Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 309 | Abril 2007



The Legacy of Mitch: Are We Ready for Another Disaster?

Hurricane Match may have taken away a lot, but it left laws, experience, organization, aid and technology. For all that, however, nine years after Nicaragua mourned its dead, it still suffers financial dependency, its efforts are dispersed, its institutions politicized and its predators unpunished. So are we really ready for the next disaster?

José Luis Rocha

Nine years have passed since Hurricane Match left Nicaragua prostrated. Since then, the international community collaborating with Central America has been paying much more attention than before to the impact and recurrence of natural disasters. Debates and the measures being applied by governments and diverse institutions increasingly use terms such as vulnerability, risk management, prevention, preparation and disaster mitigation, as well as others related to the complex of natural or socio-natural forces that act in such a devastating way. In this Babel of new concepts, there is no systematization of experiences and deliberation on the extent to which they’ve been reached. There’s also a need to foster greater awareness of the importance this issue has acquired.

The paper hurricane
and a road paved with good intentions

After the rain-drenching hurricane came an avalanche of paper, supporting the kind of good intentions that pave the road to Hell. This article examines that paper avalanche and its rocky good intentions, without dodging the historical evolution and socio-political conflicts that show how a society organizes itself against disasters as well as its social capacity to understand, define and respond to them—beyond the rhetorical and technical froth riddled with GPS systems and barometers, which while necessary are instruments of technological segregation.

The idea is to display that evolution, its conflicts, successes and deficiencies based on the mass of papers as well as interviews with 35 officials from different governmental and nongovernmental organizations and foreign cooperation agencies. The institutions interviewed included the National Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Response System (SE-SINAPRED); the Civil Defense force; the Association of Nicaraguan Municipalities (AMUNIC); Oxfam Belgium; Oxfam Great Britain; Oxfam Intermón; Christian Aid; the Institute for Development and Democracy (IPADE); World Vision; the Center for Geo-scientific Research (CIGEO/UNAN); the Humboldt Center; the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC); the Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies (INETER); the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MARENA); Christian Medical Aid (AMC); the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO); the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA); the Network of Women against Violence; the Civil Coordinator and the Lutheran Church.

Law 337 amends Somoza’s law

Everyone interviewed recognized the notable progress represented by Law 337, approved 20 months after Mitch to create a national disaster prevention, mitigation and response system. But many were unaware of the existence of a previous disaster response law. The 1976 Civil Defense Law was passed four years after the earthquake that destroyed Managua just before Christmas 1972. For most Nicaraguans that earthquake was the nation’s natural disaster to end all natural disasters, while dictator Anastasio Somoza called it “the revolution of opportunities,” which indeed it was for his family and National Guard through the looting of international aid.

The main differences between the two laws are summed up in the table below. Basically, the vision changes from an “emergency-based” conception, where disasters are unexpected “catastrophes,” to a conception based on prevention in which awareness of the socio-natural causes include paying attention to development models, vulnerability, environmental management and prevention-related infrastructure, equipment and activities.

Like all laws, 337 is a mixture of concessions, structural conditions and the options available at the moment. It represents a certain spirit of the times as expressed in key issues of the foreign cooperation agenda, including coordination, decentralization, civic participation and vulnerability. The law echoes these key issues as the result of a globalization of visions—partly due to academic training and partly to the fact that cooperation’s financial remittance comes in a packet that includes conceptions. It also expresses a correlation of forces, according to who wins and who loses power. And it serves other, more hidden ends. The repositioning of the army and the way of treating NGO participation are the best examples of how the law was expediently exploited for non-consensual and highly conflictive ends.

A farewell to the army?

Law 337 annulled the old Civil Defense Law, which had placed responsibility for responding to disasters firmly in the National Guard’s hands. Not once during its 24-year life were any substantial modifications made to this law to mitigate its militarism. Quite to the contrary, just three days after losing the 1990 elections, the FSLN passed a law for the organization of the Defense Ministry (Law 490), article 6 of which placed INETER and the National Civil Defense chiefs of staff under the ministry’s aegis. Article 10 stipulates that, in coordination with the General Command of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS), as the army was still known at the time, the Defense Ministry is responsible for determining policies related to the organization of the Civil Defense force.

The militarization of disaster response was drastically reduced after 1990. The US government’s desire to dismantle the Sandinista army and police soon crystallized into an abrupt reduction of both forces. In January 1990, there were 80,000 troops in the EPS, but within the first months, they were reduced to 41,000. In less than five years, the army lost 86% of its troops, at an annual average of 21.5%.

This reduction is unprecedented in contemporary military history, particularly given that the Nicaraguan army didn’t actually lose the war. The ghost of the Cold War that has obsessed the government of Bush Jr., complemented by his re-run of the anti-Muslim crusades, involved a continued contraction of the army, albeit now not publicized. The military currently has only 9,500 troops, including officers, NCOs and privates, which is several thousand less than when President Enrique Bolaños took office in January 2002.

Despite his debt to the army—which provided what limited stability his fragile administration enjoyed and helped please Bush by deploying a contingent of troops to Iraq for a while—Bolaños continued reducing the institution during his five-year term. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Bolaños was one of the main proponents of totally eliminating the army and as Vice President during the Alemán government again proposed abolishing it, verily as the army was impressing the nation with its rescue work following Hurricane Mitch. Bolaños countered that soldiers only serve for killing and should not pitch in during disasters.

