A Critical Evaluation of the United Nations Volcanic Emergency Management System: Evidence from Latin America

By Macias, Jesus Manuel; Aguirre, Benigno E. | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

A Critical Evaluation of the United Nations Volcanic Emergency Management System: Evidence from Latin America


Macias, Jesus Manuel, Aguirre, Benigno E., Journal of International Affairs


A chronic problem in the management of volcanic emergencies is the collective struggles and conflicts among the parties involved, many of which are beset with faulty public policies. Examples abound in the literature associated with this field, including the Taal volcano in the Philippines and the emergency management challenges that occurred with the eruptions of Soufriere (1976) and Soufriere (1979) volcanoes in Guadalupe and St. Vincent islands, respectively. All of these cases demonstrate the potential that conflicting scientific views can have in shaping emergency responses, and their ability to influence public policies that overlook critical risks faced by the populations most threatened by volcanic eruptions. (1)

The organizational arrangements and decisionmaking schemes used in managing volcanic emergencies received a good deal of attention after the Armero disaster in Colombia produced by the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano in 1985. This eruption formed an enormous lahar (debris flow) that buried most of the population of the town of Armero, killing 20,000 to 24,000 people, a volcanic disaster of nearly unprecedented proportion and the fourth worst such disaster on record. (2) One of the consequences of the Armero disaster was the creation of the U.S.-based Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), an interagency cooperative program that attempts to "reduce eruption-caused fatalities and economic losses in developing countries." (3) Another outcome, which garnered strong support from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), was the adoption of organizational measures recommended by the Volcanic Emergency Management Manual of the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization (UNDRO). (4)

Many countries in Latin America and elsewhere adopted the resulting UNDRO-USGS management scheme. It assumes that people are aware of volcanic hazards and wish to protect their communities; that laws exist at the local, regional and national levels that would make it possible to create and carry out protective measures; that there is ample scientific knowledge to construct alternative scenarios of the eruptions and their destructive effects; that it will be possible to disseminate warnings with sufficient lead time for people to take protective action; and that an emergency plan can be put in place. The manual includes the following social actors:

* A group of scientists in charge of monitoring the volcano who issue forecasts to appropriate authorities about the probability and nature of the risks of volcanic activity. They would not intervene in the activities of civil authorities in charge of protecting the population.

* An emergency management committee that includes public officials and representatives from other community organizations, which interprets and uses the scientific knowledge for the population's protection.

* An effective mass communication system that disseminates the decisions of the emergency management system and provides people with information about the volcanic threat and the recommended protective actions.

The UNDRO-USGS scheme assumes that a variety of technical resources as well as preparedness and response programs for the authorities and threatened population are already in place. (5) The scheme does not consider the cultural and social complexities linked to emergency response in the developing world; rather, it primarily examines the risk of volcanic eruption from a natural science perspective. (6) The risks associated with the decision to evacuate or resettle communities are often not considered sufficiently. While the manual is suitable for actors that have a high level of technical proficiency, it is less optimal for volcanic emergencies that affect communities and regions where such expertise is lacking. At times, this deficit can be as basic as having no system of public warnings. (7)

In the analysis that follows, we examine the emergency management program involving population evacuation and resettlement that has been used in volcanic risk situations on five volcanoes in three developing societies: Chichonal, Popocatepetl and Volcan de Fuego, in Mexico; Tungurahua in Ecuador; and San Cristobal in Nicaragua. …

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