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Developing effective disaster mitigation strategies in Sao Paulo: process and challenges.

Abstract. In Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, recent attempts have been made to develop effective mitigation strategies to deal with natural and human disasters, especially in urban areas. This article examines the evolution and impact of one such effort undertaken in the Municipality of Sao Paulo since 1997. With support and technical assistance from the City of Toronto, Canada, and expert advice from several emergency response agencies in Brazil, Sao Paulo's Centro de Gerenciamento de Emergencias was initially envisioned as a "full-service" facility designed both to mitigate the effects of natural and man-made disasters through personnel training and enhanced warning systems and to coordinate effective event response through disaster relief programs and reconstruction/repair activities. Over time, however, CGE's mandate has become increasingly restricted, and currently functions almost exclusively as an early warning system for regional flooding. The study explores the factors underlying this outcome, and assesses the prospects for broader technical cooperation between Canada and Brazil that may help to strengthen mitigation/disaster relief strategies throughout Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America.

Resume. Au Bresil et ailleurs en Amerique latine, des tentatives recentes ont ete faites de developper des strategies effectives d'attenuation de desastres naturels et humains, particulierement en zones urbaines. Cet article examine l'evolution et l'impact d'un de ces efforts entrepris dans la municipalite de Sao Paolo depuis 1997. Avec le soutien et l'assistance technique de la ville de Toronto au Canada, et l'avis d'experts de plusieurs agences de secours au Bresil, le Centro de Gerenciamento de Emergencias (CGE) de Sao Paolo a initialement ete envisage comme une structure de " plein services " concu a la fois pour mitiger les effets de desastres naturels et humains grace a un entrainement personnalise et des systemes d'avertissement ameliores, et pour coordonner de facon effective les reactions aux evenement a travers les programmes de reponses au desastres et les activites de reconstruction/reparation. Neanmoins, le mandat du CGE s'est restreint avec le temps, et actuellement il agit presque exclusivement comme systeme de premiere alerte pour les inondations regionales. Cette etude explore les facteurs qui expliquent ce resultat, et evalue les possibilites d'une cooperation technique plus vaste entre le Canada et le Bresil qui pourrait aider a fortifier les strategies d'attenuation et de soulagement de desastres au Bresil et ailleurs en Amerique latine.


The United Nations designated the 1990s as the Decade of Natural Disasters Reduction--with good reason. Since the 1950s, the number of disastrous events and losses from such events grew dramatically, with floods and earthquakes taking a particularly serious toll. During the previous two decades, more than three million people lost their lives due to natural disasters, with the safety and livelihood of hundreds of millions having been affected. Ironically, the UN-designated decade was one of the worst for loss of life, with more than 250,000 killed each year (Abramovitz 2001, 6; Velasquez, Uitto, Wisner, and Takahashi 1999, 161), and total losses approaching the US $600 billion mark.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the developing world accounts for the bulk of such statistics, with well over 90% of disaster-related deaths occurring in poorer countries. Urban populations in these areas are particularly at risk, due to recent migration patterns which have resulted in the unprecedented growth of large, underserviced neighbourhoods that lack even the most basic infrastructure and services. As such, the developing world's poor have been placed literally in harm's way, with little protection from the adverse effects of an array of disastrous events (Abramovitz 2001, 16, 23-24; Burton, Kates, and White 1993, 24-27; Velasquez et al. 1999).

A particular irony of this situation is that while the world's wealthiest countries have been doing an increasingly better job of implementing effective disaster prevention and response mechanisms, mitigation efforts are all but lacking in most developing areas where they are most needed (Velasquez et al. 1999, 162). Unfortunately as well, development assistance programs funded by the richest nations have done little to help. While many countries have been generous in offering financial, material, and personnel assistance in the aftermath of catastrophic events, funding for disaster prevention and response planning has been extremely scarce.

Recognizing this imbalance, the United Nations' 1992 Program of Action for Sustainable Development (Agenda 21) established pre-disaster planning as a global priority (United Nations 1992, 60-61). To date, however, there appears to have been little progress in the actual implementation of mitigation programs. Exceptions do exist-notably in Latin America and Southeast Asia--but for the most part, accounts of successfully implemented disaster management strategies are rare, reflecting the poor state of readiness maintained in most developing countries.

A number of explanations have been offered for the slow rate of progress on this front, ranging from lack of resources to jurisdictional issues to corruption. To date, however, few studies have attempted a thorough examination of specific cases that may shed light on the validity or relative importance of such factors.

