Guatemala Urban Disaster Risk Reduction

An Oxfam/Resilience Institute Collaboration


Image removed. Precarious squatter settlements located in the municipality of Villa Neuva, Guatemala on steep unstable slopes experience seasonal landslides damaging their property and livelihoods. These settlements, often rapidly constructed overnight, use temporary and flimsy materials, and have little consideration for the prevalent risk of landslides and seismic activity. The squatter settlements are considered illegal because they are built without municipal approval and often remain unserviced for years. After a survey of 65 households in these settlements, and a series of community focus group meetings, The Resilience Institute has worked with Oxfam-Great Britain in Guatemala to formulate an initial disaster risk reduction framework. This framework is applicable for many communities in Guatemala and the rest of Latin America.

The Study

Oxfam, a large international humanitarian aid organization, invited The Resilience Institute to work with their Guatemala office to develop a framework for urban disaster risk reduction. Their goal is to use disaster risk reduction as a tool for robust social, political, and economic community development in Guatemala’s vulnerable squatter settlements. Oxfam is also interested in exploring the possibilities for a multi-year university-NGO collaboration, hoping that the skills and capacity of Huxley students, faculty and staff can encourage an innovative and energized approach to urban risk in Guatemala and beyond.

Rebekah Green, Scott Miles and Walter Svekla conducted a situation assessment in two squatter settlements during March 18. Activities included 65 household surveys, a physical risk assessment, community focus group discussions, and meetings with national emergency management representatives, local universities, research institutions, and municipal planning department. The team is currently developing an urban disaster risk reduction framework.

Situation Assessment

In March 2009 the Resilience Institute traveled to the municipality of Villa Nueva within the metropolitan area of Guatemala City to conduct the 65 household surveys in the settlements of Las Brisas and Unidos 8 de Marzo. The questions on the survey assessed the specific dynamics for each household, including number of people, years of residence, how they obtained the lot, and basic questions about utility services. Several questions were also asked to assess the perceived risk of the community to the hazards that are prone in the area.

Most residents interviewed in these high landslide risk settlements stated they purchased the land they lived on or obtained it by illegally occupying the land. High rents and the desire of owning their own land drove 70 percent of participants from de Unidos 8 Marzo to illegally occupy the land before claiming ownership. More than 40 percent illegally occupied the land they lived on in Las Brisas, but the more than 50 percent had purchased the land. None of the residents interviewed in the survey responded that they had legal land titles, though the majority was in the process of applying for the titles from the national agency, the Unit for Development of Popular Housing.

Landslides were selected in the survey as the greatest threat to both settlements. Even though 69 percent of the interviewees recognized rain as one of the leading factors in landslide risk, little more than 20 percent have implemented appropriate drainage management measures. Lack of funds in the community and resources outside the community have been the biggest challenges for mitigating the adverse effects of landslides in the settlements. More than 80 percent of respondents said they did not have the resources to mitigate but have plenty of time and willingness to participate in drainage improvements and other mitigation efforts.

Garbage blocking drains and disrupting the flow of stormwater is another major factor to landslides in the settlements, but less than 20 percent view it as contributing to the landslides. Only 7 percent of participants in the survey considered proper waste disposal as a risk reduction tool, complicating the use of waste management practices as a mitigation tool.

Emerging Themes

A third of Guatemala Metropolitan Region residents or more live in informal squatter settlements, many in steep ravines with heightened landslide risk. Settlement residents receive little help from the government, which generally believes that the market should be the primary economic actor in development. Residents attempt to manage landslide, flood, and hurricane risk with limited resources and awareness of innovative socio-technical solutions. Residents express a strong desire for help in community development that reduced vulnerability to natural hazards. The following are three interrelated themes that residents see as key to their vulnerability:

  • Inadequate storm and waste water management: Residents believe that the storm water ditches and sewage pipes are too small and need improvements. Black water frequently overflows the ditches and pipes in the rainy season and washes down the ravine slopes through houses. This led to heavy soil erosion and created rivers of mud through their homes. Inadequate guttering along roof edges exacerbated the problem.
  • Ravine slope instability: Over three quarters of squatter settlement residents state that they are most concerned about landslide risk. Many residents live on slopes of over 50 degrees in slope with little vegetation and low soil cohesion. While they use sandbagging to terrace the land, the bags degraded quickly in sunlight. Many residents believe that slope stability is [img] exacerbated by water and refuse management -- litter in the drainage ditches caused water to overflow the informal storm water systems during heavy precipitation. This and concentrated roof rainwater runoff is seen as causing rapid soil erosion, undermining of walls, housing, and settlement pathways. Some also believe that this overflow triggered landslides. (Note that without further study, it is unclear what contribution runoff, de-vegetation, and land use, among other factors, play in triggering or increasing the size of landslides.)
  • Conflicts between squatters and neighboring communities: Squatter settlement residents experience considerable tension between their community and the formal settlements to which they are connected. Some formal settlement residents dump trash in the squatter settlement or over the ravine edge. Formal settlement residents try to keep squatters from clearing litter-clogged drains. Tensions seem partly to stem from a desire to enforce social distance and a hierarchy between the two groups.

Urban DRR Framework

Methods for reducing risk in these settlements will have to include targeted, resident-driven projects because of the unique characteristics between the two. The Resilience Institute is proposing a multi-dimensional framework that consists of potential disaster risk reduction tools and selection criteria to determine the most effective interventions to target in each settlement. The Institute proposes a similar prioritization strategy as Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, prioritizing precarious settlements where intervention will be most effective by creating a hierarchy of disaster risks. The most frequent and life-threatening risks will be rated as the highest priority and the lowest would be less frequent and life-threatening risks.

The first and most pressing need is to form a development plan dependent upon risks and consolidation. Stabilizing the plot of land residential homes are built on is an essential first step before beginning construction. Improving drainage and retaining walls will reduce increased erosion that triggers landslides and will help stabilize these plots. The acquisition of land titles is one of greatest challenges residents face when attempting to construct permanent structures that would reduce their risk to landslides.

At the community level, land invasion and immediate occupancy is followed by disagreement over how best to manage services such as water, sewage, and electricity. These issues, along with those at the household level, contribute to conflict within the settlement and its immediate neighbors. As land titles are acquired and tenure is formalized, disagreements will shift towards an integration of municipal services and increased economic development.

Student Efforts

Students from Western Washington University’s Disaster Reduction and Emergency Planning (DREP) track coordinated with the Resilience Institute to develop a data analysis and framework for risk reduction measures in the Unidos 8 Marzo and Las Brisas settlements. Ellie Chatman, Kalin Magruder, Michael Stephen-McRae, and Kevin Vandenheuvel all participated in the Guatemala project for their spring 2009 planning studio project.

The framework addresses multiple issues affecting informal settlements in Guatemala and provides methods for each community to tailor to meet their own most pertinent risk. Students proposed that an ongoing internship and study abroad program for students in Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment be incorporated in the risk reduction strategies in these two settlements.

Future Work

The Resilience Institute is seeking additional funding to continue the collaborative research and implementation of urban disaster risk reduction in Guatemala City.

A full situation report is available on our Publications page.