Urban vulnerability to natural disasters in Central America & the Caribbean

Natural disaster
Environmental Economics
Poverty - Inequality - Aid Effectiveness

Natural Disaster Caribbean

High urbanization, urban poverty and weak institutional capacity increase risk in the region

Central America and the Caribbean (CAC) is one of the most hazard-prone regions in the world. Furthermore, the region is heavily affected by poverty, unemployment, critical management of natural resources, and urban conglomeration requiring specific attention for disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation.

A recent paper by Gencer (2013a) examines characteristics of urban vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change in Central America and the Caribbean. It argues that the urban diversity within the region, ranging from complex megacities in Central America to newly urbanizing Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and the vast variety of hazards, from geotectonic to meteorological, create a variety of risk factors in the region’s urban areas.

A very specific character that makes the urban areas in CAC highly risk prone is the region’s high urbanization levels, which is above average than the world's. According to data from the World Urbanization Prospects (UN-DESA 2010), this high rate of urbanization is expected to slow down between 2010 and 2030 in most areas which are highly urbanized; however it will increase in some of the SIDS that currently have lower urbanization levels, indicating the need as well as the opportunity to focus on preventive policies in such urbanizing nations, such as the Trinidad and Tobago.

In addition, the average share of capital city population is also much higher in the CAC region than the rest of the world both in Central American and SIDS, posing a major risk not only for human loss, but also for economic and political crises in the wake of disasters. To give an example, San Juan carries 68 percent of Puerto Rico’s and Managua carries 52.5 percent of Nicaragua’s population respectively, indicating the critical weight these cities endure for the sustainable development of their nations.

Table 1. Capital City Population as Share of Total Population (%)
Capital City Population as Share of Total Population
Source: Calculated and drawn from raw data from UN-DESA 2010. “World Urbanization Prospects: the 2009 Revision,” United Nations, New York. (Gencer 2013a, 9).

Unfortunately in the CAC region this high exposure is combined with social and physical susceptibility in urban areas creating an imminent danger of risk to natural disasters and climate change. In most nations of CAC, high rates of urbanization are complemented with lower than the World’s average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita distribution correlating to high rates of urban poverty (see Figures 1 and 2).

Indeed, all nations (with the exception of Puerto Rico) in the CAC region with higher than the world’s average urbanization levels have lower GDP per capita rates than the world average. This contrast is most apparent in large Central American nations that are home to megacities, such as El Salvador, Nicaragua or Mexico, as well as in the larger island nations, such as the Dominican Republic. However, a more sharp contrast is observed in the nations with the lowest GDP per capita rates, whose urbanization rates are about the world’s average, such as in Haiti (HTI) or Jamaica (JMC) indicating the wide-spread urban poverty in these nations.

Figure 1. CAC Countries and the World Urbanization Levels
Countries and the World Urbanization Levels
Source: Drawn from raw data from World Bank 2012. “World Development Indicators 2012,” (http://www.worldbank.org) (accessed in November 2012).


Figure 2. GDP per Capita Distribution of CAC Countries and the World
GDP per Capita Distribution of CAC Countries and the World
Source: Drawn from raw data from World Bank 2012. “World Development Indicators 2012,” (http://www.worldbank.org) (accessed in February 2013). All data refer to 2012 numbers, with the exception of Aruba (ABW) and Cuba (CUB) referring to 2011 numbers.

Urban poverty manifests itself predominantly, but not exclusively, in the region’s informal settlements. Statistics indicate that 27 percent of the urban population in Latin America and the Caribbean live in slums (Dodman/Horday/Satterhwaite 2009, 23). As these settlements grow larger and denser, lack of sanitation, clean water and garbage removal, in addition to congested living conditions add to the vulnerability of their dwellers; resulting in further environmental and health problems. Lack or inefficiency of public urban services and institutions—transportation networks, hospitals, fire- or police stations—translate into lack of response capacities at times of disasters (Gencer 2013b, 17). Social exclusion, ethnic or immigrant status, poor education and limited job opportunities add to the income poverty of these residents, limiting their mobility and resettlement and creating one of the biggest challenges for urban risk reduction in the Central America and the Caribbean region.

Furthermore, oversight of control due to inadequacy or corruptions of local governments and officials add to the problem in many urban areas in the region. Indeed, corruption statistics based on the Corruption Index 2011 (Transparency International 2011) reveal that about half of the nations that have been rated in the CAC region rated in the worse half of the total 182 countries that were rated in the study. Gencer’s research indicates that countries that score high on corruption also score high on urban poverty statistics, indicating the potential between corruption and urban poverty in the region (Gencer 2013a, 16).

Two factors stand out as a general characteristic of urban disaster risk in the Central America and the Caribbean Region: 1) hazard and exposure: the concentration of majority of national populations in single urban systems and location of these core urban centers in hazard-prone areas, and 2) susceptibility of populations and assets and lack of institutional capacity. Indeed, the brief overview of the factors that create or increase disaster vulnerability in the region indicates the susceptibility of populations due to urban poverty, encompassing both economic and non-economic factors, in many urban areas of the region. Secondly, physical limitations of the region combined with loose enforcement of the building codes (and thus lack of institutional capacity) create susceptibility and increasing risk in the region’s urban areas.

It is a difficult task to reduce hazard exposure in the already urbanized areas of the Central America and the Caribbean; however, opportunity exists for several newly urbanizing nations, particularly in the Small Island Developing States. In the megacities or the highly urbanized capital cities of the region, it is possible to reduce risk by tackling down physical and socio-economic susceptibility. This will require proactive governments, an increased institutional, financial and technical capacity and empowerment of citizens to reduce non-economic urban poverty. Such a multi-dimensional and integrated resilience building can provide the way to reducing disaster risk while producing a sustainable urban development in Central America and the Caribbean.

Note: The author would gratefully like to acknowledge that the research leading to this article was undertaken at Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) and received funding from the European Commission (FP7) Project, CATALYST.


Dodman, D., J. Hardoy, and D. Sattherwaite. 2009. “Urban Development and Intensive and Extensive Risk.” Background Paper to the 2009 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. Accessed at http://www.preventionweb.net/english/hyogo/gar/background-papers/

Gencer, E.A. 2013a. “An overview of Urban Vulnerability to Natural Disasters and Climate Change in the Central America & the Caribbean Region” Nota di Lavoro. Milan, FEEM.

Gencer, E.A. 2013b. The Interplay between Urban Development, Vulnerability, and Risk Management: A Case Study of the Istanbul Metropolitan Area. Springer Briefs in Environment, Security, Development and Peace, Vol. 7, Heidelberg- New York- Dordrecht- London: Springer.

Transparency International. 2011. Corruption Index 2011. Available at: http://www.transparency .org/research/cpi (Accessed in July 2012).

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA). 2010. World Urbanization Prospects: the 2009 Revision.

World Bank (WB) and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). 2010. Disaster Risk Management in Latin America and the Caribbean Region: GFDRR Country Notes.


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