The army’s corporative interest in survival and in not being shrunk too far has led it to seek ways to legitimize itself beyond its role as “defender of the people,” which only seems to reap dividends when the popular imagination perceives it as guardian of the Río San Juan. Some claim it attempted to wrestle away some of the National Police’s field of action in the fight against drug-trafficking, intending, albeit unsuccessfully, to become the national partner of the US Drug Enforcement Agency. It has, however, earned deserved credentials in conflict resolution, environmental defense, disaster prevention and response and even sexual education, projects in which it has received financial backing from the international community. In 2007, the army will receive over 11 million córdobas for risk management and equipment from ACSUR Las Segovias, Save the Children, CARE International, the Danish government and the German Samaritan Workers’ Federation.

The post-Sandinista governments have opposed this strategy due to their political interest in indulging Wash-ington’s desire to reduce an army of Sandinista origin to its minimum expression. The army’s role in disaster reduction has been played out in tensions between the two poles, with Law 337 acting as a supposedly aseptic element, in that it involves a leap from an “emergency-based” approach to prevention, thus reducing the militarism in disaster attention and involving various bodies that are subjected to civil power. But the fact that the law takes away one of the army’s areas of legitimization demonstrates that its role is far from neutral in the withering away of the army that began in 1990. The presence of such unconfessed ends—or duality of objectives—could have consequences.

For over 20 years, disaster response has depended on the army’s expertise and extensive organizational framework. This was demonstrated during Mitch, when towns with a strong military presence, such as Wiwilí, suffered no deaths at all, even though the swollen Río Coco, which literally divides the town in two, had a devastating effect on the local infrastructure. The law does recognize the army’s role up to now through the creation of the Disasters Operations Center (CODE), which is under the umbrella of the army’s Civil Defense force. But just how the new body could assume the functions assigned to it, given its limited human and financial resources, is not so clear.

Beyond the militarist/non-militarist issue, it’s worth asking what will happen during future disasters with reduced military troops and no equally belligerent body to compensate for it. The Municipal Disaster Response Brigades (BRIMURs) would be the ideal substitute, but they will either fall into disuse or remain stunted as long as they continue to depend almost entirely on meager municipal finances and be battered by each new change of municipal government.

The law and the Alemán-NGO conflict

NGO participation during disasters is an issue left deliberately ambiguous in Law 337. This is another of the law’s exploitative grafts. The way the relationship between NGOs and the state is dealt with reflects the Alemán administra-tion’s specific contribution and a particular moment in time in which there was an attempt to reverse the correlation of forces through pure coercion rather than good arguments.

A large proportion of the emergency and reconstruction aid from abroad that came in right after Hurricane Mitch passed through the region was channeled through NGOs because by then many media as well as NGOs with Sandinista roots had been tenaciously denouncing the government’s acts of corruption. According to figures from the now extinct Ministry of Foreign Cooperation, Nicaragua received US$20.4 million by the end of December 1998, just two months after the hurricane, over half of which (US$11.2 million) was provided through civil society entities rather than the government, despite the latter’s untiring efforts to hog the aid and present certain Catholic parishes as ideal civil society counterparts.

Alemán retaliated by declaring war on the NGOs. The crushing National Assembly majority enjoyed by Alemán’s Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) ensured the approval of legal status for a raft of new pro-Alemán NGOs (although the pact between the PLC and the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) later did the same for pro-Daniel Ortega NGOs). This stratagem was aimed at expanding spaces in civil society, attracting cooperation funds and channeling resources from the state budget towards foundations and associations with names as peculiar as their purposes: the Association of Ladies from Estelí Resident in Managua, the Association against Male Impotency, Soldiers of Christ, etc.

So while Law 337 included NGOs, it defined them only as advisers (article 11). Their role had to be limited and the possibility of selecting those of ideological affinity had to be maintained. As a result, it was established that the municipalities’ disaster response committees could only incorporate NGOs at the request of the respective mayor (article 20) and that the National Committee, which consisted exclusively of organizations represented in the government Cabinet, was responsible for “the procedures and instruments for controlling and distributing international aid” and defining which NGOs should be brought into the Sectoral Work Commissions (article 12 of the law’s regulation). Only the Red Cross could have a permanent seat on the territorial committees without passing through bureaucratic filters. The second rung was occupied by the churches, which had the right to be brought in during alerts, disasters and planning. All other organizations were required to present a written request, their acts of constitution and statutes authenticated by a public notary, a certificate from the Ministry of Government and a copy of the disaster management projects they were implementing in the territory (article 15 of the regulation).

The law does not consider the fact that many NGOs working on risk management are part of networks that could easily accredit them, thus avoiding the kind of complicated bureaucratic procedures that are superfluous for an NGO with a long history of disaster response work. This option is possible and theoretically appropriate, although fraught with problems, as we shall see.

The NGOs propose reforms

The government of Enrique Bolaños wanted to mark its difference with the Alemán government in this area. The SINAPRED secretary made a U-turn regarding relations between the government and NGOs in the sectoral commissions’ regulations: “Facilitate the quick access of Civil Society Organizations to the disaster victims. In particular, relevant organizations should facilitate the rapid entry of rescue personnel, waiving and simplifying the requirements for obtaining transit, entry or exit visas.” This marked change of attitude from suspicion and the selective concession of spaces to preferential treatment during emergencies, however, appears in a regulation issued by a government official, not the National Assembly, and is thus subordinated to the law, whose exploitative bias remains unscathed, and revenge-based mentality is covered by the powers that be with only a thin veneer of legality.

