program in Response to Natural Disasters in Guatemala.

Products to support prevention and mitigation response to natural disasters

To date, most of the Bank’s support for disaster mitigation has been associated with the reconstruction and rehabilitation of affected sectors and physical infrastructure after an emergency. There have been important efforts to ensure the rebuilding will better withstand natural hazards in the future. For reconstruction, the Bank responds to the needs of Member Countries through the design of specific projects for vulnerability reduction.

An example of a specific project for vulnerability reduction is the recently approved Technical Cooperation for Disaster Mitigation in Central America, through which IDB, jointly with the World Bank and the Government of Japan is supporting the Center for Coordination of Natural Disaster Prevention (Centro de Coordinación para la Prevención de los Desastres Naturales— CEPREDENAC).

This technical cooperation aims to improve capacity in six Central American countries to prevent or mitigate the most devastating effects of natural disasters. In so doing, the goal of the program is to help reduce the region’s long-term and recurrent risk due to natural hazards.

The specific objectives of that technical cooperation are to promote: (a) the technical capabilities in prevention and mitigation of natural disasters of the responsible regional and national institutions; (b) the integration of the national institutions in a regional network to share technical information and best practice; and (c) an appropriate level of investment in measures to mitigate the impacts of natural hazards throughout the region. (See Annex 7.)

The Bank is well positioned to help countries improve their capabilities to take sustained actions to reduce or eliminate long-term, and recurring, risk to people and property from the effects of natural disasters. The Bank’s support of the Central American Integration System (SICA) has aided in the streamlining and integration of the work of the many commissions, institutes, and councils of the regional system, thus providing the platform for focused assistance to CEPREDENAC to fulfill its mandate within SICA.

The Bank is also supporting complementary regional technical cooperation operations. One will evaluate the necessity of financing an operation that will improve the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) observing system, providing scientific data for improved modeling for event forecasting and impact scenarios. The other will support the development of policy and strategies for the integrated management of water resources in the region. The promotion of mitigation measures in the region will benefit from better water resource management, as well as monitoring and forecasting capacity when they come on line.

The Bank has a long history of supporting the conceptualization and financing of watershed management projects. Some examples focusing on environmental and natural resources management which greatly contribute to vulnerability mitigation include the watersheds of Cajón in Honduras and Chixoy in Guatemala; a loan is presently being prepared for the sustainable management of the Lake Amatitlán watershed in Guatemala.


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Economic Effects of Selected Disasters in Central America


Economic Performance

Fiscal Effects

Balance of Payments Effects

Infrastructure and Capital Losses

Nicaragua, 1972 (Earthquake) GDP fell 15% overall, and 46% in industrial and productive activity in Managua. Tax revenue fell 39% Sixfold increase in current account deficit: reduction of 20% in exports and increase of 20% in imports. Sevenfold increase in investment requirements in fixed capital (both public and private)
Honduras, 1974 (Hurricane) GDP fell 6% overall and 23% in agriculture Fiscal deficit grew 79% due to a decrease in current tax revenues of 15% and increase in expenditures of 65% Threefold increase in the current account deficit; imports grew 61% and exports fell 66% Loss of national assets and decrease in production represented almost twice the average annual investment
El Salvador, 1982 (Several) GDP fell 2% Fiscal deficit increased 30% External deficit grew 25% Losses of capital and infrastructure equivalent to average investment in one year
Nicaragua, 1988 (Hurricane) GDP fell 2%, 17% in the agriculture sector Fiscal deficit increased 20% Balance of payments deficit increased 10% Total damages estimated at US$839 million
Nicaragua, 1992 (Cerro Negro, Volcano) GDP fell less than 1% Less than 10% increase in fiscal deficit Balance of payments deficit increased 2% Total damages estimated at US$19 million
Nicaragua, 1992 (Tsunami) GDP fell almost 1% Fiscal deficit increased an additional 5% Balance of payments deficit increased 24% Total losses estimated at US$25 million
Honduras, 1998 (Mitch) GDP fell 2.1% 1.7% of the GDP Balance of Payment deficit increased –5.3% Total losses estimated at US$2 billion
Nicaragua, 1998 (Mitch)* GDP fell 1.5% Without information Without information Total losses estimated at US$562 million
Guatemala, 1998 (Mitch)* GDP fell 0.2% 0.3% of the GDP Balance of Payment deficit increased –0.7% Total losses estimated at US$300 million
El Salvador, 1998 (Mitch)* GDP fell 0.25 Without information Balance of Payment deficit increased –0.3% Total losses estimated at US$179 million
This table is adapted from R. Caballero & R. Zapata, "The Impacts of Natural Disasters on Developing Economies: Implications for the International Development and Disaster Community," in Disaster Prevention for Sustainable Development: Economic and Policy Issues. 1995. Munasinghe and Clarke (eds.).

