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Natural Hazard Mitigation Strategies in the Continental Caribbean: The Case of Belize

Kareem M. Usher

Résumés

La petite nation de Belize est nichée au cœur de l’Amérique Centrale, bordée au nord par le Mexique, à l'ouest et au sud par le Guatemala ; la mer Caraïbe constituant sa frontière orientale. Situé sur la trajectoire des cyclones tropicaux atlantiques, le pays est exposé aux catastrophes atmosphériques. Parmi les plus notables dans l’histoire de Bélize : l'ouragan de 1931 et l'ouragan Hattie qui ont fait 275 victimes et causé des dommages évalués à plus de 1 milliard de dollars. En réponse, le pays a mis en place diverses politiques responsables et inédites visant la réduction des risques afin de sauvegarder sa population et de protéger l’essor du tourisme. Malgré ces efforts, la majorité des populations côtières demeure vulnérable aux ouragans et aux inondations

The small nation of Belize is nestled on the Central American Continent bounded on its north by Mexico, the west and south by Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea on its eastern border.  Located in the path of Atlantic Tropical Cyclones, the country is susceptible to atmospheric disasters.  Most notably are the Hurricane of 1931 and Hurricane Hattie which claimed 275 lives and caused damages in excess of US$1 Billion. Consequently, Belize has implemented several responsible and original mitigation policies to safeguard its population and protect the bourgeoning tourism industry. In spite of those efforts, most of its coastal populations remain vulnerable to hurricanes and floods.

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Introduction

1The nation of Belize is located on the eastern coast of Central American beneath the Yucatan Peninsula. Belize is considered a part of the Western Caribbean states of the British West Indies. Although, considered among the largest of the British Caribbean territories, it is the smallest state in Central America with a total area of 22,966 sq. km., and population of 287,730 (July, 2006 est.)1. Belize is bounded on the north by Mexico and to the west and south by Guatemala. The territory is opened to the Caribbean Sea on its east and claims more than 100 smaller islands and atolls which combine to create the second largest coral reef in the world.

2In spite of being geographically located on the continent, Belize is historically and culturally related to the island-states of the Anglophone Caribbean. The nation is a member of the British Commonwealth as well as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organisation of American States (OAS).

I. History of Disasters

3Belize, like most Caribbean countries, has experienced the effect of several natural hazards. In recent years, Belize has paid a high price to atmospheric disasters. The country is located within the path of Atlantic Tropical Cyclones (figure 1). Table 1 displays a list of the most significant storms that have severely impacted the country. Among those are the hurricane of 1931 which claimed 1,500 lives, and Hurricane Hattie which killed 275 people and caused damages in excess of $1 billion in U.S. normalized dollars (1998) (Fernandez, Klein et al. 2003).

Major Storms in Belize

Source: The Belize National Meteorological Service

Year

Storms

1931

Hurricane of 1931

1954

Hurricane Gilda

1960

Hurricane Abby

1961

Hurricanes Anna & Hattie

1978

Hurricane Greta

1980

Hurricane Hermine

1993

Hurricane Gert

1998

Hurricane Mitch

2000

Hurricane Keith

2001

Hurricane Iris

4Belize has a long, low-lying coastline, which lies within the trajectories of late season hurricanes and also accommodates 45% of the country’s population, ports, and industries. The effects of these hazards have resulted in loss of lives and destruction of property which were worsened by poverty, environmental degradation, poor housing and the location of communities in “disaster prone” areas (National Policy Development Committee, 2003).

5Belize is less susceptible to land slides and earthquakes than the other Caribbean territories. The country north of Belmopan, the nation’s capital, is mostly level land interrupted only by the Manatee Hills. To the south the land rises sharply toward a mountainous interior from a flat and swampy coastline heavily indented by many lagoons. The Maya and the Cockscomb mountains (which reach a high point of 1,122 m/3,681 ft at Victoria Peak, in the Cockscombs) form the backbone of the country, which is drained by 17 rivers2.

6According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the entire nation of Belize falls within the 0.2 to 2.4 m/s² range of peak ground acceleration. This is quite low in the regional context. Both Mexico and Guatemala experience shocks in excess of 4.0 m/s². The Pacific Coast of Central America is far more susceptible to earthquakes than the Caribbean Coast.

7There are no known volcanoes in Belize, but the territory is exposed to ash falls from neighbouring volcanoes. In 1982, for instance, the eruption of the Chichón volcano, in the Chiapas region of Mexico, covered much of the country with ash. And although landslides are rare, flooding in the western and southern regions especially is frequent. The west and south may experience an average of between 183 and 200 rainy days, pouring an excess of 160 inches of rain in a year. These torrents routinely cause flash floods and rivers to breech their banks3.

II. Mitigation Strategies and Initiatives

8It is crucial to grasp the fact that island states of the continental Caribbean are unique in the disasters they face and hence, mitigation strategies will vary by territory. However, there is a recognition of similar circumstances that encourages intergovernmental cooperation among the territories. Belize is involved in several regional disaster mitigation initiatives. In 1991 the member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) established The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA). In addition to conducting coordinated responses to disastrous events, CDERA is also responsible for disaster management and mitigation initiatives.