Against this background, the National Risk Management Round Table, one of the civil society networks, presented a proposal to reform and modify Law 337. As it is extraordinarily detailed, we’ll only summarize its main changes of direction here. It seeks to transform “the emergency-oriented vision into a risk-management perspective using development instruments with active citizen participation.” It contains nuances that reflect the distance between the conception of the state common to politicians and technocrats and that held by a certain sector of civil society, which have potential implications for the vision of the state’s role. This can be appreciated in the change of orientation from a search for order to a search for social well-being. Whereas in the original law, SINAPRED “looks after civic security and the goods of both citizens and the state,” the reform says it “takes care of the security of the population, and the goods of both it and the state.”

There is a similar adjustment in the proposal’s anti-neoliberal positioning. The reform stresses that the state is the main body responsible in this area: “The activities related to prevention and mitigation by public institutions are a social duty and a national commitment and it is the state’s responsibility to guarantee their operation and implementation. Private activities must be supported by the state.” Furthermore, where Law 337 mentions that the local governments will have economic, technical and human support, the proposal sustains that they “must” have this support, and where Law 337 simply involves the population, the reform stipulates this “as a fundamental element in the activities of the different public and private entities.”

The proposal adds important principles that reveal enormous gaps in the law and the options open to a certain sector of civil society. These include the principle of the nation-based approach, which implies recognition of the country’s multiethnic and multicultural nature, based on the Caribbean Coast’s Autonomy Statute. It therefore calls for including the autonomous regions’ governors in the National Committee. It also calls for a special option for the most vulnerable groups and zones; the chance for SE-SINAPRED to involve civil society organizations with experience in this issue; the establishment of regulations governing official information without negatively affecting press freedom; policies inspired by international commitments; the channeling of more state efforts and resources to prevention and mitigation work; the public nature of information related to risk management, particularly during emergency situations; the ensuring of sustainable local structures and their equipping for the response; the regulating of the resource transfers to the municipalities in the National Risk Plan; applied research; and the concept that regional and local governments are co-responsible—not solely responsible—for the disaster management activities in their area.

As well as these additions of a more programmatic tone, referring to broad principles and options, other proposals could be associated with the redistribution of power quotas. The struggle continues: the law proposes taking precautions against damages through a sustained reduction of vulnerability oriented by the land use planning regulations established by INETER. The reform maintains this SINAPRED function, but drops the mention of INETER and does not specify in whose hands this will be placed. This is both curious and significant, given that the final version of the reform was formulated by the Humboldt Center, whose directors were INETER officials during the Sandinista government of the eighties.

More significant and crystal clear is the reform’s introduction of a new and extensive article detailing the functions of the Disaster Operations Center, whose attachment to the Defense Ministry is emphatically ratified. The article vindicates the army’s role by assigning it coordination of the SINAPRED institutions during states of alert or disaster, in the planning and execution of training sessions and in the staging of periodic simulations. It also proposes the army as coordinator of those institutions in the special operations sectoral working committee and places it alongside the Executive Secretariat in facilitating communications among the SINAPRED entities during emergency or disaster situations.

These reassignments could be politically motivated. While the politicians and technocrats in INETER change with the appointments made by the government of the day, the army still consists of officers with Sandinista roots, with whom the civil society sectors that proposed the reform maintain an ideological affinity, collaboration in the field, personal links and common financial backers. Is this a bad symptom or a just vindication? Or is it simply pragmatic recognition that the army has more stable personnel and doesn’t lose its qualified people every five years? Whatever the case, it is one element that all those involved in this drama should bear in mind to avoid this turning into either a tragedy or farce, because it defines ground rules that reach beyond the explicitly legal.

The reform hasn’t been implemented. It remains a challenge and has the weight of expressing a position and a series of recommendations of undeniable value. Although the proposal was the result of a consultation, there’s an urgent need for other civil society sectors to make pronouncements, offer their backing and extend and reform both the law and the proposed reforms.

In the decade of “municipalism”

Following Mitch, the “hour of municipalism” achieved cliché status. Even before the hurricane, talk of decentralization was little more than verbosity that whiffed of air-conditioned offices and glossy paper. During the post-Mitch rehabilitation work, however, many municipal government officials displayed the kind of uncommon vigor, managerial gifts and devotion to collective well-being that should characterize all public officials.

These virtues were quickly recognized and promoted by multilateral organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme, which started to channel a large amount of its aid through the local governments. Of course, the Alemán government’s loss of prestige played its part in this shift of funds from central to local governments. Cooperation workers migrated in search of more honest administrations, reduced costs and officials whose feet were planted more firmly on the ground.

This chain reaction eventually led, despite much resistance, to the passage of a law in July 2003 that assigned 4% of national tax income to the municipal governments as of the following year, increasing by 0.5% a year until reaching a minimum of 10% in 2010, providing that the gross domestic product increased by at least 1%.

But this gift is not without strings attached. The amount transferred to each municipality depends on the achievement of certain indicators, which sometimes place the municipal authorities in a tight spot. For example, how can property tax revenue be increased in Mulukukú without incurring the wrath of armed ranchers? On certain occasions the Mulukukú mayor’s office has been forced to close due to limited finances. Those who designed the indicators are oblivious to the vicious circles bogging down municipal development.

The transfers are also subject to the loopholes that exist in any law. In this case the legislators invented ways to reward their supporters. So if AMUNIC was inadequate as an authority, the PLC-linked “Hernán Robleto” Association of Patriotic Mayors (ASALPAT) was created, as was the FSLN-linked Nicaraguan Association of Democratic Mayors (ANAD), each of which will receive 2 million córdobas from the national budget in 2007. Even in the midst of these obstacles, which need to be recognized and eliminated, decentralization is nearer to becoming reality than remaining a mechanism for central government decongestion.

