In this podcast interview, Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) Disaster Resilience Practice Area Leader Aaron van Alstine (left) sits down with Latin America and Caribbean Regional Coordinator for the NASA Disasters Program Ricardo Quiroga (right) to talk about disaster risk in Latin America and the Caribbean and PADF’s partnership with the NASA Disasters Program. Through this collaboration, PADF and the NASA Disasters Program are supporting the design of risk reduction strategies that target the needs of the most vulnerable people in the region. PADF carries out this work thanks to the generous support of the Government of Taiwan.
Aaron Van Alstine (AVA): Hi, my name is Aaron Van Alstine, Senior Program Manager for Disaster Resilience at PADF.
Today I am joined by Ricardo Quiroga. Ricardo is the Latin America and Caribbean Regional Coordinator for the NASA Disasters Program. In this role he supports decision makers, communities, and governments with technology tools and information gathered from earth observing satellites to reduce risk of disasters and to foster more sustainable recoveries in the aftermath of disasters.
Now, Latin America and the Caribbean is the second most disaster prone region in the world. The UN estimates that during the 20 years between 2000 and 2019, 152 million people in the region were affected by extreme weather conditions and geological events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Now we’re in the midst of what is expected to be a very active Atlantic hurricane season with three to five major hurricanes likely.
Ricardo, when you think about disaster risks facing the region, particularly in Central America, where PADF is implementing disaster risk reduction activities with support from Taiwan, what is your biggest concern?
Ricardo Quiroga (RQ): Thank you Aaron, for having me here.
I think the biggest concern in Central America from our perspective is to understand the risk. This the Sendai Framework’s first priority, but we have 56 million people living at risk in this region, and we are facing high risk of seismic events, hurricane events, flooding, and also landslides.
But my biggest concern is how can we use the geospatial information to face these challenges to provide people, communities, to inform the risk and understand what kind of measures we can take to face these challenges. For example, we have to use geospatial information to inform hurricane risk. But that information needs to go to the community level, because the communities are the final point, the final stakeholders that need the information. That’s my biggest concern, how geospatial information can go to the community level to inform disasters and prevent risk and face all these kinds of challenges.
AVA: The region also faces rapid population growth. There’s a lot of unplanned urban expansion and there’s been significant environmental degradation. Those factors put people at greater risk to disasters and we hear a lot about the need to reduce disaster risk and to protect the lives and the livelihoods, particularly among the most vulnerable people in society.
Now, Ricardo, when we talk about vulnerability to disasters, what does that mean to you?
RQ: Yes, we have to understand vulnerability from the exposure and hazards. But we need to inform the hazards. That means, again, understand the risk. What kind of hazards is on each community, but also, who is exposed to that disaster, or to that event
If we understand that, we can identify who is in what kind of risk in different regions of Central America and each community is empowered knowing their own risk. And that is the key message to the people- to empower them to make decisions, to create land coordination plans, to create mitigation plans, adaptation plans. And at the final point, this knowledge is the base to create the final resiliency in the communities.
AVA: So some people, households, and communities are considered to be better equipped than others to prevent and prepare for, respond to, and to recover from disaster, while others have capabilities and living conditions that make them more vulnerable to disasters.
How do you see this issue of understanding vulnerability to support disaster preparedness?
RQ: Yeah, of course. Because, you know we don’t have unlimited resources. We have to prioritize to address the economical resources, we have to make priorities to the infrastructure, protection, and mitigation and adaptation plans. We have to make priorities on communities, on people. The only way to have this, to make this decision in a better way, is to know what kind of vulnerability. One person, we have to identify what kind of vulnerabilities are in one family, in one household, in one neighborhood, in one community, in one city.
Because we have very unequal communities in Central America and different political structures, but informing the vulnerability allows us to make those decisions. Also, geospatial information is a key part of these kinds of studies and this kind of knowledge. I think, vulnerability knowledge is a key part of the resilience management.
AVA: The Sendai Framework is a 15-year international plan that aims to reduce existing disaster risk and prevent new risks from emerging. Now, the first priority of the Sendai Framework is to understand disaster risk like you were talking about, including the exposure of people and assets and their underlying conditions of vulnerability.
Now, with support from the Government of Taiwan, PADF is thrilled to be working with you, Ricardo, and the NASA Disasters Program on a study that’s focused on Guatemala and Central America, that we hope to continue growing and expanding to the entire region. The study aims to shed light on the ways that we can be improving the integration of data about who and what is exposed to hazards, along with information about the underlying conditions of vulnerability of people living in disaster prone areas.
How do you see this study or this collaboration between PADF and the NASA Disasters Program really contributing to disaster risk reduction and, you know, ultimately the well-being of people in the region?
RQ: Yeah… I think the key word here is synergies, because when you have challenges like this big challenge, the only way to face it is getting together. Getting together, because PADF has good connections in the region, is connected with stakeholders with communities, also with data, also bringing resources to the table. NASA Disaster Program, we have geospatial data, we have expertise, we have experience, and also contact with stakeholders, and we have experience in the region.
Creating this powerful synergy, we can create the medium-term or maybe long-term projects to support communities to face this risk reduction. Vulnerabilities are complex, because [they] are involving many variables, but data needs to flow in that way. But with this study, we are trying to get knowledge about the gaps in data flowing and data processing to support communities.
Sendai Framework is behind now. 2030 is around the corner, but if we see the goals of Sendai Framework, we are really behind. These kinds of synergies are really strengthening the opportunity to face these gaps that we have in the region.
AVA: We’re familiar with the issues of climate change, the increase in frequency and intensity of storms. Combine that with geological processes that put people at greater risk and we know that risk is increasing in the region.
What do you think are the opportunities or the importance of community engagement and their involvement in in disaster risk reduction strategies?
RQ: Yes… the first point I would like to raise is that governments and getting good capacities, good capabilities, geospatial information management, expertise. That is not enough…the challenge is bigger than that. And that’s why we have to bring in academia. We have to bring in directly communities because at the community level you can have a really good power to address these challenges.
The big opportunities are everywhere. We have good geospatial data and more coming. We have good models. We have the forecast models everywhere in systems. We are now having virtual reality, for example, to visualize the data and to make decision-making easier for the decision makers. We have good opportunities with investigators. More funds coming under the concept of the climate change and resilience. I think we are in a good time to make some progress.
And, actually, we need more progress because we have to contribute to defending the societies as a unit from the disasters.
AVA: Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today, Ricardo. We at PADF are thrilled to be part of this effort with you to improve the way that information is integrated into disaster risk reduction strategies and disaster preparedness planning and preparation. So, I look forward to continuing to work with you to address the issue of disaster risk in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Thank you very much.
RQ: Thank you.
This podcast has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
Aaron Van Alstine
Senior Program Manager
Disaster Resilience Practice Area Leader
Ricardo Quiroga MSc.
Latin America and Caribbean Regional Coordinator for the NASA Disasters Program
Ricardo Quiroga, MSc. is the Latin America and Caribbean Regional Coordinator for the NASA Disasters Program. In this role, his primary objective is to increase and strengthen the use of NASA satellite data for the reduction of disaster risks across the Americas. He works closely with governments, disaster responders, and communities to design products and services, particularly those that leverage Earth Observation data, to improve decision-making before, during, and after disasters. Quiroga leads the regional Americas Earth Observation Group, or AmeriGEO, and is a key contributor to the AmeriGEOSS data exchange platform.