A needs-assessment aerial photograph taken above Concepcion, Chile after the February, 2010 earthquake.
By David Tereshchuk *
February 11, 2014—Chile has a reputation as disaster prone, with its long and narrow territory bounded by the Andes mountains on one side and the mighty Pacific Ocean on the other—and all of it seismically active. But in that regard, Chile is far from alone.
Local partners in a range of South American countries are now building a joint effort, with the support of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), to expand the reach of disaster aid and enhance the capacity of local communities to mount effective responses. Including Chile, partners from a total of eleven countries—from Argentina to Colombia—are expected to take part in the disaster-readiness venture.
UMCOR has for several years been a close ally with Equipo Metodista de Ayuda Humanitaria (EMAH), the Chilean Methodist Church’s relief arm. With support from UMCOR, EMAH met enormous challenges following the massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the country four years ago this month.
Dramatic geography is something that Chile shares with its Andean neighbors, and many communities are situated in remote locations hundreds of miles from provincial or even district capitals. Consequently, local people are themselves the first responders to any natural disaster—and they may remain the only responders for some time after the disaster strikes. A prime task is to ensure, through well-planned training programs, that local and national resources are as fully prepared as possible.
The initiative, according to UMCOR’s International Disaster Response executive, Francesco Paganini, will focus on building up the skills set of existing local entities.
“There is no ambition here to establish any top-end structures,” says Paganini, who visited the region in January to move the project forward. “We definitely want others to have the benefit of our experience—and if together we establish training for just a few core people in each country, they could in turn act as touchstones for us, helping us negotiate emergency events, both great and lesser. Then we all will be reinforcing capacity at the grassroots level.”
UMCOR has long provided disaster-readiness training programs in individual Caribbean and Latin American countries, but the current plan is the first time a region-wide approach has been adopted. Paganini emphasizes, “The experience with EMAH, as a model of cooperation, has shown us how important it is that the international standards UMCOR adheres to are passed on in a determined and purposeful way.”
The application of such international standards will continue to be vital, both for responding to disasters, and for planning to mitigate the worst effects of any future catastrophe.
UMCOR Assistant General Secretary for International Disaster Response Rev. Jack Amick says: “We aim to have a prompt and accurate assessment of needs in a country that could be facing a disaster—plus the chance to build capacity for response in depth.”
In August of this year a pilot training session is planned in northern Chile that will bring together representatives from all eleven countries. Some will be acting as UMCOR liaisons for church-related and other groups (some Methodists, some not). Other participants will represent humanitarian partner organizations. “Our goal is to have a network of touchstones across the continent,” says Amick. “This is a good investment—moving us all toward improved reach and ability to meet the hazards that vulnerable communities face.”
Your gift to International Disaster Response, Advance #982450, supports UMCOR’s efforts to respond to disasters and strengthen the capacity of our local partners to do the same.
* David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who contributes regularly to www.umcor.org.