Mayoral victories and
local government limitations

During the 2001 general elections and the 2004 municipal elections, party politicians also recognized the importance of working in the municipalities. The municipal governments, previously seen as government bastions of little standing, have become platforms from which to send out a message (good municipal management is viewed as convincing propaganda), show off power, measure strength, practice cronyism and organize the grass roots.

The “hour” of municipalism appears to have extended to almost a decade of continual progress. And the fact that in March 2007 the incumbent FSLN mayors of both Ticuantepe and Granada were dismissed for acts of corruption is further proof that the local political arena is less tolerant of misappropriated funds and impunity.

Law 337 consolidated recognition of the municipalities’ capacity and potential, decentralizing natural disaster prevention. The creation of municipal disaster prevention committees (COMUPREDs) and BRIMURs demonstrates that the law and its regulatory derivative recognizes the leading role that municipal governments should play in risk management.

Another victory for the municipalities is the authorization for the mayors to “declare states of alert in their respective territories.” This unusual permission comes from a lesson learned during Mitch: municipalities are often the first to realize the magnitude of a disaster and seriousness of its impact. Felícita Zeledón, who was mayor of Posoltega during Mitch, called for immediate help to rescue the inhabitants of one of her communities when it was buried under a mudslide from the nearby Casitas volcano, only to be scornfully accused of being mad and alarmist by President Alemán. An immediate response to her call of alarm would probably have saved many of the thousands of lives lost. The new regulations represent a belated victory for the mayors, particularly Felícita Zeledón, over Arnoldo Alemán, albeit a hollow one for the victims of Posoltega.

But there are also ominous signs in the midst of these municipal triumphs. The hypocritical flavor of Law 337’s article 8 is not at all encouraging: “With the aim of respecting regional and municipal autonomy, the regional and local governments are mainly responsible for activities related to prevention, mitigation, preparation, response, rehabilitation and reconstruction in their territorial sphere.” Mainly responsible without enough resources allocated to prevent or respond to disasters? The reform seeks to correct this article. After all, recognition without any budget is nothing more than unpaid flattery.

Another decree calls on the municipalities to create six municipal commissions that must have their offices in the respective municipal buildings. This is sheer utopia when certain mayors complain that they don’t even have sufficient premises to cover their day-to-day operations.

All of those interviewed recognize the leading role played by the municipalities. Most sustain that some municipalities contribute proportionally more to risk management than the central government. Ivan Murillo of Oxfam Great Britain in Nicaragua insists that “among the actions it was hoped would be implemented, SINAPRED has remained very theoretical and the more operational level has unquestionably been picked up by the municipal governments. The local, regional and municipal emergency committees have more actively taken on the tasks while SINAPRED, the midget ‘brains’ of the operation, gobbled up all the resources.”

Many changes and “very pretty maps”

Several interviewees feel that local management still displays serious weaknesses and that it’s dangerous to idealize it, partly because the municipalities are very vulnerable to the political lurches of the party in local (and national) office. For Bayardo Figueroa, deputy coordinator of Nicaraguan Community and Emergency Affairs at World Vision, “Municipal elections change everything we’ve invested in human resources in the municipalities. They change the municipality’s structure so these resources go elsewhere. Then we have to start the same process all over, training other people. That’s why the structures on the community level are the ones that have functioned best and remained most stable, and is why we get more involved with the communities.”

Meanwhile the organization Joint Church Action notes that “there’s little linkage with other institutions at the municipal level—between MINSA [the health ministry] and the mayor’s office, for example. The mayor’s offices often don’t have areas responsible for this. They have areas dedicated to the environment, projects, urban development, but you won’t find anyone responsible for risk management. The law stipulates that it should be the mayor themselves, but they’re involved in other things. Whether or not they’ve been affected by disasters, they don’t view it as a necessity.” According to Melvin Díaz, the SDC’s project chief in Nicaragua, it is popularly believed that “the mayor politically looks for something visible, like paving the streets, but the truth is that each and every one of the projects should be implemented with a risk-based vision.”

All of this fuels the idea that a lot is still to be done regarding municipal risk management despite the support of national NGOs and foreign cooperation. Moisés González of Christian Aid says that the challenge is “to get the local governments to assume risk management as more than just a fad that ends up with pretty maps. What’s the use of having a really pretty map if you’re not going to respond when an actual disaster hits, if you don’t improve or reduce the vulnerability of communities along riverbanks or on hillsides?”

National or international?

The academic field of disaster studies isn’t very developed in Central America. There are few professions that can easily be associated with the study and prevention of disasters, the most clearly identifiable of which is geology, yet there are only 100 geologists in Nicaragua. To fill this gap, the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua’s Center for Geo-scientific Research (CIGEO/UNAN) launched a Central American master’s degree in risk evaluation and disaster reduction in 2003 with support from the SDC, the University of Barcelona, the University of Costa Rica and the National Autonomous University of Mexico. This course has trained civil society and state professionals in watershed management; paleoseismol-ogy; disaster theory; hydrographic basins; and threats caused by land instability and volcanic, hydro-meteorological, seismic and anthropogenetic phenomena.

The CIGEO lecturers do not think SINAPRED is sufficiently exploiting the opportunities that UNAN is offering to train their professionals better. The course has been running for four years and is now in its second stage. The last course cycle only graduated 20 students, 4 of which worked for SINAPRED. Scholarships have been granted to the Civil Defense Office, SINAPRED and religious groups and work has been coordinated with INETER, the Humboldt Center, AMC, AMUNIC, the National Agrarian University and the National Engineering University.