* CEPAL & International Monetary Council. Mexico. B. Serna, Personal communication.


  Honduras Nicaragua Guatemala El Salvador Costa Rica Total
1. Dead 5,657 3,045 268 240 4 9,214
2. Disappeared 8,058 970 121 19 3 9,171
3. Hurt 12,275 287 280 n.a. n.a. 12,842
4. In Shelters 285,000 65,271 54,725 55,864 5,411 466,271
5. Total Evacuated 617,831 368,261 105,000 84,316 16,500 1,191,908
6. Total Affected Population 1,500,000 867.752 730,000 346,910 20,000 3,464,662
7.  Total Population 6,203,188 4,453,583 11,645,900 6,075,536 3,270,700 31,648,907
8. Percentage Affected 24.2 19.5 6.3 5.7 0.6 10.9

(Source: ECLAC. 1998. The Impacts of Hurricane Mitch. Rómulo Cáballeros)


Principal Disasters in Central America before Mitch (1960-1996)






(thousands of US$)

Guatemala July, 1960 Fire



Costa Rica March 1963
January 1964
Volcanic Eruption



El Salvador May, 1965 Earthquake




Panamá November 1966 Flood




Costa Rica July, 1968 Volcanic Eruption




Guatemala September, 1969 Hurricane




Panamá April, 1970 Flood




Costa Rica April, 1970 Flood




Panamá 1970 – 71 Drought  



Nicaragua December, 1972 Earthquake




Honduras September, 1974 Hurricane




Guatemala February, 1976 Earthquake




Panamá November 1978 Flood



Honduras June, 1982 Flood




Nicaragua May, 1982 Flood




Guatemala September, 1982 Flood



El Salvador September, 1982 Flood




El Salvador October, 1986 Earthquake




Guatemala September, 1987 Flood



Costa Rica February, 1988 Flood




El Salvador August, 1988 Flood




Costa Rica October, 1988 Hurricane




Nicaragua October, 1988 Hurricane




Honduras Nov.-Dec., 1990 Flood




Costa Rica December, 1990 Earthquake




Costa Rica April, 1991 Earthquake




Panamá April, 1991 Earthquake




Costa Rica August, 1991 Flood




Panamá August, 1991 Flood




Guatemala September, 1991 Earthquake




Nicaragua February, 1992 Earthquake




Nicaragua April, 1992 Volcanic Eruption




Nicaragua August, 1992 Flood




Nicaragua September, 1992 Tsunami




Nicaragua August, 1993 Flood




Honduras September, 1993 Tropical Storm




Costa Rica December, 1993 Flood




Honduras October, 1994 Flood




Costa Rica February, 1996 Flood




Costa Rica July, 1996 Hurricane




Nicaragua July, 1996 Hurricane




Honduras November, 1996 Tropical Storm




El Salvador August, 1988 Flood




* Obtained from Annual Reports of OFDA/USAID.


Some Economic and Environmental Benefits of Watershed Management

Economic benefits: Those benefits which can be measured in physical terms and valued at market price; these include:

  • Additional crop production from the catchment restoration/reclamation of land, development of new topsoil, and introduction of new crop technology.

