Teresópolis – Brazil’s Disaster Risk Reduction Success

Global action to tackle climate change is being discussed through 12 December at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP20) in Lima, Peru. In Latin America, projects supported by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) focused on preparedness help mitigate the effects already taking place – often small projects with huge impact. Our colleague Ruth Silva shares the story of a Brazilian city’s preparedness for future climate-related events, and how it’s saving lives.

Flooded rivers in southern Brazil. Photo; defesacivil.sc.gov.br
Flooded rivers in Brazil, 2013. Photo; defesacivil.sc.gov.br

In 2011, the floods and landslides in Teresópolis, Brazil, 90 kilometres north of Rio de Janeiro, killed more than 180, left hundreds missing and caused thousands of Euros worth in damage. In 2013, after a new episode of strong rains, not one single casualty was reported. The difference between one event and the other is not due to lesser severity of the floods, but to the preparedness of the community facing them.

The heavy floods three years ago in Teresopólis and other municipalities in the mountainous region of the state of Rio de Janeiro swept away everything in their path. With  more than 900 killed throughout the state, it was considered the worst disaster in recent years in South America. Local authorities had physical and material resources to meet the most pressing needs derived from this type of emergency, but there was no link with the community. The community preparation, passed by the national legislation through the figure of the Cores of Community Civil Defense (NUDECs), had never become a reality.

“The Civil Defense of the municipality had been very well trained in first-aid techniques, search and rescue, and clean up, but never before had worked with the community. The NUDECs were not implemented for lack of knowledge”, said Alvaro De Vicente, who during the last five years has coordinated the Disaster Preparedness Programme Action Plans of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) in South America.

In 2012, ECHO and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) CARE launched a disaster preparedness project (DIPECHO) whose fundamental pillar was focused on the participation of the community and the local authorities and institutions. Therefore, the first three Cores of Community Civil Defense were born.

The results of this community approach were highly positive. The rains in 2013 were the scenario for the community, trained in the framework of the DIPECHO project, to put its knowledge to the test. The NUDECs activated the alert systems and search and rescue of victims, they put clean-up techniques into practice, offered first aid to the victims before the arrival of the Civil Defense, and, in addition, were prepared to channel the humanitarian aid the state had provided. Its coordinated and timely action reduced the impact of the disaster.

Teresopolis was the only municipality in the entire area affected by the rains that recorded no deaths.

The preparation and performance during the emergency were worth the city’s Gold Medal award for the NUDEC in the Rosario neighbourhood, the group with whom the DIPECHO project worked.

In addition to preparing a community to act in times of a disaster, the project promoted the community level and the Cores of Civil Defense that should exist by law, giving them visibility and encouraging a change in the way in which the authorities addressed disaster risk reduction (DRR).

The experience was soon replicated in 25 other districts of the municipality. Its success is consolidated by the Civil Defense of Rio de Janeiro adopting the community-based approach used by CARE in neighbourhoods and schools, and integrating the manual of the NUDEC which had been created in the framework of the DIPECHO project into the institution’s curriculum.

What happened in Teresópolis is a good example of what De Vicente calls “humanitarian acupuncture”. Like in traditional acupuncture, in which thin needles are inserted into specific strategic body points to relieve a wide range of problems, ECHO, through its disaster preparedness program, intervenes only in specific areas which are highly exposed and vulnerable to disasters. Small scale and low cost operations that achieve a high humanitarian impact translates into saving lives, and this can be replicated in wider areas by the concerned authorities.

Disaster preparedness is imperative to deal with the effects of climate change and accelerated and uncontrolled urbanisation. Through a project such as Teresópolis, ECHO hopes that the communities in vulnerable areas know the risks to which they are exposed, and know how to respond in times of emergency. ECHO aids with training, equipment, and small mitigation projects to make communities facing increasingly frequent and severe disasters more resilient.

The above article was written by ECHO and originally appeared here.