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Guayaquil has grown quickly over the decades thanks to informal, impoverished settlements that continue to grow unchecked. As rising sea levels put the city at risk, their residents have an important part to play

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A local brigade in Guayaquil takes part in a training exercise to learn how to react to natural disasters. A large-scale simulation is held every year in November to help prepare the brigades for potential climate-change-related catastrophe.Photography by Sanne Derks/The Globe and Mail

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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In Guayaquil's Nueva Prosperina district, 'we have seen so many floods, as the water is coming in from all sides,' brigade member Lorena Lozana Charcopa says. Here, locals asked to take part in the natural-disaster-preparedness program themselves.

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Nueva Prosperina is one of the many informal settlements created by a wave of rapid urbanization in Guayaquil from the 1960s onward.

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Guayaquil is a city of nearly three million people; older districts are renowned for their brightly painted homes. It's also one of the coastal cities most at risk from rising sea levels: In extreme scenarios, it'd be the No. 4 most damaged city after Guangzhou, Mumbai and New Orleans.

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Drought and high temperatures have kept firefighters busy with wildfires that sometimes threaten the informal settlements of Guayaquil.

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For those living along the rivers that empty into the Gulf of Guayaquil, floods aren't the only hazard: The soil is unstable during earthquakes, an ever-present risk in a city close to the Pacific's seismically active Ring of Fire. Building houses within 15 metres of the river's edge is prohibited, architect Walter Mora says, but informal settlements there have still existed for years.

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From this video surveillance room, more than 1,100 cameras can be used to monitor Guayaquil and co-ordinate police, fire and emergency-response services. Information from the local emergency brigades can also be important in redirecting resources to disaster areas.

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Mapping neighbourhoods and erecting evacuation-route signs such as this is an important part of the disaster-preparedness program.

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After heavy rains, brigade members make their rounds to check on residents and report on the damage. Protecting people from the harm of natural or human-caused disasters is an obligation written into Ecuador's constitution.

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Brigade members receive first-aid training. Here, Ashley Villacres recounts how she was able to use those skills to rescue a boy at school who had overdosed. ‘I felt in control and knew exactly what steps to take before the ambulance arrived,’ she says.

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