Preparing for natural disasters

In Central America, natural disasters are frequent and devastating. Hurricane Stan in 2005 is just one example. It created a plethora of problems to which GIZ has developed solutions, many of which can be applied on a more general basis.

Saving lives in Central America

Guatemala and El Salvador are regularly struck by natural disasters. Hurricane Stan alone claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people in these two countries in 2005 and caused over US$1 billion worth of damage. As almost 90 per cent of El Salvador’s total area is considered to be at risk from extreme natural events such as hurricanes and tropical cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, communities cannot be relocated to safer areas. Instead, they must be better prepared for natural disasters in the places where they live.

A project implemented by GIZ on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in the aftermath of Hurricane Stan initially provided emergency relief and transitional aid and supported reconstruction in 12 municipalities in El Salvador and Guatemala. This project led to the development of a pilot scheme for disaster risk reduction with national relevance. The scheme involves a wide range of complementary measures. Terraces and retaining walls prevent soil slides on slopes, with additional stability provided by newly planted trees. Simple dikes and the construction of houses on stilts are effective forms of flood protection.

Self-propagated seeds from old varieties of maize and beans have proved to be more resilient to both flooding and drought. The cultivation of these traditional staple foods – maize and beans – is supplemented with fast-growing vegetables, fruit, coffee and amaranth.

However, sustainable adaptation to climate change involves more than simply changing food production systems and thus improving local people’s food security. There is sound evidence that when combined with disaster risk prevention, it can save lives. Here, GIZ’s project has a number of results to its credit. Risk maps have been produced for several villages as a frame of reference for construction projects, and early warning systems with radio equipment and loudspeaker masts have been installed. Local emergency committees have been set up and disaster prevention exercises carried out. With training provided by GIZ, the local communities have assumed responsibility for these protection systems. Risk maps are now mandatory for all municipalities in El Salvador. So far, around 20,000 families – some 120,000 people – in El Salvador and Guatemala have directly benefited from the project.

On behalf of


Alois Kohler

'So simply evacuating people to safer ground is not an option, because there isn't any. It is not a moment too soon, then, to establish 'a crisis prevention and management regime that allows us to adapt to the challenging circumstances.'
Alois Kohler, Project Leader in El Salvador and Guatemala