Expert’s Corner: Information for Action, Disasters and Health in South America

11/04/2018 - Vanessa Veintimilla

The mitigation of the effects of natural disasters is a priority among the UNASUR public health initiatives, as well as to other mechanisms and institutions operating in the region. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) have developed initiatives aimed at strengthening their response capacities, including: “Protecting health from climate change”, “Safe hospitals in disaster situations”, and “Urbanization and health”. On the other hand, the creation of the Disaster Risk Management Network by the UNASUR Health Council shows the commitment to regional integration with the goal of reducing risk and providing a timely and adequate response.

These initiatives are based on a prevention-based approach, since disaster management is no longer analyzed as a mere response to a natural threat. The social construction of risk suggests that the social dimension becomes a precondition for a natural dimension to become destructive. Thus, disasters make more visible the connections between social inequalities and more vulnerable population groups. In South America, these vulnerabilities were established back in the colonial times, which left an economy based on the capitalization of nature, with consequent destructive exploitation. It contributed – and still does so – to the susceptibility of many areas and the environmental vulnerability of its population.

South America faces natural threats such as the El Niño phenomenon, whose effects are increasingly evident in the form of droughts, floods and landslides in countries such as Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. The Andean countries, located in the Pacific Fire Belt, also face the occurrence of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. On the other hand, countries of the Southern Cone are being affected by floods and extreme weather events such as storms and both heat and cold waves.

These events are not new in the region, but the rapid demographic growth, together with an accelerated urban concentration (80%), often poorly planned, have markedly conditioned their human, environmental and socioeconomic developments in the region. For instance, the atypical floods from December 2005 to February 2006 in Guyana affected 37% of its population, yielding a 59% loss of the GDP.

According to the Database of EM-DAT (International Disaster Database), in the last decade 59% of the disasters in the region were of hydrometeorological origin, and 41% were of geophysical origin. In relation to the impacts according to the type of disaster, between 2007 and 2017, floods have generated the greatest number of human losses.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center database, in terms of internal population displaced due to natural disasters, between 2008 and 2016, Colombia has had the highest number of displacements due to hydrometeorological disasters (La Niña Phenomenon, 2010) and Chile due to geophysical disasters (2010 Earthquake).

When we analyze the impact of natural disasters on health in South America, an important disadvantage is the lack of disaggregated data into gender, ethnicity and age, as well as data on the impact on Health Services. In fact, the impact should not be measured only by the number of victims. According to PAHO/WHO estimates, when a hospital ceases to be operational, some 200,000 people are left without healthcare and the collapse of the emergency service considerably reduces the possibility of saving lives. The earthquake in Ecuador in April 2016, for example, caused serious damage in 39 health facilities, leaving 20 out of service and 1.2 million people with limited access to health services.

Challenges to the health system remain in the preparation and response to adverse events, but it is also necessary to produce research and technical documents from the region, which serve as a tool for the strengthening of national and regional plans and strategies that allow for facing the health challenges of climate change.

Read the other articles of Health to the South – April issue


  • Mattedi MA, Butzke IC. A relacao entre o social e o natural nas abordagens de hazards e de desastres. Ambiente & Sociedades 2001; IV(9):93-114.
  • United Nations Development Program. Evaluation of Guyana. 2009.
  • OCHA Colombia, Informe de Situación # 6 Temporada de Lluvias 2010.
  • Pan-American Health Organization, Earthquake in Chile 2010.
Vanessa Veintimilla, ISAGS Intern in Health Surveillance