Colombia: Getting due credit for disaster prevention

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Natural disasters

Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods or droughts are the same worldwide. Whether in Mexico, Colombia, Haiti or Pakistan, these are natural events or "disasters" of varying intensity. 

What changes are the effects and consequences. Water and land become the mortal enemies of populations who pay the highest price with their lives and property.

Between 1970 and 2010, disasters related to natural phenomena have caused more than 3.3 million deaths and US$2.3 trillion worth of material losses worldwide —slightly more than Brazil’s GDP in 2010.

When a disaster hits, we all know that the poor are its biggest victims. Because of this, any effort to generate greater resilience to disasters must be part of the global development agenda.

Colombia has not been immune to this. In the last forty years, the country has been hit by disasters, causing US$7.1 billion in losses.

The consequences of the La Niña phenomenon in 2010 and 2011 —heavy rains and floods throughout the country— reflect the complexity of the risk situation prevalent in Colombia and the deficiencies in terms of risk management. This is evident in the following figures: 3.5 million victims, 8 thousand homes destroyed and more than one million hectares of agricultural land affected.

It is true that natural hazards are non-human phenomena. Nevertheless, in the overwhelming majority of cases, vulnerability is the result of our own actions.

A Comprehensive Vision

I can honestly say that Colombia has positioned itself as a Latin American leader in terms of developing a more comprehensive vision with regards Disaster Risk Management.

The government strategy seeks to reduce damages and losses, paying particular attention to prevention and risk-reduction efforts, as well as controlling the fiscal volatility —the impact on public finances— resulting from these events. We have supported Colombia's efforts by providing  knowledge, coordination and financing services, including financial instruments, loans, donations, bonds, reports and risk analyses.

For example, Colombia has made use of innovative financial products such as Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Options (CAT DDO). This instrument offers immediate liquidity once a country reaches a certain level of distress following a disaster. In 2010, US$150 million were disbursed in less than 48 hrs in response to heavy floods and a state of emergency. Up until now, seven countries have contracted CAT DDO loans: Costa Rica, Guatemala, Peru, El Salvador, Philippines, Panama and Colombia.

Additionally, a US$250 million CAT DDO product has been approved to strengthen disaster management policies at the national level and reduce the long term losses caused by these type of events.

Fewer Deaths, More Damage

The work undertaken in Colombia has resulted in a relative drop in loss of life; however, damage to property, infrastructure and livelihoods continues to increase, proving that disasters are not natural events per se, but rather the result of inappropriate development models.

This means that efforts have not been sufficiently effective due to increasing vulnerability.

In a joint operation with multiple public and private agencies, and with the support of the Colombian government, the World Bank produced the “Colombia Disaster Risk Management Analysis: A Contribution for Public Policy Development” report. It is the first time a report of this nature has been undertaken in Latin America.

It analyzes the causes of risk and measures its growth. But it also goes further; focusing on institutional advances in risk management at different government levels and their management by regional public, sectorial and private administration.

It also highlights the great opportunity to include disaster risk management in planning, investment, monitoring and control mechanisms. Moreover, it describes the need to define responsibilities at the public and private level, including civil society, as part of the strategy to reduce the State’s fiscal vulnerability.

This contribution comes at a politically important time for Colombia,given the introduction of reforms after a new law was passed establishing a national Disaster Risk Management policy and the creation of a National Disaster Risk Management System.

Looking Forward

In order to improve disaster risk management governance, development policies and land, sectoral and private practices need to change radically in order to maintain Colombia’s economic, social and environmental development.

The recommendations derived from this report suggest incorporating risk management into State policy, making them part of public policy.

It’s a massive challenge: we cannot stop disasters from ocurring. But by working together, we can prevent and reduce these risks, prepare ourselves and respond in timely fashion to minimize their cost and effect. These actions can make a big difference.


Gloria M. Grandolini

Former Senior Director for Finance and Markets Global Practice, Finance & Markets, and Chair of the Global Remittances Working Group

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