To contribute further to the indispensable dissemination of scientific findings, CIGEO publishes the magazine Tierra, in which experts continually examine disaster management in articles such as “Posoltega and Quezalguaque in the sights of natural disasters,” “Central America in the face of disasters,” “Landslides: Causes and monitoring,” “Nicaragua needs to evaluate geological risks,” “Seismicity: Ally of landslides,” “San Juan River: From bonanza to apocalypse,” “From continental drift to plate tectonics,” “Paleoseismology applied to Managua fault lines” and “You can’t trust effusive volcanoes.”

Marvin Valle and Claudio Romero of CIGEO are of the opinion that despite all the efforts to produce quality knowledge, foreign agencies and other institutions don’t recognize the value of national production: “This is starting to be a big business. Large amounts of funding from world banks are beginning to bring a load of ‘consultants’ who don’t value those of us who work here. This should be part of a state policy. If they go to the Conception volcano, take samples, take photos and don’t even care about the people around them, that’s no help at all. These ‘specialists’ only leave you a pile of compact discs and reports and then leave. Where’s the transfer and experience of knowledge in that?”

Progress in the culture of risk

Law 337 recovers many of the lessons learned in the wake of Mitch: the need to develop a culture of prevention and not equate it with development, even when underdevelopment is an expression of vulnerability; the need to work on more than just preparing for an emergency; the urgent need to recognize the municipal governments’ competence and lead role in disaster prevention, mitigation and preparation, etc. The “developmentalist” wave in disaster response is losing its sway: more development doesn’t necessarily bring more risk management.

Now there’s insistence on the anthropogenetic nature of many disasters. In the words of Carlos Ling from Oxfam Great Britain, “Risks aren’t created by natural factors. There are threats or critical natural situations that put society as a whole on the rack, but the capacity to respond to them depends a lot on society. The risk depends on the conditions of human groups. The more vulnerable they are, the greater the impact and risk are likely to be. We can reduce the risk by reducing the vulnerability.

Progress is also being made in changing the culture of risk, which implies construction standards, soil use management, cleaning of contaminated wells, provision of shelters, etc. And all of this depends on a change in the perception of the unpredictable nature of disasters and awareness of the prevention and mitigation measures that can and must be taken. An interesting joint initiative in this regard by Jesuit organizations—led by Nitlapán, Juan XXIII and Fe y Alegría—assures that all premises where they work are equipped with extinguishers and that their architecture includes evacuation routes. Small but significant details are being checked in some public schools, such as having the doors open outwards to facilitate evacuation. The devil is in the details. These small cultural changes could save thousands of lives if a catastrophe strikes. To accelerate these changes of perception, the Consultancy for Research and Development in Nicaragua (CIDENIC) has produced a radio program on risk management.

Cultural change implies a new relationship with the environment—including treatment of garbage, which many still don’t relate to illnesses—as well as parameters for attending to communities, an area in which the contributions of the manual produced by the Sphere Project are being disseminated among Nicaraguan NGOs. Promoted by the Red Cross, Oxfam Intermón, Oxfam Great Britain and other NGOs since 1997, the Sphere manual has been adopted by many international agencies and local NGOs as a compendium of norms to follow in case of disaster in five areas: water supply and sanitation, nutrition, food aid, shelters and health services. The core of the manual is a code of conduct for rescue work during disasters.

Flavio Vanegas, head of national rescue operations at the Nicaraguan Red Cross, recognizes the beneficial effects of this proposal and particularly praises the guidelines it provides on appropriate behavior for the communities. “We’re dealing with human beings here,” he explains. “The manual tells you how to act in the communities, starting with respect for local customs.” Other NGOs feel that the nutrition- and health-related requirements set out in the manual are impossible to fulfill given the current conditions in many communities. Others argue that respecting the will of the community residents is complicated in practice, as they often insist on reconstructing where the landslides happened.

Other problems, such as the lack of shelters in most municipalities, only add to the list of structural inadequacies or apparent dead-ends hampering many efforts. “The infrastructure is very poor,” explains Horacio Somarriba of the Humboldt Center, “because the traditional shelters during disasters have been churches, roofed stadiums and schools. But we know that these locales don’t offer the right technical conditions for disaster victims and can produce what is known as a secondary risk: overcrowding causes illnesses due to lack of sanitation and potable water.”

New technologies and other visions

Another area of advances can be found in technical equipment, mapping and infrastructure works. International agencies such as SDC and the Swedish International Development Agency stand out with respect to this kind of investment. They have provided many municipalities with Early Warning Systems that include means of communication, pluviometers and barometers. Unfortunately the many training sessions have not prevented a good part of the equipment from laying idle and abandoned in municipal storerooms, according to various NGO officials.

Some mayor’s offices have not let the training and information on geographical and mapping information systems go to waste, however, which suggests the need to unify, fuse and simplify methodologies and terms. The SDC talks about municipal threat analysis methodology, the Humboldt center trains in community mapping techniques and AMC recommends damage evaluation and needs analysis in post-disaster situations.

For its part, INETER has made decided attempts to improve its technical capacities following Mitch. “It’s not just a matter of technical equipment,” observes Marcio Vaca Salazar, head of INETER’s Technical Liaison Unit for disasters. “It also has to do with the professional capacity of the officials. INETER has increased the coverage of the different stations—meteorological, seismological, vulcanological and hydrological, etc.—right across the territory. A good part of them are perimetric stations that transmit information via satellite, which is received by INETER’s land station. This is first-world technology, and INETER has trained specialists to repair this sophisticated equipment without help.”