Additional crop production from increased irrigation potential through soil and water conservation
Additional production from trees, horticultural plants, and grasses.
Sustained yield.
Appreciation of the value of land restored to new production system
Increase animal production
Additional income from fish, through developed water resources.
Increase in net income and reduction in income-inequality.

Protective or Environmental benefits: This group includes those benefits which are mostly intangible and constitute public goods:

  • Area directly protected against erosion, such as gullying and stream bank erosion

Protection of existing production from land liable to be lost as a result of erosion
Proportionate investment on dam and its command protected/ proportionate loss due to flood hazards likely to be reduced.
Proportionate damage to crops, trees, grasses due to erosion and floods/drought prevented.
Increased recreational value
Landscape aesthetics.
Enrichment or maintenance of genetic diversity

Employment generation: Employment generation by implementing soil and water conservation programs is of three kinds:

  • Casual: Employment generated during introduction of treatment, such as, tree planting, construction of structures and carrying other soil and water conservation works.

Regular: Soil and water conservation projects may lead to change in the cropping intensity and other cultivation practices which are more labor intensive and thus, provide more employment opportunities in future on sustained basis.

Service opportunities: Employment needed for maintenance and follow up activities of the program.

Source: Adapted from Babu et al. 1997.


Tools and Measures for Environmental Management and Vulnerability Reduction

Tools and Measures Explanation, advantages and constraints
Meteorological Forecast
  • Based on data, geophysical and oceanic factors, statistical techniques, and climate variability. Meteorological forecast is possible on a seasonal, monthly, weekly and daily basis.
  • Forecast can be utilized for weather-related disaster prediction, which can provide warnings and information to prevent damage and permit escape during hazard events.
  • Accurate and timely warnings and forecasts are expected, but uncertainty should always be taken into account.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Computer systems capable of combining layers of digital data from different sources, including satellite images, to create maps and data sources.
  • Maps and data can support land-use planning, risk and vulnerability assessment, disaster forecasting, and hazard management.
  • Cost, specialized expertise, and commitment of updating data may be constraints in using this system.
Environmental Assessment (EA)
  • EA is a framework of environmental analysis, and includes Strategic Assessment, Impact Assessment, Management Program, and Auditing.
  • At project level, EA helps in avoiding or mitigating negative impacts, or finding alternatives, and improving project design.
  • There are checklists and guidelines available for assessment, but evaluation is subjective, and predicting all negative impacts is difficult.
Social Assessment (SA)
  • SA is a framework of social analysis, which investigates socio-cultural and social variables systematically.
  • Indigenous population, gender, and involuntary resettlement are key issues of SA.
Institutional Building for Collaboration and Coordination
  • Networking and coordination provides diversity of skills, knowledge, and resources, and collaboration between public, private, NGOs, International organizations, and local community to ensure maximum results of development efforts.
  • Each stakeholder has different needs and interests, and the bureaucratic organization has an inflexible and paternalistic nature, which makes it difficult to collaborate with other stakeholders.

References:  DAC. 1993. Development Co-operation, 1993 Report: DAC/OECD.



ANTHROPOGENIC: Of human origin or caused by human activities.

DAMAGE: Economical, social and environmental loss or level of destruction caused by an event.

DIRECT EFFECTS: Those effects that have a direct cause relationship with the occurrence of an event, most often represented as physical damage to people, goods, services and/or the environment or by the immediate impact of social and economical activities.

DISASTER: Situation caused by a natural, technological or human induced phenomena, resulting in intense alterations for the people, goods, services and/or the environment.

EVENT: Description of a natural, technological or human induced phenomena, in terms of its characteristics, severity, location and area of influence. It is the registration in time and space of a phenomena that characterizes a threat.

INDIRECT EFFECTS: Those effects that indirectly influence the social and economic activities of the population, as well as the environment.

INTENSITY: Qualitative and quantitative measure of the severity of a phenomena at a specific site.

LOSS: Any economic, social or environmental value lost by a variable during a specific exposure time.

