Scientific Information Could Help Prevent Disasters Caused by La Niña and El Niño. But Will It Be Used?

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The massive downpours that fall on Guanacaste today nourish the fields, but they also cause concern for residents. Will we face new emergencies like those caused by El Niño?

The National Meteorological Institute (IMN) and experts consulted by The Voice of Guanacaste say that with currently available scientific information, the most severe consequences of heavy rainfall can be avoided, rather than regretted later.

The IMN also forecasts that rains caused by La Niña climate phenomenon will not affect the region as much as the drought did. In other words, consequences will be mild.

Nevertheless, they question the manner in which agencies like the National Emergency Commission (CNE) focus more on mitigation than disaster prevention.

Lenin Corrales, an expert on climate change and environmental modeling at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center, said scientific information that forecasts climate and weather often does not translate to decision-making.

“Meteorological forecasts always warn in advance. Scientifically speaking, the country is prepared. The issue is who listens to those voices,” Corrales said.

IMN meteorologist Luis Fernando Alvarado, of the Department of Climatology and Applied Research, agreed.

“We (the IMN) simply conduct scientific analysis of the situation according to the level of threat for the region. But even with that, I think the commission (CNE) is more focused on mitigation than prevention,” Alvarado said.

A Predicted Drought

Both scientists said that the extreme consequences of the drought, which affected Guanacaste from 2014 to the middle of this year, could have been prevented.

“Meteorology announced six months in advance that El Niño was coming, yet it still caused disasters in Guanacaste. I think we need to study why scientific information doesn’t translate to decision-making,” Corrales said.

The government published an emergency decree to respond to the drought on Sept. 30, 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 and 2016 that financial aid began to reach the province.

Will the Same Thing Happen With La Niña?

Meanwhile, the CNE believes its efforts are sufficient to prevent major damage, but in its discourse, it is clear the agency continues to focus on responding to emergencies.

The commission cites a figure of  ₡4 billion ($7.3 million) that will be earmarked for emergency response in 2016. That budget isn’t allocated provincially or by canton, but rather when an event occurs.

“There’s no clear definition for the allocation of those funds, nor how much goes to prevention or mitigation,” acknowledged CNE spokesman Reinaldo Carballo.

Carballo cited a series of preventive actions that the agency does carry out, such as monitoring threats, training committees, building dikes in flood-prone areas and periodical clearing of rivers and ravines, as well as stocking warehouses the CNE manages throughout the country. He didn’t cite the amount of funding allocated to each one of these actions.

For Carballo, more teamwork is needed with other agencies, as mandated by the National Emergencies and Risk-Prevention Law.

“The issue of prevention isn’t only the commission’s responsibility. There have been steps taken on a political level, but the problem is that some of these actions haven’t come to fruition,” Carballo said.

In other words, the responsibility falls on everyone and no one at the same time.

Local Committees Are Vital

Given this panorama, cantonal committees for emergency response created in 1997 are essential for preventing disasters. There are 400 in the country, and in Guanacaste, there is one for each canton (11), managed by the municipality and other agencies, including health, firefighters and the National Police.

But the committees have been unable to prevent the consequences of the drought, and experts are not convinced they’re prepared to assume that responsibility.

María Fernanda Meneses, expert in risk management and emergency assistance, said the CNE should provide more support to local committees by allocating more funds, and translate technical information regarding natural threats to a language that everyone can understand.

“I don’t think we’ve managed to translate technical information to the language of the people, which means the commitment is less,” Meneses said.

In the case of La Niña, Meneses said it is crucial for each community to have a defined emergency plan.