In this article, we examine one incipient urban disaster mitigation program developed in the Municipality of Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the late 1990s. At the heart of the program was the proposed establishment of a central disaster management facility--the Centro de Gerenciamento de Emergencias (CGE, Centre for Emergency Management)--to be operated with technical assistance from the City of Toronto, Canada, and expert advice from several emergency response agencies in Brazil. The CGE was envisioned as a "full-service" facility designed both to mitigate disaster through early warning and personnel training, and to coordinate efforts across the city in response to natural disasters and other hazardous events. As it has evolved, however, the CGE has been restricted almost exclusively to the role of early warning system for regional flooding. In the sections that follow, we undertake a thorough examination of the evolution of the CGE concept and an exploration of those factors which have instructed its fate. Through this investigation, we hope to enhance understanding of the prospects for the implementation of comprehensive mitigation strategies throughout Latin America and the rest of the developing world.

Populations at Risk in Developing Areas: The Problem

While the total number of fatalities each year resulting from natural disasters worldwide has been falling in recent years, the frequency of disasters--small and large--has been increasing over the past several decades (Burton et al. 1993, 25). Many such events, which tend to be highly publicized, are by now well known. The 1991 earthquake at Tabbas, Iran, for example, left 40,000 dead, while another such event the following year in Armenia killed 20,000. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed 10,000 in Honduras, and in 1999 over 30,000 perished in a landslide in coastal Venezuela (Abramovitz 2001, 5; Velasquez et al. 1999, 163).

Annually, the death toll from natural disasters of all kinds has been estimated by the United Nations at an astounding 150,000, with associated economic losses running at approximately US $30-50 billion per year (United Nations 1992, 60). One event alone--as witnessed in the case of Hurricane Mitch--can cause several billions of dollars in damages (Abramovitz 2001, 5).

Given the increasing concentration of human populations in urban areas, much of this loss of life and associated damage is concentrated in cities, especially those in the developing countries (Velasquez et al. 1999, 161). In part, this may be explained by simple demographics. Simply put, developing world cities have grown at a phenomenal pace in recent years, exposing larger concentrations of people and property to risk. As described above, some of these are major events, involving large-scale flooding or earthquakes. Some, however, are smaller--almost routine--and may include accidental fires or structural collapse (Alexander 2000, 94; Bull-Kamanga et al. 2003).

Regardless of scope, often it is the quality and the quantity of the built environment itself that escalates risk in developing regions. As Burton et al. (1993, 24) state, "[T]o be poor as a nation or as a person is to be particularly vulnerable." For example, road and building construction without adequate allowance for storm sewerage renders urban spaces far less impervious to moisture, thus increasing the frequency and severity of flooding--especially flash floods (Abramovitz 2001, 23-24; Burton et al. 1993, 27). Lower housing quality also increases risk. In many cases, due to the high cost of urban land, families are forced to construct dwellings of makeshift materials in squatter settlements located on hillsides or in other areas particularly prone to floods, high winds, or slides. Typically as well, the urban poor live in overcrowded conditions alongside industries and facilities using dangerous chemicals or other hazardous materials, thus multiplying the loss of life when disasters do occur (Velasquez et al. 1999, 163).

In more affluent parts of the world, many such shortcomings have long ago been dealt with through the municipal planning process, generous investments in infrastructure, and especially the enforcement of laws and codes that help guarantee the safety of lives and property. Even when disaster does strike, most developed world countries remain at the ready, thanks to detailed disaster management programs that include mechanisms for warning populations of impending disasters, providing emergency medical and social services, and facilitating coordinated clean-up and reconstruction.

In developing areas, however, such comprehensive mitigation programs are all but missing. While many countries have developed disaster response plans and possess some capacity to deal with the after-effects of disasters (e.g., through the deployment of armed forces or federal and state emergency response teams), almost none have established effective prevention, planning, and disaster coordination mechanisms (Velasquez et al. 1999, 162). In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, for example, national disaster response coordination in Honduras did not even begin until days following the event (Abramovitz 2001, 31). Without question, however, effective planning (providing for early warnings and/or evacuations as occur regularly on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States) could have prevented serious loss of life in this and other instances. Indeed, the World Bank and the US Geological Survey have estimated that during the 1990s, disaster costs could have been reduced by nearly US $300 billion (and thousands of lived saved) had only one-seventh of this amount been invested in disaster mitigation programming (Abramovitz 2001, 30).