In terms of infrastructure, technologies have multiplied to correct large-scale erosion, such as energy dissipaters and transversal curtains. Other efforts include slope stabilization works and channels to avoid erosion, river-bank retaining walls, river breakwaters to contain widening and erosion from the current, protective plantations, the transformation of crop systems, and ramps and fords. MARENA has implemented many of these works.

Complementing these technological advances is the fact that technicians are getting closer to the communities and making efforts to understand their perspective. Marvin Valle and Claudio Romero of CIGEO/UNAN described their conversion: “We had a new experience. I understand volcanoes from a chemical, dynamic and tectonic point of view… but if you ask people who who’ve spent 30 or 40 years living next to one how they see it, they’ll have a different vision. They’ll draw it for you with flowers. This is a professional bonus that helps you be more human, because sometimes a profession’s vision in his or her own field isn’t so accurate after all. The social factor is something incredible. I’ve noticed that it’s opened up all of our closed technical visions a bit.” This is producing encouraging signs: for example, Alejandro Rodríguez Alvarado, the current INETER director, is taking an interest in promoting greater closeness between the approach of the physical sciences and that of social sciences in the area of prevention and mitigation.

Lessons learned: Psychic disasters
and changes in food aid

Law 337 also made timid progress by recognizing that natural disasters produce psychological damage requiring treatment. Immediately after Mitch, psychologists Martha Cabrera and Gustavo Pineda did a titanic job generating awareness in this respect. They found an early echo in civil society, with AMC sending a team of psychologists to provide psycho-social accompaniment to victims in Posoltega. There was also a late and faltering echo in the state, at the request of foreign cooperation. Particularly valuable was Cabrera’s talk published in envío in December 2002 under the title “Living and Surviving in a Multiply Wounded Country,” which established a milestone by showing one facet of the national character in an atypical, though convincingly illustrated way. The Women’s Network against Violence has also helped disseminate this gospel through its own work, summarized in the study “By reconstructing lives we are reconstructing Nicaragua: The importance of emotional recovery in the face of natural phenomena and gender-based violence.” The big lesson was that not only houses and road or productive infrastructure need to be reconstructed, but psychologies do as well.

Another institution that learned lessons in the wake of Mitch and other disasters is the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The FAO’s 2006 report proposed a series of significant changes in how international food aid is managed and distributed after it was discovered that approximately a third of the world budget for this kind of aid—almost US$600 million—is spent in the donor countries and never reaches the intended beneficiaries. The FAO has pointed out that the countries’ local elites have benefited enormously from emergencies and the generosity of humanitarian aid; for example, the world’s main donor spends nearly half of its food aid budget by processing the food in the country of origin then transporting it through national companies.

The FAO suggests that, if possible, the aid should be distributed in cash or in food coupons rather than food shipments that can affect producers and markets in the receiving countries, and contribute to distortions in international agricultural trade. The report states that unlike in-kind aid, cash transfers and food coupons could stimulate local production, strengthening local food systems and the beneficiaries in a way that traditional food aid is incapable of doing.


Unlike the FAO, others involved in the drama have been unable to shift course. We’re still being dragged down by the dead weight of politicized state posts. Marvin Valle and Claudio Romero of the CIGEO/UNAN have observed that “on the governmental level they appoint politicians rather than people specialized in the subject. And it’s a shame that scientific institutions like INETER sometimes allow political matters to cloud the issue of disasters, as happened with Mitch. Despite the magnitude of damages caused by Mitch, prompt attention wasn’t given for political reasons. There still are no people in government to direct the kind of institution established by law.” On orders from President Alemán, INETER didn’t sound the all-out alarm during Mitch and even denied the magnitude of the hurricane. Its director Claudio Gutiérrez, later even abused INETER’s authority by gerrymandering the municipal border between Managua and El Crucero in such a way as to stop Alemán’s rival, Pedro Solórzano, from running for mayor of Managua.

Valle and Romero have also seen the harmful effects that the panic of losing one’s job or the fever for promotion can trigger among politicized public officials: “In government institutions like SINAPRED and INETER they’re thinking about whether or not they’re going to be fired, or whether they’ll be given another post. They’re more concerned about those issues than the hill that’s about to collapse in a mudslide.”


Another sadly familiar tale is the impunity still reigning among those committing criminal acts against the environment. Horacio Somarriba of the Humboldt Center charged that big business “keeps on felling trees, contaminating water sources and exposing people to risks. What’s being done to stop the tree felling or contamination? It’s either not denounced, or when it is the process is truncated, the police don’t act, big bribes are paid and sometimes there are lots of interests involved. The system is corrupted. A lot more needs to be done, starting with the big landowners. For example, the Pellas family is planting sugar cane all over the place. They take away people’s land and divert the water they use for their domestic and productive work and that puts them at risk. Who’s regulating this? Nobody. People are scared of the power of money.”

Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Pérez, who heads the departmental Civil Defense Office in Managua, accuses the assembly plants for re-export known as maquilas of causing further environmental damage: “What are the free trade zones leaving us? Waste, contamination. Those chemicals go into Lake Managua and the rivers, contaminate the water table and generate foul odors and environmental deterioration. That’s generating risk. By law, those responsible have to pay compensation to the state or the municipality for those damages, but they don’t even do that.”

There is definitely economic, social, organizational and educational vulnerability, but there’s also a legal vulnerability in the loopholes in laws and a moral risk in the corrupting power of the dominant sectors. Law 337 isn’t very explicit about these aspects. It doesn’t even explain what kind of sanctions will be applied to those entities that don’t help respond to a disaster.

