Catastrophic risks are defined as events with a low probability but a big economic and social impact. A natural event could become a disaster depending on the degree of vulnerability – that is to say, to which extent a geographic area, community or structure is able to face the negative effects of the event.

Nowadays, global awareness about the frequency and severity of natural disasters is increasing and mitigating the damaging effects of those risks is becoming a global priority. Working on reducing risk exposure and enhancing early alarm systems, emergency management and reconstruction with a global perspective are a key issue for any country to minimize the great damage associated with disasters in terms of human, social and financial costs.

On 27 February 2012, Chile suffered the worst natural disaster of the past 60 years. It ranks as the sixth largest earthquake ever to be recorded by a seismograph. It was felt strongly in six Chilean regions, affecting about 80% of the country’s population.

The earthquake triggered a tsunami that devastated several coastal towns in south-central Chile. The total cost of the damage produced by the disaster is estimated at US$ 30 billion, equivalent to 18% of the GNP. This natural disaster, with catastrophic consequences for the country, imposed a great challenge on the government due to the wide spread of the damage and its complexity.

Since the first days following the disaster, I have been part of President Piñera’s team leading the emergency and reconstruction efforts. First as Governor of O’Higgins Region, one of the most affected areas by the earthquake, and after as Minister of Housing and Urban Development, giving me the opportunity to become a witness and a key player in the government’s efforts to develop and implement the reconstruction.

During the process, we faced great challenges such as to guarantee public safety and restore basic services, integrate the efforts of the private and public sectors, and install emergency housing in scattered locations. But the most challenging task posed by the disaster was to implement a plan to respond to more than 220,000 families that needed government assistance to reconstruct or rebuild their homes, to plan our future cities and to implement strategies to minimize losses provoked by natural hazards.

In countries with a high level of exposure, such as Chile, natural disasters are considered tragedies that imply severe losses, but they could also be considered as a unique opportunity to learn and implement risk reduction measures for the future. In this sense, this disaster was not an exception, and taught us important lessons that I would like to share:

  • The leadership of the government is a key factor in the success of a reconstruction process, articulating the efforts of all sectors and uniting the public and private sectors and civil society.
  • The focus of the reconstruction process must be on affected families, not on repositioning the houses destroyed. Housing and urban reconstruction is the most challenging of all, trying to avoid massive displacements and giving families the chance to rebuild their homes and live where they always have.
  •  In the rebuilding process, families should be able to participate in the choice of their homes, to empower them as owners and agents of the solution.
  • Given the diversity of problems, you need to have a battery of diverse solutions to enable communities to reach those most appropriate for them.
  • We must look to the future of our towns and cities in a responsible and safe way, planning and developing resilient cities with tools that consider risk conditions and mitigation measures.

Natural disasters are inevitable, but we must learn to be better prepared to decrease the amount of damage and losses. Acknowledging risk conditions; informing communities about the real risks and potential losses they face; taking prevention measures; enhancing collaborative cross-sectorial networks; and strengthening immediate response capacities at a local, regional and global level are part of the challenges that we should prioritize in our agendas.

Author: Rodrigo Pérez Mackenna is Minister of Housing and Urbanism for Chile and Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Catastrophic Risks

Image: A dog is seen as fishermen stand on a destroyed bridge in a fishing hamlet south of Santiago, Chile REUTERS/Victor Ruiz Caballero