For its part, the United Nations has made disaster mitigation a priority for implementation in human settlements, especially in developing areas. Stressing the key role of prediction and information flow in the mitigation process (Abramovitz 2001, 45; Alexander 2000, 103), the UN's Agenda 21 calls for the world's urban settlements to develop and inculcate a "culture of safety" within their jurisdictions, and to aggressively engage in pre-disaster planning--through enhanced prediction and disaster research, better municipal planning, the establishment of training information dissemination programs, and the preparation of post-disaster reconstruction plans. To date, however, there is little evidence that much progress has been made on this front (United Nations 1992, 60-61).

In southeast Asia, a region frequently afflicted by natural disasters, some limited progress has been made. For example, the city of Manila in the Philippines had already established the Metro Manila Disaster Coordinating Council in 1979 to undertake vulnerability assessments, ensure food preparedness, provide disaster management knowledge and skills, manage funds for preparedness, and coordinate response capabilities (Velasquez et al. 1999, 175). In Latin America, there has also been some progress in the establishment of risk management programs in rural areas (Bull-Kamanga et al. 2003). For the most part, however, formal disaster planning and response coordination structures are largely missing, despite the risks posed to the vast majority of the region's citizens who live in cities.

According to Velasquez et al. (1999, 180), there are a number of reasons for this lapse. The major factor is economic. With governments at all levels in developing countries facing a considerable gap between income and the pressing need for expenditures on infrastructure and services in the here and now, few dollars are available for investment in disaster mitigation. Moreover, providing assistance after the fact has more political appeal than planning per se, and thus to date has attracted the lion's share of attention and funding worldwide. This is clearly revealed in the breakdown of bilateral donor funding provided to poor countries for natural disaster remediation. Only 11% of the US $155 million budget of the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance was allocated to mitigation programs. Politics is also a factor. As different agencies at the local, state, and national levels frequently enter into disputes over jurisdiction and funding formulas, little is accomplished. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of leadership, which could help to bring disparate parties together into a cohesive force for prevention and planning. Finally, corruption is often a key variable, sapping political will and exacerbating funding problems and diverting funds from badly needed programs (see Velasquez et al. 1999, 162, 180).

While such factors have been suggested as critical in understanding the lack of disaster planning in developing areas, there is little concrete research to back up such claims and thus to help inform policy to eliminate roadblocks. Rather ironically, despite the fact that the vast majority of deaths from natural disasters occurs in developing countries, about 98% of all research on disaster mitigation is focused on the developed world. There is clearly a pressing need, emphasized by the United Nation's Agenda 21, to conduct more research to "enable all countries, in particular those that are disaster-prone, to mitigate the negative impact of natural and man-made disasters on human settlements, national economies, and the environment" (United Nations 1992, 60).

Recent attempts by the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil's and South America's largest urban agglomeration, to develop a novel approach to disaster mitigation and planning through the establishment of its Centro de Gerenciamento de Emergencias provide an interesting case for examination. Here, what began as an ambitious plan for disaster mitigation and response ultimately evolved into a much more limited project. Why did this happen?

The case study developed here, which draws on both archival and interview data conducted in the field in both Toronto and Sao Paulo over a five-year period from 1997 to 2002, attempts to shed considerable light, not only on the relative importance of particular success factors as cited by Velasquez et al. as inhibiting effective disaster planning, but also on the inter-relationship of such variables and their potential effect on the success of this and similar projects throughout the developing world.

Disaster Planning in Sao Paulo

As Latin America's largest urban agglomeration, the greater Sao Paulo area (population 18 million) has frequently been affected by adverse natural and, frequently, man-made events. Rapid industrial growth has contributed to increasing air and water pollution, which have severely compromised the health of citizens. In addition, windstorms have felled trees and destroyed businesses and homes, and populations have been threatened by the relatively unregulated transport of hazardous goods in urban areas.

With over 3,200 kilometres of rivers and streams running through it (SIURB 2003, 12), one of the most serious problems facing residents of Sao Paulo is flooding. By 2002, over 1,000 areas of risk had been identified by the municipal government. These include both major arteries and side streets, airport runways and rail lines, residential neighbourhoods, parks, and especially areas near the city's principal rivers, the Pinheiros and the Tiete. Typically, the summer period (November to March) has brought the heaviest rainfalls and associated casualties and loss of property (Marta afirma que 2002). With nearly 70% of the population resident in self-constructed dwellings, and nearly 20% resident in favelas (shantytowns) located on hillsides, under bridges, and along riverbanks (Santos 1996, 231-236), an unusually large percentage of the population has been routinely placed at risk by this hazard (see, for example, Numero de vitimas 2003).

