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What Venezuela can learn from Hurricane Mitch

The devastating floods and landslides that killed as many as 30,000 people in Venezuela last December came a little more than a year after Hurricane Mitch, which caused nearly 10,000 deaths in Central America.

That hurricane was followed by an ambitious international effort to assist in the reconstruction and transformation of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. The IDB has coordinated reconstruction assistance, setting up a consultative group of multilateral agencies and donor governments, disbursing millions of dollars in reconstruction loans, and helping the affected countries to draw up strategies and present funding proposals.

But despite these efforts, reconstruction throughout Central America has been slow in getting off the ground—a fact that has led all parties to express frustration and assign blame. Affected countries have argued that international assistance has been too slow, poorly coordinated, and plagued with cumbersome “conditionalities,” or limitations on how the aid can be used. Multilateral banks and bilateral donors have asserted that the national governments are not involving local governments and civil society in reconstruction programs, that procurement procedures and resource allocation are not transparent, and that needed reforms in social sectors are not being carried out. Nongovernmental organizations have taken everyone to task for unnecessary delays, scant results, and the failure to uphold principles agreed to at a donors’ meeting held last May in Stockholm.

Certainly, all these points are accurate to some degree. But we must not lose sight of the fact that landmark opportunities are emerging from this inherently difficult exercise in reconstruction and transformation. Out of this experience will come—must come—a new approach to development in one of the world’s most hazard-prone regions. The lessons learned will prove invaluable for countries everywhere. Venezuela, which is just beginning the monumental task of reconstruction, has the most to gain in learning from past errors.

Among the positive signs is the fact that the subjects of risk management and disaster mitigation are finally getting the attention they deserve. Never have governments so explicitly acknowledged that mitigation is a crucial element not only of reconstruction projects, but of development planning in general. Even while we are reminded almost daily of the failure to carry out mitigation measures successfully—newly replaced bridges washed away in past October’s rainy season, and families resettling in high-risk areas—the fact remains that countries are taking steps to improve their risk management capabilities. They are establishing hazard monitoring and forecasting systems, mapping high-risk areas, adopting watershed management measures, strengthening regulations for construction, and encouraging mitigation activities at the community level.

This is at least a start. But by themselves, these measures will not give the people of this disaster-prone region the security they need and deserve. The affected countries now have the daunting job of organizing national systems for disaster management both to guide the current reconstruction and to prepare for future emergencies. These systems must include the participation of public and private agencies and civil society organizations. Their chief objective must be to earmark resources for mitigation investments on a permanent basis.

Governments can no longer deal with disasters only after they happen. “Experience is good when you don’t pay too dearly for it,” according to the old adage. Venezuela and Central America clearly have paid dearly, making it all the more imperative that these lessons be turned into concrete action.

—The author is an IDB disaster mitigation and urban development specialist.

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