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An improbable city

A tourist guidebook for the Colombian city of Manizales describes it as a place of “abrupt topography” that is “in harmony with nature” and shows “symbiosis between the natural and the man-made.” All well and good, but a quick look at the 150-year history of this city shows that its location also has been a continuous source of headaches and misery.

Built on the steep slope of a remote mountain 2,150 meters above sea level, in a region known for frequent earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic eruptions, natural disasters have been a part of Manizales since the beginning of its history. But over the years, the city has managed to turn this curse into an asset. The result has been the development of a “local seismic culture” that today stands as a model for other cities interested in preventing and managing recurrent natural disasters.

“No other city in the world is in the same situation as Manizales,” maintains Omar Darío Cardona, an IDB consultant and risk management engineer who manages the Bogotá firm of Ingeniar Ltda.

Seismic vulnerability. Recurring earthquakes have toppled Manizales’ original buildings, which were made of tapia (compacted earth) and adobe blocks. Given the city’s high seismic vulnerability, authorities in the late 19th century banned this building method. Then Manizales developed its own ‘earthquake-resistant building style’ using local materials that had been used by the city’s first settlers. Called bahareque, this wall-building technique employs wooden posts interlaced with mud and a local bamboo known as guadua. The bahareque method has since become the predominant construction technique in Manizales. 

New disasters befell the city in 1922 and 1925, when newly installed electrical wiring resulted in two major fires. More than 30 blocks of houses were destroyed, and the bahareque construction technique was temporarily discredited. But because the city was too isolated to import building materials from abroad, the local authorities decided to continue promoting the bahareque technique, but with certain improvements and in combination with other materials. The result was a unique style of urban architecture, and Colombia’s national earthquake-resistance standards today recommend using this reinforced building material in publicly subsidized homes.

In 1929, Manizales was the world’s coffee capital and its goods were quoted on the New York Stock Exchange. The railroad had arrived and, thanks to the bahareque, the city continued to withstand the effects of earthquakes. In fact, the massive earthquake of 1938 did not damage the city significantly and those of 1962, 1964 and 1979 only caused minor damage.

And then landslides. But not all was safe and secure in Manizales. The city's incredibly steep streets literally cling to the mountainside, and heavy rains would loosen the soil and trigger lethal landslides that buried scores of homes and killed hundreds of people. The landslides were taking the earth right out from under the city, and as a result countless terraces had to be created in order to compensate for the steep grades and inclines.

“In the 1960s, the city made a decision to control landslides,” says Cardona. “With the help of an IDB loan to the national government in the amount of $200 million, a number of remarkable civil engineering works were undertaken for water control, terracing, and slope stabilization.”

Manizales has been hit by so many catastrophes in its short history–including the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in 1985, which caused 20,000 deaths in the nearby towns of Armero and Chinchiná–that the city today is a world-class center for research on disasters caused by natural phenomena.

After the 1985 disaster, a volcanology observatory was established. In addition, Manizales has a world-renowned engineering school specializing in seismic studies and risk mapping. Since the 1980s, the city has had a municipal disaster prevention system in place based on municipal development and land-use plans that incorporate disaster prevention and management as a strategic and political cornerstone.

Disaster preparation has become part of the city's culture. Prevention-related information and education activities are conducted regularly in schools. Drills are held periodically to ensure that awareness and alertness remain high. The mayor has a disaster preparedness advisor, and the city employs a first-rate team of professionals who work at scientific research centers. All residents who take steps to reduce the vulnerability of their homes receive a tax break.

In addition, the city has an inter-agency resource center for responding to emergencies as well as a well-trained fire fighting corps. Public buildings, such as fire stations, schools, universities, and hospitals, have been physically reinforced, and group insurance policies have been signed for many buildings. Residents have even agreed to a special levy to help maintain the city’s disaster prevention plan.

Investing in the future.  “Manizales stands at the forefront of natural-disaster prevention and management,” says Cardona. The city is continuing to fine-tune its system, but Cardona says that further funding is needed so this work can proceed.

A new problem is the massive waves of displaced persons moving to the city to escape the violence that plagues other regions of Colombia. It is ironic that the country’s “natural disaster capital” is viewed by some as a refuge.

“We need to take measures to prevent uncontrolled urban development in Manizales,” says Cardona. “Many spontaneous settlements of poor families and immigrants face a serious risk of landslides in the future. The residents of Manizales have a prevention-oriented mentality that has been acquired over generations, but immigrants are unaware of how vulnerable they are,” he adds.

Unfortunately, the Colombian government does not view requests for support from Manizales as a priority precisely because the city—since it has done so much in the area of natural disaster prevention—is considerably better off than other areas of the country.

Efforts are currently underway to secure the national government’s backing in order to gain access to a $5 million loan from the IDB to support the work urgently needed in the city. “Solutions have to come as fast as the problems,” says Cardona.

In the center of Manizales stands a 100-meter-high neo-Gothic cathedral which has come to symbolize the city’s challenge to the forces of nature. Inaugurated in 1939, it has managed to remain standing despite numerous earthquakes and fires. As part of the municipal prevention policy, local officials are planning to reinforce the cathedral’s structure so that this symbol can remain firmly in place for years to come.

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