Financial dependency

The proposed reforms to Law 337 call for article 12 to establish 3% of the national budget as a minimum reserve for the national disaster mitigation and response fund. The law itself specifies no amount or percentage, which probably explains why far less than 3% has been assigned. In 2005, the National Assembly earmarked just under 46 million córdobas for SINAPRED, the equivalent of less than 0.3% of the national budget. After that year, budgetary allotments were made to SINAPRED’s Executive Secretariat, amounting to 13.8 and 18.6 million córdobas, respectively. in 2006 and 2007.

In practice, certain government entities execute far from negligible resources in the area of risk management, although they are miniscule relative to the country’s needs. The Defense Ministry, for example, dedicated over 12 million córdobas to risk management in 2007. But absurd though it may seem, not all SINAPRED members have a disaster response portfolio. There is only mention of this kind of project in MARENA, the Defense Ministry and INETER, which is perceived as a limitation to SINAPRED functioning as a real system.

Disaster response is gradually increasing the foreign debt. In 2004, 40 of the 53 million córdobas assigned to SINAPRED came from an International Bank for Reconstruction and Development loan, while in 2005, around 30 million of SINAPRED’s almost 46 million córdobas came in the form of a World Bank loan. The citizenry should receive more detailed accounts about where these resources are going. Some of those interviewed said they were unaware of the total disaster fund assignation, but have noted alarming symptoms. In 2004, SINAPRED recorded over 34 million córdobas as payment for technical studies, advice and consultancies. A very wide range of fauna can be sheltered under such a generic umbrella, including the parasitic opportunists of yesterday, today and tomorrow, advisory pirates always eager to absorb the liquidity on offer. Some NGOs, meanwhile, assume that the assignations are lower, because of the squalid amounts dedicated to operating costs. “Last year it was around 8 million córdobas [roughly $500,000], which isn’t even enough to cover six months of gas to travel on the Río Coco during the emergency there,” says Ángel Aragón from Lutheran Action.

The international begging industry has made a contribution that covers everything NGOs do and a good part of what the state does in relation to risks. The weight of foreign cooperation is the determining factor in the amount received for disaster prevention projects. This year the Defense Ministry is implementing projects related to volcanic threats and forest fires in Nueva Segovia, as well as disaster prevention in 105 communities in León. The state provided a little over a million córdobas (15%), with CARE, ACSUR Las Segovias and the German Samaritan Workers’ Federation putting up the other 7 million.

This year the governments of the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Germany provided INETER almost 9 million córdobas (87%) for disaster mitigation and geological and aquifer vulnerability studies in León. The state will give the other 13%. The disproportion is even greater in MARENA’s case. In the project for sustainable land management in drought-prone degraded areas, the state’s 719,000 córdobas compares to the World Environment Fund’s 6 million.

Waiting for “ready cooked Fish”

These financial imbalances reflect the state’s limited interest in the issue rather than a limited state portfolio. In the 2007 budget over 90 million córdobas are earmarked for foundations, associations, Cardenal Obando y Bravo’s Catholic University (12 million alone) and parishes linked to PLC and FSLN legislators. In the words of German Quezada of Intermón Oxfam, “On the response level, I think the Aquilles’ heel is the assigning of resources for local, departmental and national humanitarian response. Although the subject is important in the discourse, the importance of prevention and risk management is still marginal when it comes to dollars and cents.”

This situation worries most of the NGO officials interviewed. For Flavio Vanegas of the Nicaraguan Red Cross, “One of our really big mistakes is having people come and solve our problems, pinning our hopes on a foreign budget. Let’s get back to the principle of a culture of prevention: if our leaders were conscious of earmarking a budget for prevention, I don’t think we’d need any international aid. Unfortunately, they don’t just give us the fish, they even bring it ready cooked, and that’s what we want to avoid in the communities.”

FAO director Jacques Diouf recently mentioned the same danger—even using the same well-known metaphor: “Wherever possible, it’s better to teach and help people to fish, rather than giving them the fish. In the long run, attention has to be focused on preventive measures to increase the security of food production and productivity, particularly through investing in water control and rural infrastructure, as well as providing access to inputs and credit. In cases of repeated crises and chronic hunger, donors and receivers can get caught in the ‘aid trap,’ in which long-term development strategies get neglected.”

Dispersed efforts

One immediate result of Mitch was the creation of the Civil Coordinator for the Emergency and Reconstruction, a coalition that at the time grouped together most of the NGOs doing rehabilitation work. International agencies and governments applauded and supported the initiative. Now that the emergency and reconstruction phases are over, the Civil Coordinator has distinguished itself as an important mouthpiece for Nicaraguan society, making proposals on the handling of the foreign and domestic debts, denouncing the privatization policies and challenging corrupt politicians, among other activities.

From within the Civil Coordinator emerged numerous thematic round tables, including one on National Risk Management. There is also an initiative known as the Sphere Network, consisting of 11 organizations—including CARE, ADRA, Oxfam International, CIDENIC, Catholic Relief Services and World Vision—associated around the famous manual of the same name, mentioned above. Some of those interviewed talk of participating on two or three of the round tables, while several haven’t gotten involved in any. The fact is that there are many round tables and many are invited to take a seat, but few actually get involved.

Some round tables open up new arenas based on characteristics such as ideological affinities, while others—according to their own members—have emerged from the endless splits and quarrels born out of the following factors: the social disaster of seeking organizational and individual leadership; the fact that everyone is on the make, nobody speaks the same language and everybody makes alliances to obtain money; and rejection of the impositions of certain international agencies. The result is a dispersion of efforts and squandering of funds to produce basically the same thing: each one has its own risk map.