MITIGATION: Definition of intervention measures directed to reduce or decrease a risk. Mitigation is the result of a political decision of the level of acceptable risk, obtained by an extensive analysis and based on the criteria that the risk is not totally preventable.

PREVENTION: Intentional modification of the characteristics of a phenomena with the purpose of reducing risk and the intrinsic characteristics of an element with the purpose of reducing vulnerability. The intervention has the purpose of modifying the risk factors. Examples of measures to reduce a threat include, control or affect the actual physical path of an event or reduce the magnitude and frequency of a phenomena. The reduction to a minimal possible level of the material damages through the modification of the impact resistance of the exposed elements are examples of structural measures related to the intervention of the physical vulnerability. Aspects related to the planification and regulation of land/soil use, insurances, emergency measures and public education are examples of non-structural measures related to the physical or functional vulnerability.

RISK ASSESSMENT: In its most simple form, it is the postulate that a risk is the result corresponding to a threat, vulnerability level and exposure elements and the purpose is to determine the possible social, economic and environmental consequences associated with a particular event.

VULNERABILITY ELEMENTS: The social, material or environmental context represented by the people and the resources and services that can be affected during an event. This corresponds to human activities, the systems created by humans, such as houses, roads, infrastructure, production centres, services, the people that use these systems, as well as the environment.

RISK MANAGEMENT: Integrated activities to prevent and decrease the severe effects on the people, goods, services and the environment, through the planning of prevention and the preparation to take care of the affected population.

HAZARD: Underlying danger associated with a physical phenomena of natural, technological or anthropogenic origin that can occur at a specific site and at a defined time, producing severe effects to the people, goods, services and/or the environment. Technically it refers to the probability that an event of a certain magnitude will occur, at a specific site and determined time.

HAZARD ASSESSMENT: Process by which the probability that an event will occur is determined for a specific site and time.

VULNERABILITY ASSESSMENT: The process by which the level of exposure is determined.


Technical Cooperation for Disaster Mitigation in Central America
Prevention and Mitigation Fund
Types of Eligible Projects

Window A: Risk/Vulnerability Assessment and Mitigation Measures

Projects which will:

  • develop or implement disaster mitigation plans for a sector, multiple sectors, geographic region or locality.
  • undertake specific vulnerability and risk studies (by sector or geographic location) for the preparation of investment projects.
  • modify or develop adequate building codes (flood, wind, seismic resistance), standards for critical facilities and publicly financed buildings (schools, hospitals, energy plants), grading controls, and land-use regulations.
  • educate, train and provide technology to: government officials, private sector personnel (business, banking, insurance, etc.) and the disaster-prone population about disaster risk and the mitigation measures available. Examples, improve communities understanding and use of weather information; hurricane safety programs for schools, hospitals, and public works personnel.
  • small demonstration projects.

Window B: Development and Strengthening of National Institutions

Projects which will:

  • establish an adequate institutional and regulatory framework.
  • develop a national prevention/mitigation strategy.
  • educate, train and provide technology to: government officials, private sector personnel (business, banking, insurance, etc.) and the disaster-prone population about disaster risk and the mitigation measures available.
  • develop or implement a national emergency or contingency action plan.

Window C: Future El Niño Events

Projects which will:

  • assess needs in localities and sectors already affected or where risk to the population and production is imminent.
  • design and implement public information campaigns for early warning and updates of the event’s onset and impacts, and guidelines for preparing for the associated events.



EROS Data Center International Program:
Africa Data Dissemination Service:
USGS EROS Data Center:
EROS Distributed Active Archive:
Global Elevation Data:
Hydrological Data:
USAID Famine Early Warning System:
Inter-American Geospatial Data Network:
United Nations Environment Programme/Global Resource Information Database:
Caribbean Environment Program:
Associates in Rural Development:
Global Information and Early Warning System:
Pan American Institute of Geography and History:

For more information on the workshop, contact
Mr. Robert Kaplan (
Inter-American Development Bank
(202) 623-1749


Nicaragua, May 2000   -   Honduras, February 2000   -   Stockholm, May 1999

Inter-American Development Bank