Flooding and other types of catastrophic events are not, of course, a new phenomenon. Yet, despite yearly repetitions, associated losses of life, and damages estimated in the billions of Reais, Sao Paulo--like other jurisdictions in Brazil or elsewhere in Latin America--has been slow to act to deal with the problem. In a speech opening a world congress on municipal administration in 2002, Worker's Party mayor Marta Suplicy laid the blame for this lack of action on previous municipal administrations, as well as the state and federal lawmakers who had failed to deal effectively with problems related to risk factors such as housing (Marta afirma que 2002).

In fact, Brazil, its states and municipalities do possess very well documented emergency management plans. Established in 1995, Brazil's Politica Nacional de Defesa Civil (National Policy on Civil Defence) provides a detailed framework for the achievement of four specific objectives: (1) the establishment of a permanent mechanism for disaster planning; (2) the minimization of damage and assistance to affected populations; (3) early response to disasters; and (4) the establishment of a civil defence system. Under point 4, the Sistema Nacional de Defesa Civil (SINDEC, National System for Civil Defence) was created to establish a hierarchy of disaster response extending downward from the national to the local community level (Secretaria Nacional de Defesa Civil 1995, Sec. II).

Under this system, responsibility for disaster mitigation and response falls to the Conselho Nacional de Defesa Civil (CONDEC, National Council for Civil Defence), which is made up of representatives from the relevant ministries and administrative departments. CONDEC operates through an administrative structure, the Departamento de Defesa Civil (DEDEC, Department of Civil Defence), which in turn oversees a hierarchy of agencies at the regional level through the Coordenadorias Regionais de Defesa Civil (CORDEC, Regional Coordination of Civil Defence), at the state level via the Coordenadorias Estaduais de Defesa Civil (CEDEC, State Coordination of Civil Defence), and finally, at the municipal level through the Coordenadorias Municipais de Defesa Civil (COMDEC, Municipal Coordination of Civil Defence) (Secretaria Nacional de Defesa Civil 1995, Sec. III).

In the municipality of Sao Paulo the state CEDEC and local COMDEC cooperate to provide coverage to the metropolitan region. De facto, the state organ has taken the lead role in developing the local civil defence system, operating through the Sao Paulo state Policia Militar (Military Police). As is the case throughout Brazil, however--and despite the lofty ambitions of the federal planning process described above--the CEDEC in Sao Paulo has largely been restricted in its role to coordinating aspects of emergency response after the fact (e.g., through the rescue and fire services). What has been missing is a mechanism that combines this function with those designed to help mitigate the effects of untoward events through better emergency planning and training programs, better prediction capabilities, and early warning systems.

The first serious attempt to fill this gap, as part of what is perhaps one of the only initiatives of its kind in Latin America, was undertaken in the spring of 1997. At that time, as part of a broader technical cooperation agreement between the two cities, representatives from Sao Paulo's ambulance service, the Servico de Assistencia Pre-Hospitalar (SAP, Pre-Hospital Assistance Service), and the Corpo de Bombeiros (Fire Department), operated by the State Policia Militar, met with their counterparts from Metropolitan Toronto Ambulance Services and the Toronto Fire Department to discuss disaster preparedness and response strategies for Sao Paulo. At first, the discussions focused on the handling of hazardous materials, a prime concern of the Bombeiros. Soon, however, this discussion expanded to deal with the development of a full-blown emergency plan for the City of Sao Paulo. The initial visit involved one of the district chiefs from the Toronto Fire Department (who was also serving as Chief of Emergency Planning for the Department), as well as a senior planner from the Public Safety Unit of the Toronto Police Service. In the fall of 1997, a captain from the TFD's Information Office was also dispatched to Sao Paulo. On both occasions, Toronto personnel met with the senior commander of the State Policia Militar, the senior commander of the Bombeiros, the head of the CEDEC, and a representative from the Municipal SAP. As part of these discussions, personnel from Toronto provided in-depth information regarding emergency planning in that city in an attempt to find ways to "adapt" the Toronto model for use in Brazil.

