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Charting a Safer Future: How Guatemala’s Communities are Preparing for Natural Disasters

Published 05/03/2024 by Global Communities

Guatemala_SCSP_Community Risk Mapping_Cerritos

The latest Humanitarian Needs Overview estimates that 75% of the Guatemalan population live in areas at risk of climate hazards. The Central American country is poised to experience hurricanes, tropical storms, landslides and earthquakes throughout 2024, yet only one-third of municipalities have planned how to handle the impact of these events and implement basic services.

To better prepare communities for natural disasters and improve interagency coordination at the national level of Guatemala’s Coordinating Agency for Disaster Reduction (CONRED), Global Communities is implementing the SE-CONRED Capacity Strengthening Program (SCSP). Since July 2021, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (USAID/BHA), the SCSP has aimed to reach 9,880 individuals with disaster risk reduction (DRR) training, workshops or practices by July 2024.

To that end, the program has provided support to municipalities and SE-CONRED in the formation of 11 Local Coordinators for Disaster Risk Reduction (COLREDs). COLREDs are a key partner in DRR, as they help generate and update a database on vulnerability conditions at the local level. They also aid in the use of social networks for early warning. The SCSP has also trained municipal and CONRED technicians in 20 municipalities on how to guide citizens through the process of community risk mapping and developing a local risk plan.

Since July 2021, Global Communities has been helping prepare communities for natural disasters and improve interagency coordination at the national level of Guatemala’s Coordinating Agency for Disaster Reduction (CONRED).
Photo by Carol Yesenia García/Global Communities

“It’s in your hands to turn bad into good,” said Marisol, a COLRED member from Piedras Negras who recently participated in a community risk mapping workshop. “… I had the pleasure of contributing my knowledge, [but] my contribution is a small grain in the ocean. I consider that there is a lot to do.”

The 52-year-old widow and mother of two lives with her elderly parents in what the COLRED identified as a red zone, meaning it is at high risk for climate disasters. She said it was helpful to learn more about the geography of her neighborhood through walkthroughs designed to document weaknesses and strengths and feels better prepared to communicate needs should an emergency take place.

“It has been a joint effort to get to know parts of the community that we did not know or imagine,” Marisol said. “We are proud to have our COLRED in the neighborhood, which will be very useful in case of emergencies before, during and after a storm or other phenomenon.”

A staff member from Global Communities works with COLRED members from Switch Quebrada to develop a community risk map.
Photo by Carol Yesenia García/Global Communities

Some have already experienced immediate benefits from the community-level alliances between the Municipal Directorate of Disaster Risk Reduction, CONRED system and COLRED. In November 2023, 65 families in Piedras Negras who experienced flooding due to the winter rains received humanitarian assistance, including a one-time distribution of mosquito nets and fumigation against mosquitoes.

The SCSP technicians also coordinated with practicum students from San Carlos University to conduct a household census in theEl Estrecho neighborhood of Puerto Barrios, Izabal.Municipality staff and COLRED members helped carry out the activity, which mapped community members who live in high-risk sectors. Doing so enables local authorities to account for what resources might be needed in an emergency.

In the village of Santa Eloisa Chitamil in San Juan Ixcoy, local farmer Don Marcos was initially apprehensive when invited to a community risk mapping workshop. Despite having personally experienced the challenges caused by landslides and heavy rains where he lives, he had never participated in a formal risk identification process. While the workshop progressed, however, his perspective changed dramatically. As he watched the maps being drawn, Don Marcos began to recognize patterns and critical areas in his community he had not previously considered. His detailed knowledge of the terrain and his experience in agriculture proved instrumental in identifying risk areas and developing effective mitigation strategies.

“Through my experience, I’ve learned the importance of being prepared and working together with the community to face natural hazards,” Don Marcos said.

Don Marcos (front left) holds a community risk map created with other citizens from the village of Santa Eloisa Chitamil in San Juan Ixcoy.

His input was especially valuable in identifying areas prone to landslides and suggesting preventive measures to protect the community’s crops and homes.

Yet another example of successful collaboration is in the Switch Quebrada and Rancho Grande communities, where citizens are forming their own COLREDs with support from the SCSP and the Municipal Office of Comprehensive Disaster Risk Management (OMGIRD).

After creating disaster risk maps, each community started preparing their own local risk plans. At the same time, in response to heavy rains and severe cold fronts, the munipality of Morales — through the OMGIRD — arranged for Switch Quebrada to receive support from the Guatemalan Red Cross. The humanitarian organization provided hygiene kits containing bleach, laundry detergent, soap, toothpaste, hand towels, water containers and mosquito nets to families with children and elderly members who live in flood plains. The SCSP then coordinated with the Guatemalan Red Cross to replicate this intervention in four nearby communities and reach more Guatemalans.

As of March 2024, the SCSP has exceeded its initial target goal and reached 10,032 participants in 12 communities, increasing the local municipalities’ capacities in disaster risk reduction. The SCSP is also working at the national level of CONRED to update and create tools that systematize technical evidence, experiences and knowledge and help guide the actions of the Executive Secretariat of the CONRED System.