Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city with around three million inhabitants, is among the most vulnerable coastal cities in the world. Earthquakes are a constant threat because of its location close to the Pacific Ring of Fire. An intensified rainy season has increased the risk of floods. Studies repeatedly rank it as one of the top cities most likely to sustain major damage caused by rising sea levels.
But since the 1960s, the delta lands in the Guayas river basin have seen rapid urbanization, especially through informal settlements. Land traffickers occupy a property, sell plots to several families and then put pressure on the actual owner to sell.
These unregulated districts – now home to an estimated 70 per cent of Guayaquil’s population – create a challenge for officials tasked with keeping their poor residents safe. According to the country’s constitution, the state must protect people and nature from all kinds of disasters. This responsibility falls to regional areas.
Guayaquil’s risk management department worked with the NGO Care to develop an inclusive approach. The program “not only empowered institutions, but also the people in the poor districts in town,” department consultant Fabio Donoso says.
Instrumental to its success are 28 “brigades” composed of local volunteers that have been implemented in communities and informal settlements across the city. Members are trained how to respond in emergencies and evacuations, and to exchange information with institutions such as the fire department, police and hospitals.
One of the key parts is the “sala de incidencia,” a video-surveillance hub where reports from the transport system, the police and fire departments and the brigades are collected and analyzed.
Brigade members say they feel much more prepared for disasters. “Our district is like a frying pan,” says Lorena Lozana Charcopa in the Nueva Prosperina district. “We have seen so many floods, as the water is coming in from all sides. ... We have to learn what to do. Now we learned, and it can help us evade even death.”
But the program plays another important role. As the brigades take shape and become more entrenched in the community, they lead to increased social cohesion, says Monica Menendez, subdirector of Guayaquil’s risk management department. “We see how they grow into political organizations that learn to fight for their rights and take decisions in other fields also.”
The system has been a boon to communities, agrees Ms. Charcopa. “We are in direct contact with the municipality. We also request other things, such as a soccer field or a sewage system ... and our problems are resolved much quicker.”
The effect is felt on a personal level, as well. “It is an opportunity to learn something new, in which I can help others,” brigade member Jaime Criana says. “And what I also like about it, is that I made a lot of new friends. I am part of a group now.”
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