In Canada, emergency planning is regulated by both federal law (the Federal Emergencies Act), and provincial statute (in Ontario, the Emergency Plans Act). Municipalities are required to establish and maintain their own emergency plans, and work in coordination with the province and the federal government in the execution of these plans. In Toronto, the emergency planning process is laid out in Chapter 59 (Emergency Planning) of the City of Toronto Municipal Code, promulgated in March of 1998 (City of Toronto 2001b).

In accordance with the code, emergency planning in Toronto is overseen by an Emergency Planning Committee, consisting of 13 regular members, including the mayor, chief administrative officer, fire chief, and medical officer of health, and up to 15 others who are invited to attend as needed. These may include the police chief, or representatives from private or public utilities, depending upon the emergency. The role of the committee is to develop the City's emergency plan and to put into place all requisite procedures for ensuring that it is properly carried out in an emergency situation. As quoted in a 2001 report by the Policy and Finance Committee to the City Council, the aims of the plan are to:

1. provide the framework within which extraordinary arrangements and measures can be taken to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the inhabitants of Toronto when faced with a major emergency; and

2. increase the emergency response capability of the City of Toronto by establishing a plan of action to efficiently and effectively deploy emergency services. (City of Toronto 2001a, 2)

Item 2 may involve the activation and coordination of a number of persons or agencies in the city to ensure provision of public utilities, welfare and social services, ambulance, and other emergency transport.

The committee reports to the city's Community Services Committee and is chaired by the Mayor, who is responsible for "calling" emergencies within his/her jurisdiction and activating the Emergency Planning Committee. Within the committee there exist two action groups, the Municipal Control Group (MCG) and the Municipal Support Group (MSP). The MCG consists of 10 key individuals (including the mayor, fire and police chiefs, and the medical officer of health) who are the first to be convened during an emergency by the Police Communications Centre. The chief operations officers of the MCG are the chief administrative officer of the city and the police chief. The MCG is authorized by the broader committee to act or to order others to act as necessary to deal with the emergency. It is also mandated to expend municipal funds to ensure effective response, and to obtain volunteer support as necessary. The MSP provides additional support to the MCG as warranted or required by the type of emergency under way.

Along with the establishment of these key action groups, the plan calls for the establishment of a central Emergency Operations Centre (EOC)--maintained at all times by a skeleton staff--to coordinate emergency response, and for a smaller centre or centres to be established at the site or sites of the emergency. Most recently, the EOC was activated in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Although no emergency was formally declared by the mayor at that time, the EOC, staffed by support personnel from the city's Works and Emergency Services department, undertook to ensure that information was passed to all emergency support organizations in the city, worked to marshal resources should these be required in the event of a further terrorist attack, coordinated public information and media releases, and worked to resolve issues related to passengers stranded at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

The essence of Toronto's emergency plan, then, is to provide an overarching administrative structure designed to ensure that all available resources and services in the city can be put effectively into place to deal with potential emergencies. It is also mandated to ensure that necessary training is put into place across all departments and agencies to ensure that participation in emergency relief is effective.

The model represented by Toronto's emergency plan was received enthusiastically by the head of the CEDEC in Sao Paulo, Colonel Oswaldo de Barros, Jr., who had participated in the 1997 meetings with emergency personnel from Toronto. Barros had also visited Toronto in 1998 to see how the emergency planning system was implemented. He was afforded a first-hand look at the system in operation, as the city's Emergency Operations Centre worked to deal with the aftermath of an ice storm which gripped central Canada that winter, and Toronto worked to provide assistance to those areas of Ontario and Quebec most affected by the storm. Following this visit, Barros' vision from that point was to develop an emergency centre modelled on the Toronto experience, but adapted to the reality of emergency service provision in Sao Paulo. In his own words: "I wanted to take this idea, and put it into practice here."

Sao Paulo's CGE: A Vision Circumscribed

The challenge was daunting. In a city with multiple emergency service providers reporting to three levels of government and no central planning structure in place, it would prove to be no easy task to establish the Toronto model in Sao Paulo. Barros' first task was to try to convince the myriad players in the city to get on board with the concept. This involved negotiation with the CEDEC, the Bombeiros, the COMDEC, and the Municipal SAP.

This plan called for the establishment of a jointly funded State-Municipal CGE, which would provide early warning and a first response to emergencies of all types in Sao Paulo, and coordinate rescue and longer-term disaster relief as required. The requested budget was extremely modest, about R $800,000 per year, to cover personnel, six vans, and four emergency vehicles. Space and computer support for the centre would be donated by the municipality.