Discords and short-circuits

The divisions between the state with its heterogeneity and civil society with its, and within civil society itself produced some widely diverging assessments from the interviews: “there is coordination” versus “there’s absolutely no coordination”; “there’s a common conceptual framework” versus “there is conceptual chaos”; “the law defines roles” versus “the roles of each organization haven’t been defined”; “there are trained personnel” versus “there’s little training of the personnel involved”; “the state hasn’t implemented prevention work” versus “there have been noticeable advances in prevention [territorial planning, gabions, retaining walls]; “the government doesn’t give the issue enough importance” versus “the government has included the issue in the plans of many of its entities”; and “there are technical teams” versus “the technical teams are insufficient.”

The discord between these appraisals springs in part from the diverse positions of those mentioning them: NGO and municipal officials tend to be more critical of central government management. It is also partly due to ignorance of what Law 337 established and the work of the different coordinating bodies. Finally, it depends on which aspect is being analyzed and whether the interviewee is thinking about actual concrete deeds or just the admittedly abundant production of documents.

More determining than these appraisals are the emphases sometimes presented as preferential and even exclusive options—either in discourse or in practice. Some feel that preparation for an emergency frequently absorbs efforts that could be channeled into prevention. The emergency-based vision—strict preparation for disaster response—is opposed to the development-based vision, which sees the country’s development as the panacea. Opting for infrastructure is often at odds with opting for organization, as is opting for technical studies—faults, vulcanology, plates—or social studies—which place more emphasis on multiethnic aspects and changing perceptions.

These divergences and options sometimes produce short-circuits among organizations and dialogues among people who are deaf to what the other person is saying. To this should be added the famous “impasses”: the need to increase the disaster management budget clashes with the current dependence on foreign funds; and the pretension of scientism clashes with the need to disseminate knowledge to transform perceptions and change the culture of risk. Seismorrhea is the most unintelligible of the verbal diarrheas.

In one Nicaraguan mayor’s office a mission of brainy Czech seismologists presented a thick study document and a map crisscrossed with fault lines. The mayor took one look at the map and said “this country’s more scored than a papaya,” referring to the practice of making shallow cuts in a papaya to remove the bitter milk from the skin. For Marvin Valle and Claudio Romero, “the most serious problem is bringing in specialists from outside. They do you a report with 30 chemical and mathematical formulas and you pass it on to the mayor’s offices; but neither the mayor nor his technical team has the training to completely understand it, let alone ordinary inhabitants who often can’t read or write. It’s not just about doing a study.”

“We’re due another earthquake…”

Another impasse is marked by the secular centralization of most state functions in Managua. SINAPRED is burdened by this problem, which according to Marcio Vaca Salazar of INETER could have fatal consequences. “I feel that our greatest weakness is the possibility of an earthquake in Managua. That would imply the system breaking down, because it would be right in the middle of the problem. Everything’s in Managua.” This Damocles’ sword continues to hang over Managua, with people often commenting that “it’s 30 years since the last one: we’re due again.” They are basing this prediction on the hardly scientific theory that they occur every 31 years since the major Managua earthquake prior to the one in 1972 occurred in 1941.

Other possible threats include an immense tidal wave somewhere along the Pacific coastline, as occurred in 1992; Cerro Negro again spewing ash and lava as it does with disarming frequency; and increasingly recurrent climatic disorders ranging from droughts to flooding. Take your pick. World Vision’s Bayardo Figueroa believes that “nature has been very loving towards us: there’s been nothing strong since Mitch and it could put us to the test to see if we’re really doing what we say. We’re all hoping and praying to God that it’s not going to put us to the test.”

What will happen when the test finally comes? There’s a hurricane of papers, but will this immense production hit the target, particularly in cultural terms? What has been done in the field of perceptions? How do the different options and impasses affect disaster management in practice in the communities? In a coming article based on Posoltega—the “burning land” ironically swamped by a mudslide—we’ll see if the avalanche of plans has transformed the way disasters are prepared for and created the capacity to avoid becoming their accomplice.

Comparative Table of 1976 law and the law of 2000
Emphasizes the unpredictable nature of disasters and the need to control the effects of the “catastrophes.”

Organizes and instructs the civil population.

Nicaragua is located in a region prone to catastrophes.

Creates the Nicaraguan Civil Defense (DECINIC)

Civil Defense answers to the National Guard and the President.

Civil Defense is an implementing body.

The director of Civil Defense has decision-making powers.

Centralism: Civil Defense promotes subsidiaries

Subsidiaries where necessary.

No explicit mention of NGOs.

Civil Defense negotiates and coordinates the aid with other bodies.

Does not explicitly involve other state bodies.

Participation of civilians in the rescue activities is legally obliged.

LAW 337
Emphasizes the reduction of vulnerability.

Technological monitoring of disasters and care for the environment.

Disasters have social causes and their impact can be reduced.

Creates the Executive Secretariat of the National Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Response System (SE-SINAPRED), which takes on the functions previously exercised by the Civil Defence Office.

SE-SINAPRED answers to a National Commission and the President.
SINAPRED is a coordinating body.

SINAPRED does not have decision-making power. Has a voice, but no vote, on the National Commission.

Decentralization: there are departmental and municipal committees. Mayor’s Offices play a lead role and can declare states of alert.

Permanent committees.

NGOs “can” be involved as advisers.

SINAPRED controls the aid.

Involves 12 central government bodies and the regional, departmental and municipal committees.

Voluntary participation in community and municipal brigades.

José luis rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Central American Migrants (SJM) and a member of envío’s editorial council.

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