Averting disaster at the community level

June 05, 2012
Stephen Dale
Lasting impacts
An IDRC-supported local planning tool has allowed municipalities across Central and South America to avoid the worst impacts of natural disasters and to save lives.
SIGA — the Spanish acronym for Integrated System for Municipal Environmental Management — maps urban neighbourhoods’ vulnerability to hurricanes, earthquakes, and other catastrophes. This simple methodological approach allows authorities to plan communities that are more disaster-proof.  

Mapping threats 

SIGA accounts for several types of risk. First, using geographic information system (GIS) technology, the system maps physical threats to communities, such as dangerous proximity to riverbanks, mountainsides, and floodplains. This is overlaid with vital social, economic, and institutional information, such as: How close are these communities to hospitals? Do they have access to electricity and clean water?       

Combining all this information leads to the creation of three colour-coded maps, with different colours denoting high, medium, and low levels of risk. The SIGA approach is innovative in that it presents a more realistic view of vulnerability, which integrates the physical, socio-economic, and institutional dimensions. The visuals make it easy for policymakers to make well-informed decisions as they prepare for disasters.

“A mayor or even a member of the community will be able to understand what the problem is and how you have to plan in advance to minimize the danger,” says Walter Ubal Giordano, a climate change and water specialist at IDRC’s regional office in Montevideo.

Social data included

Ubal has seen SIGA grow from a neighbourhood-level innovation to a continental phenomenon. Originally, IDRC funded two Uruguayan professors’ idea for using GIS in disaster-proofing a settlement close to a riverbank in Montevideo. That prototype soon grew to incorporate a variety of social data.

The expanded SIGA was put into wide use after Hurricane Mitch cut a swath of destruction across Central America in 1998, killing 7,000 people in Honduras alone. Responding to a request from the Federation of Central American Municipalities, IDRC and the Inter-American Development Bank introduced an initial 12 Central American municipalities to SIGA.

The tool quickly became the basis for disaster planning in more cities in that region, as well as in the Southern Cone. Today, Ubal estimates that 1,200 local governments use SIGA. Since the manual outlining the approach is freely available on the Internet, SIGA has also been adopted by local authorities as far afield as Africa.

Ubal says SIGA’s effectiveness stems from two central, interrelated principles:  

  • proactively plan for disasters (rather than react after they happen)
  • mobilize local resources and planning capacities (rather than rely on typically slower efforts by central governments).
In fact, implementing SIGA relies largely on community members’ knowledge. Because of that local input, says Ubal, “we’ve been able both to increase the capacity for effective planning and reduce administrative costs.”

Although it’s impossible to calculate how many lives SIGA has saved, Ubal points out that no post-Mitch disasters — some of them just as intense — have caused as much devastation. Cities such as Esteli in Nicaragua and Puerto Cortés in Honduras have made major efforts to move vulnerable communities out of harm’s way, using data generated by SIGA. Those efforts exemplify Latin American municipalities’ widespread commitment to reduce the impact of natural disasters.  

Stephen Dale is an Ottawa-based writer.

The SIGA manual is available in English and Spanish.

This story is part of the Lasting Impacts series that highlights how IDRC-funded research has improved lives in the developing world.