The Sao Paulo CGE as thus envisioned never materialized. What was eventually established was far more basic in both concept and operation. Most of the agencies originally consulted in designing the concept eventually ceased involvement with the project, which was ultimately handed off to the municipal Companhia de Engenharia de Trafego (CET, Traffic Engineering Centre), the municipal agency responsible for traffic planning and management for the city.

With a limited budget of approximately R $400,000 provided by this agency, the scope of the project was drastically reduced to cover only weather prediction and basic response to transit problems caused by flooding. This role is amplified during the rainy season in Sao Paulo, from November to April, as part of a municipal program known as Sao Paulo Protege (Sao Paulo Protects). For its part, the CGE stands as the main coordinating body for all major events involving flooding, and works with the State CEDEC to initiate clean-up of affected areas. Outside of this, routine emergencies are handled by the appropriate state or municipal agencies, such as the State Bombeiros or the Municipal SAP. During the winter months (June to September), the CGE also plays a limited role by warning social service agencies of impending cold weather which may adversely affect people living on the street. All more serious issues not involving flooding, or outside of the Sao Paulo Protege period, are handed directly to the state civil defence organization.

The headquarters for the CGE are located at the CET's main building in the centre of Sao Paulo. Its operations rely heavily on the infrastructure provided through the CGE, and it is equipped with a number of networked personal computers and communications devices. Approximately nine staff members are employed at the Centre: two engineers, four meteorologists, two media specialists, and one technical support person. During the Sao Paulo Protege period, the station is manned 24 hours a day. During other times, it is in service from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. each day (SIURB 2003, 45-47).

Information on weather conditions is received and monitored on the computers from a number of sources. These include the weather service of the University of Sao Paulo and the federal aviation authority (INFRAERO), and individual contact persons located in each of Sao Paulo's administrative regions. The CGE has also installed eight monitoring devices at points across the city. These provide a constant stream of data on local weather conditions (e.g., wind speed, rain, temperature, barometric pressure), transmitted by telephone or internet connection 24 hours a day. Once a significant event has been predicted, the Centre's media specialists work to contact all local media outlets which in turn issue warnings to the population in the affected areas. These may include recommendations to drivers to find alternate routes around affected roadways, or to homeowners to take precautions, such as securing property, or to leave affected areas entirely, depending upon the severity of the weather conditions. Working with the CET and the municipal Secretariat of Transport, the CGE may also recommend that certain roadways, subways, or tram lines be closed to prevent individuals from moving into harm's way. Some neighbourhoods particularly prone to flooding have been equipped with sirens, which may be activated to warn residents of an impending downpour. As an event arises, the Centre informs both the State CEDEC and the regional administrations, both of which are mandated to initiate rescue and/or repair operations as required.

A number of factors were at play in the evolution of this more limited model for disaster mitigation and planning in Sao Paulo, many of which are interrelated. Following the typology developed by Velasquez et al. and discussed previously, we explore three sets of these which appear to have been most critical in the evolution--or non-evolution--of the CGE.

Funding Issues

As one might certainly expect, funding issues loom large as a critical factor in limiting Sao Paulo's ability to develop a more comprehensive disaster management centre along the lines of what currently exists in Toronto. As is the case with most cities in the developing world, Sao Paulo's municipal budget is extremely small when stood beside the vast needs of a metropolis this size. Annual revenues, at approximately US $4 billion, are roughly equivalent to that of Toronto, yet Sao Paulo's population is five times greater. With this funding, in addition to furnishing most of the services that Toronto provides to its citizens, Sao Paulo must also find money to support health care and education (both provincial responsibilities in Canada), and to maintain minimal social services to a very large number of individuals living below the poverty line (estimated at approximately 50% of the urban population). With such pressures in place, disaster mitigation has obviously not assumed the priority it deserves, pushed aside by more pressing needs in the "here and now." Where Sao Paulo has been able to make progress--for example, through its program for the reconstruction of canals and the emplacement of reservoirs to control flooding--the city's meagre resources have had to be supplemented substantially by funds from other levels of government (SIURB 2003, 18).