9Since 1994, the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) has been financing disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness operations throughout the developing world. Seeking to achieve a better match between its prevention activities and priority needs, and to give its activities a more coherent framework, ECHO began to take a more regional approach in 1996. The regional programme, called DIPECHO (Disaster Preparedness-ECHO), is intended to increase the impact and improve the effectiveness of ECHO operations. In the first phase of the programme, the three regions selected were Central America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

10Established in 2002 and housed in Belize, the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) coordinates regional responses to manage climate change. Regarding mitigation planning, the Centre recognizes that climate change and natural hazard mitigation efforts need to be collaborative. The CCCCC has the following objectives:

  • Promoting the protection of the earth’s climate system

  • Enhancing regional institutional capabilities for the coordination of national responses to the adverse effects of climate change

  • Providing comprehensive policy and technical support in the area of climate change and related issues and spearheading regional initiatives in those areas ;

  • Performing the role of executing agency for regional environmental projects relating to climate change ;

  • Promoting education and public awareness on climate change issues ; and

  • Facilitating regional consensus for negotiations.

11In addition to those regional programmes and approaches, the Government of Belize has established organizations and initiatives to adequately address hazard mitigation. In 1999 the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) was established in response to the devastation left by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Its charge is to preserve life and property and to mitigate the impacts of an event on the country and its people.

12The Belize Red Cross Society was formed in the 1940s and has established a high degree of visibility and gained appreciation for its work from the public. The Red Cross' mission is to improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity. The Society focuses work on four core areas: promoting humanitarian values, disaster response, disaster preparedness and health and community care.

13In an effort to increase population security and reduce vulnerability following Hurricane Hattie in 1961, the government of Belize immediately established the new settlement of Hattieville, 18 miles west of Belize City. Hattieville was intended to be a safer settlement in a less disaster prone area, protected from the devastating impacts of hurricanes and storm surges. Further planning led to the establishment of a new capital city in 1970, Belmopan. Belmopan is located in the less vulnerable, mountainous region of the country, 50 miles inland from coastal Belize City. Along with these, Belize passed the Disaster Preparedness and Response Act of 2000 ; the drafting of the National Hazard Mitigation Policy in 2003 ; the establishment of National Building Standards, the Hurricane Rehabilitation and Disaster Preparedness Project, and the Hurricane Preparedness Project by the Belize City Drainage Works.

III. Less Vulnerable but Not Safe

14Belize has made significant and concrete strides towards hazard mitigation and keeping its population safe. It is a rarity to find any nation who would create a new capital city as a mitigation strategy. This is commendable if not on principle alone. However, the country is also emblematic of other small island developing states and exhibits the hardships they endure in protecting their peoples. These nations suffer a dearth of resources, technological know-how and open economies that are sensitive to global shocks. In particular, although its coastal zone is highly prone to hurricanes, flooding and storm surges, this is the area where its major industry rests – tourism. Millions of travellers flock to its beaches and cayes for enjoyment. How does a government reconcile this fact to itself?

15Continuing, the country lacks any comprehensive zoning laws. Overall, zoning and other land use controls are not prominent in many Caribbean planning processes and development typically follows a discursive approach. A low-cost method of reducing property damage from natural hazards is to locate structures in less vulnerable areas. Information exists on where disaster prone areas are located and land use controls should be implemented that discourage development in those areas (Usher, Dills et al., 2005).

16Finally, building codes must be enforced. This problem is compounded when much of a nation’s population lives in poverty. As poorer and usually less educated citizens move to more urbanized areas from the villages and hinterlands seeking work and cheap housing, often services and infrastructure lag. This leads to unsafe, informal housing usually in vulnerable areas of the locale. Those already in poverty then, are more likely to be the most vulnerable segment of the population.

17Essentially, it is important for the people of Belize, members of the private sector and policy makers to be educated about natural hazards and mitigation as resources must be used carefully. Legislators must institutionalize sound mitigation practices that seek the good for the majority in the long run and avoid short term gains.

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Bibliographie

- Belize National Meteorological Service. November, 2006.

- Belize Red Cross. 2005. Belize Red Cross. Available at:

http://www.belizeweb.com/redcross.

- Fernandez M., Klein R. et al. 2003. Hurricane Vulnerability in Latin America and the Caribbean: Normalized Damage and Loss Potentials. Natural Hazards Review. 4(3): 101-113.

- National Policy Development Committee. 2003. Belize National Hazard Mitigation

Policy. Third Draft. Belmopan, Belize: National Policy Development

Committee.

- Usher K., Dills J. et al. 2005. A Framework for Natural Hazards Mitigation in the Caribbean: Lessons Learned from Belize: University of Louisville, 68p.

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Notes

1 The CIA-World Fact Book.
2 http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/Americas/Belize-TOPOGRAPHY.html
3 http://www.belizenet.com/weather/climate.html
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Référence électronique

Kareem M. Usher, « Natural Hazard Mitigation Strategies in the Continental Caribbean: The Case of Belize », Études caribéennes [En ligne], 7 | Août 2007, mis en ligne le 04 février 2008, consulté le 22 septembre 2014. URL : http://etudescaribeennes.revues.org/324  ; DOI : 10.4000/etudescaribeennes.324

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Auteur

Kareem M. Usher

Doctoral Student in Urban and Public Affairs, Research Assistant, University of Louisville.

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