The conjunction of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability will define the existence or not of a disaster and its impacts. Mexico is a country with a high propensity to suffer natural disasters. In the world, according to the UN, from 2000 to 2019, 201.3 million people were affected by disasters; in 2020 it was 98.4 million.
In Mexico, according to information from the National Center for Disaster Prevention, during 2020 as part of the damages and losses, the population affected by climatic phenomena was 858,735 people, 255,954 homes, 606 schools, and 32 hospitals; from 2017 to 2020, 2,392 deaths were recorded due to earthquakes, says Naxhelli Ruíz Rivera, a researcher at the Institute of Geography (IGg) of the UNAM and coordinator of the University Seminar on Socio-environmental Risks.
According to the recent report of the World Meteorological Organization, released on September 2, every day of the last 50 years, meteorological disasters have caused the death of 115 people and losses of 202 million dollars; that is, 2,64,929 deaths and 3.6 trillion dollars in the five decades.
During the same period, the number of catastrophes increased fivefold, due to the increase in more intense or extreme meteorological phenomena. This is just one example of the threats to which Mexico is exposed.
On the occasion of the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, established by the UN on October 13, the winner of the National University Distinction Award for Young Academics (2019) details that in recent years, at a global level, disasters have been increasing due to the greater exposure to hazards and the processes of urbanization and increased vulnerability; Mexico is no exception.
Events are not natural; they begin sometime before the most visible critical moment (for example, the emergency caused by a flood or an earthquake); their origin can be located even tens or hundreds of years before.
Hazards or phenomena that manifest themselves with great intensity in a given place (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.) must be differentiated from the risk modulators (social, economic, and institutional conditions) that define the impact of these hazards; and this, in turn, from disasters, which are the critical contexts where there is a loss of life, housing, livelihoods, infrastructure, among others.
If a major hazard occurs, such as an earthquake, and there is quality housing, building codes are complied with and the population is prepared, the risk is significantly reduced. For example, the Mexico basin is located in an area that was once a lake, it is flooded and also has a "sounding board" effect of seismic waves. If talking about the factors that have led us in Mexico City to have a special exposure to hazards, we practically have to go back to the 14th century with its founding. Thus, disasters are considered to be long-lasting processes.
There are also cases where the effects last for decades, several years can go by without people recovering: their physical and psychological integrity, assets, and livelihoods are not restored. These problems, from a human rights perspective, are also part of the disaster.
In addition to the intensity of the threat, there are the factors of exposure (how close the source of the phenomenon of great magnitude is) and vulnerability, such as living in a region with high poverty or unequal access to certain goods. This means that even a relatively low-intensity hazard can have serious effects, as is the case, for example, in Haiti.
The conjunction of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability, says Ruiz Rivera, will define the existence or not of a disaster and the level of its impacts. Of course, "the most serious of all is the loss of life".
In the world, in 2020 alone, 15,80 deaths were recorded: 196 from earthquakes, 6,388 from extreme temperatures, 6,171 from floods, 512 from landslides, 1,742 from storms, one from volcanic activity, and 70 from forest fires, according to the 2020 Annual Report on Disasters not associated with COVID, by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.
Meanwhile, the university points out, the number of people affected was 201.3 million from 2000 to 2019; and 98.4 million in 2020: 18.2 by drought; 0.4 by earthquakes; 0.1 by extreme temperatures; 33.2 by floods; 0.2 by landslides; 0.1 by forest fires; 0.8 by volcanic activity, and 45.5 by storms.
When there are so many millions of people together, living with the same exposure and the same hazards, it is almost inevitable that some serious impact will occur from time to time. Also, to the presence of the great amplifier of threats, especially hydrometeorological and climatic, which is global warming.
"The physical integrity of people; their physical, mental and emotional health; trauma; loss of community life, are never counted, they are not found in any report, but they are undoubtedly important," says the Ph.D. in Development Studies from the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England.
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has emphasized systemic risk; that is, the existence of several hazards and vulnerabilities interacting with each other, for example, joint hazards of an earthquake, a flood, and a pandemic occurring at the same time. Or two hurricanes that impact the same area in a short period, which can trigger forced displacement.
Mexico is a country with high exposure to hazards because it is located in a tropical zone where hydro-meteorological phenomena of different types and intensities occur. "This does not necessarily represent a problem, but having entities with precarious social development indicators, as occurs in the south of Mexico, in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero; this will be reflected in the material, social and cultural impacts of disasters," she adds.
Conjugation of factors
In Mexican territory, there is a combination of problems in terms of income and settlements that point to great urban inequalities, such as what happened in the Chiquihuite hill, in Tlalnepantla, or the dynamic floods (like a flow) in Ecatepec, because the rain cannot infiltrate since the settlements seal the soil. "Behind these disasters, there is a problematic way of occupying the city, which shows political and legal regulation problems and dates back many years," she reiterates.
It is practically impossible to attribute them to a single cause; they occur due to a combination of factors that are normally related to social development problems and decisions regarding the territory that show a lack of progress or adoption of early warnings, failures in public policies, or institutional coordination to prevent them from occurring; and if they do occur, rapid and comprehensive recovery must be sought, with financial mechanisms and clear participation processes.
National strategies, Ruíz Rivera recommends, should focus on prevention and risk reduction because so far most of it is focused on preparing for response and responding. "Almost all efforts are to establish what is going to be done if there is an alert. People prepare for response to an event."
But that's only one phase of a big process; a lot more work needs to be done on root causes, urban or metropolitan planning and reducing inequality. Comprehensive, multi-sector, and multi-stakeholder risk management is required, where each sector has something to contribute. Citizens, for example, should approach municipal civil protection units and inform themselves, participate in drills, and demand public, transparent, and understandable risk atlases.
This year the theme of the commemoration is "International cooperation for developing countries to reduce their disaster risk and disaster losses". In that sense, the final message is that we all have a role to play in risk reduction. The important thing is to cooperate for proper decision making; to make public information available and, based on this information and evidence, to achieve the necessary discussions to reach the goal of reducing disaster damages and losses concludes Naxhelli Ruiz Rivera.