The paucity of funding for mitigation and disaster planning is abundantly revealed in the funding allocated to the CGE by the municipal government. At R $800,000 per year, Col. Oswaldo Barros' initial funding request to both state and municipal governments would seem relatively modest, given the potential for millions of Reais in damage from natural disasters. In the end, however, only the Sao Paulo municipal government contributed to the project, to the tune of less than half this amount. By contrast, a recent report reviewing upgrades needed to bring emergency services provision in the City of Toronto to levels required to deal with the new host of threats (especially related to bio-terrorism and the use of weapons of mass destruction) called for an increase to the existing budget of more than US $17 million annually!

Agency Coordination and Cooperation

At face value, the CGE works together with a range of agencies and organizations at the federal, state, and municipal levels in order to provide effective services to the citizens of Sao Paulo. As mentioned above, these range from the federal aviation authority to the State Corpo de Bombeiros, the CEDEC, the municipal COMDEC, CET, and SAP, the local Administrative Regions, and personnel within various municipal secretariats (e.g., Transport, Social Assistance). Working together and working together effectively are, of course, two different things. As Captain Tania Lima, a Policia Militar representative to the municipal COMDEC, pointed out, "It's a partnership, but it doesn't always work smoothly."

One of the most critical elements missing in the concept and the operation of the CGE is any semblance of a central command structure, as appears in Toronto. While Col. Barros had envisioned an agency with the power to act or enforce its direction on participating agencies and bodies, this has not occurred. For example, while the CGE may warn or advise of impending inclement weather, it has the power only to close or block roadways that may run through the affected areas (owing primarily to its affiliation with the CET). However, it cannot direct state military or municipal police to act to en-force such closures or to begin evacuation procedures as required. Similarly, in the aftermath of an event, it cannot mandate centrally that ambulance or rescue service be dispatched to the scene to provide assistance or back-up, and thus has no power over how or when such action should be taken.

This lack of coordination capacity has serious implications for Sao Paulo's disaster management capabilities, given inherent problems within the existing system. Overall, emergency services provision in Sao Paulo might be described as precarious at best. Rescue services (for individuals who may be trapped in burning buildings or automobile accidents) are handled through the Sao Paulo state Bombeiros, which maintains a network of stations or posts throughout the metropolitan Sao Paulo region. Emergency medical response, by contrast, is handled exclusively by the municipal ambulance service. Both services operate under extremely difficult conditions, with a minimum of cooperation. To begin with, each uses a communications system which is not accessible by the other, limiting the possibility of effective coordinated response once an emergency is under way. Ambulance dispatch has also been particularly problematic. Callers to the ambulance service's "192" emergency number often require other types of emergency assistance (such as that offered by the Bombeiros); sometimes, as well, citizens may call both the SAP and the Bombeiros in hopes of receiving assistance more quickly. Both of these problems result in a large number of false alarms and error calls. In addition, once on the road, ambulance and fire truck drivers must attempt to negotiate Sao Paulo's infamous traffic jams, and it is not uncommon to find emergency vehicles stuck in traffic as they attempt to find their way to an emergency, or from an emergency to hospital. The location of medical facilities is also a complicating factor. The vast majority of comprehensive medical treatment centres are located in a small area in the central core of Sao Paulo, and thus even after attending successfully to a call, the trip to hospital can add precious time to a typical call. If the patient is without private medical insurance, further delays may be expected as the ambulance will have to proceed to the nearest public medical facility, even when private hospitals may be closer.

A lack of cooperation with agencies and personnel in neighbouring jurisdictions has also created limitations on the CGE's effectiveness. The fact is that the extent of the CGE's "coverage" is limited geopolitically. The Centre provides warnings only to residents of the Municipality of Sao Paulo, which accounts for just over half of the metropolitan population of nearly 18 million. While the Centre issues warnings to neighbouring municipalities that may be at risk, its responsibilities for the safety of citizens end at the municipal border. As one meteorologist with the CGE pointed out, "Outside [the municipality of] Sao Paulo, each municipality has its own mechanism for dealing with the rains." Given that these "mechanisms" are extremely uneven, however, this has created a precarious situation for residents located at the fringes of the metropolitan region.

Leadership Issues

Some of the problems cited above are related in good measure to a general lack of political will in the Sao Paulo region to create an environment where cooperation is valued and possible. There are two factors at play here. First, there is the problem of political turnover. With elections for state and municipal governments every four years, and regime change common, it is difficult to establish a stable platform for municipal state collaboration in key areas such as disaster mitigation. Although good ideas and sound projects, such as the proposal for the CGE, are developed, attempting to obtain approvals at appropriate levels within both governments can be daunting. As Tania Lima of the Municipal Civil Defence Commission explains: "Every election results in a delay of the process; one party is in power, starts to develop a program, and then can be voted out. Everything then has to start from scratch." The process actually begins well before the actual voting occurs, she explains: "Prior to the election, the entire system goes into 'election mode,' and no work is effectively done. [Administration] doesn't want to initiate anything, since the new party in power may not want to follow through."

The changeover in administrations also leads to a fair amount of political "amnesia" which works against program development. Although much of the groundwork may have been laid for a new program by administrators or politicians who have gone before, this work remains buried, or intentionally set aside by a new cohort of party workers who may not wish to acknowledge the prior efforts of those from the wrong side of the "political tracks."

Competing High-Level Interests

Another related issue concerns the differing agendas maintained by state and municipal governments, and their respective responsibilities for funding and managing programs. In the case of disaster management, the State of Sao Paulo has traditionally maintained responsibility for civil defence and rescue services. As mentioned above, however, emergency services are a municipal responsibility, as is transport, housing, social welfare, and the myriad services which would be directly affected following a natural disaster. On the part of both politicians and high-level bureaucrats, there are strong interests in maintaining control over these various areas which extend to protecting sources of funding for specific programs. Such protectionism is far from conducive to the development of a will to work cooperatively to develop new programs that integrate state and municipal functions. While such cooperation may help better serve the public, it leads to loss of control and, potentially, of budget, and perhaps more importantly still, may lead to confusion in the minds of voters with respect to which cadre of politicians (state or municipal) provides the service in question. This confusing situation may not be helpful at voting time for parties or individuals looking for re-election.

One feature common to politicians at both levels of government is an abiding interest in funding "works" as opposed to less visible undertakings. Here again political interests and re-election chances weigh heavily on decision-making. Occasionally, such interests may work to the benefit of prevention strategies. This is evidenced in the willingness of both state and municipal governments to collaborate in undertaking major infrastructure projects to improve drainage and contain floodwaters, as mentioned earlier. Such zeal has not extended to disaster prevention strategies and planning, however, as we have seen. As Barros relates in explaining the ultimate failure of a more comprehensive CGE model to flourish:
 For one thing, it lacked the uniform commitment of the parties.
 There was a lack of will, and lack of will to cooperate.
 Second, when the ideas started moving up the chain, other
 interests started to emerge. Decisions had to be made about
 what investments to make where. For some, a new highway
 or a bridge was more important than this notion of a first response


There is little question today about either the value of disaster planning in mitigating the more severe effects of catastrophic events in developed countries, or the need for such planning to be implemented throughout the developing world, where the effects of such events frequently have consequences of incalculable scale. This is as true of smaller, day-to-day disasters, such as those related to flooding or high winds, as it is of cataclysmic events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions.

While most developed countries can well afford to engage in such planning activity, this is far less possible in the poor countries of the south--where ironically it is most needed. In most cases, with few mitigation mechanisms in place, disasters are dealt with almost exclusively after the fact, with assistance--as possible--from bilateral and multilateral aid agencies recruited to help cash-strapped developing world governments repair damage and restore shattered lives.

The program described in this study represents a significant shift in this trend. With both expertise and experience from its Toronto partner to draw on, the city of Sao Paulo embarked upon an ambitious plan to develop structures to predict and prevent loss of life due to natural events through public education and coordination of relief efforts.

However, while one of the first of its kind in Latin America, the project has been only partially successful, insofar as its activities remain restricted to one particular form of disaster--flooding--and even with this range, to weather prediction and warning. As observers such as Velasquez et al. (1999) have pointed out, lack of funding is clearly one of the key culprits limiting the implementation of the broader CGE strategy for Sao Paulo. Arguably, however, lack of funding does not emerge as a primary cause in this case. A number of other factors related to agency coordination, political leadership, and conflicting interests assume a large role indeed in explaining this outcome.

What this suggests is that funding alone will not fill the gap required to prevent loss of life from natural disasters in developing areas. A degree of central coordination, backed by strong political will and implemented at the highest political levels, must be in place to develop effective mitigation programs that operate effectively at the local level. This may indeed require constitutional change to effect, and to clearly mandate, the roles of the various levels of government in the process. Without these measures, disaster mitigation programs are likely to remain either severely restricted, as in the case of Sao Paulo, or non-existent altogether for the foreseeable future.


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Author:Hewitt, W.E.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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