El Niño-induced droughts in the Colombian Andes: towards a critique of contingency thinking

Reidar Staupe-Delgado (Centre for Risk Management and Societal Safety (SEROS), University of Stavanger, Stavanger, Norway)
Bjørn Ivar Kruke (Centre for Risk Management and Societal Safety (SEROS), University of Stavanger, Stavanger, Norway)

Disaster Prevention and Management

ISSN: 0965-3562

Article publication date: 7 August 2017




The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how the contingency approach to disaster preparedness inhibits proactive management of slow-onset disasters, such as El Niño, with the purpose of advancing disaster risk theory.


This study draws on fieldwork data from Nariño, Colombia, combined with secondary data and a review of the literature on El Niño and disaster preparedness.


Disaster managers in Nariño do have contingency plans for El Niño events at their disposal. Yet, these plans do not come into play before impacts reach a certain severity. This “contingency approach” to disaster preparedness appears to stem from the assumption that disaster must come before response, effectively inhibiting proactive responses to El Niño impacts.

Research limitations/implications

Attributing observed cases of droughts and oral accounts of impacts to the El Niño phenomenon is methodologically challenging. To overcome this, the aim of this study is not the documentation of subjective attributions. Instead, the focus is on bringing to the fore key dilemmas that preparedness professionals may face when they prepare for disasters with a slow onset.

Practical implications

Developing prevention and preparedness conceptualisations that focus on preemptive measures should ensure a more proactive response to slow-onset disasters.


Whether slow-onset disasters lend themselves to the same types of risk reduction strategies applied to rapid-onset disasters is a theoretical and practical issue that has not been explored sufficiently in the disaster risk literature.



Staupe-Delgado, R. and Kruke, B.I. (2017), "El Niño-induced droughts in the Colombian Andes: towards a critique of contingency thinking", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 26 No. 4, pp. 382-395. https://doi.org/10.1108/DPM-12-2016-0248



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

1. Introduction

Human livelihoods are generally tailored to locally prevailing climatic conditions. An abrupt and radical departure from the climate to which a society is well adapted can, therefore, result in disaster, placing pressure on personal livelihood and disrupting economic activities (Smithers and Smit, 2008). El Niño warm events modify prevailing weather patterns in many parts of the world, often in dramatic and unforeseen ways (Zebiak et al., 2015; McPhaden, 1999). El Niño can be broadly defined as “the anomalous appearance from time to time of warm sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean” (Glantz, 2001a, p. 2). We will use the popular term “El Niño” throughout this text to refer to the broader, Pacific-basin wide phenomenon of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

Researchers have pointed out that El Niño is rarely discussed in the hazard research community (Glantz, 2001b; Zebiak et al., 2015). This creates a risk of minimising El Niño to nothing more than floods and droughts that can be managed in a reactive manner (McEntire, 1999). However, in the El Niño research community there is a growing realisation that El Niño can be understood as a spawner of environmental hazards (Glantz, 2001b), while also warranting consideration as a hazard in its own right due to its unique and recurring nature.

Proactive management of El Niño-induced droughts and floods requires a bridge between hazard forecasting, prevention, and preparedness. In theory, reliable forecasts and warning mechanisms can provide sufficient lead time for the initiation of proactive measures that may, if successful, cushion, if not prevent the impacts of a disaster. In practice, however, forecasts do not always activate disaster preparedness measures due to the perceived unreliability of forecasts, or due to cultural, economic or institutional constraints (Pulwarty et al., 2004). In other instances, slow-onset hazards do not receive much attention until their severity become intolerable (Glantz, 1999), because seemingly more urgent, competing socio-economic problems in El Niño affected regions often distract decision makers from timely action on slow-onset hazards. Hence, discovering new risk reduction strategies based on the premise that forecasts must result in action is necessary.

This paper aims to demonstrate how the “contingency planning” approach to disaster preparedness inhibits proactive management of slow-onset disasters – such as El Niño – and is structured as follows. The next section presents an overview of key concepts and previous studies on El Niño and preparedness, in order. Section 3 introduces the fieldwork site and design. Section 4 then outlines the fieldwork findings in light of the research aim. Lastly, Section 5 serves to problematise the “contingency approach” to disaster preparedness in light of the fieldwork observations, and as a reflection on how El Niño preparedness can be made more proactive, with implications for other slow-onset hazards.

2. Getting ready for El Niño

2.1 El Niño

Slow-onset hazards pose a unique set of challenges for policymakers and disaster managers (Glantz, 1999; Wisner et al., 2004). Droughts and other creeping hazards often evolve gradually over time, rendering decision makers vulnerable to procrastination and in action. After all, as Glantz (1999, p. 3) notes, “a change in this type of environmental problem is not much worse today than it was yesterday; nor is the rate or degree of change tomorrow likely to be much different than it is today”. El Niño is distinguishable from most other slow-onset hazards in that it exacerbates and modifies the manifestation patterns, and strength of primary hazards, namely, floods, droughts, bushfires, and vector-borne diseases (Zebiak et al., 2015). This has led to a problem of definition for hazard researchers. However, one can argue that a narrow focus on El Niño-associated hazards as stand-alone events may lead to a failure in recognising patterns in the manifestation of these hazards.

No region suffers more radical and frequent El Niño impacts than Latin America. Loss estimates from the 1997 to 1998, El Niño suggests that this region represented more than 50 per cent of global economic losses (Sarmiento, 1998). Even weak El Niño events affect this region by drastically altering rainfall patterns, which triggers floods, droughts, bushfires, heat waves and rising sea levels (Glantz, 2001a). Reviews of the 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 El Niño events in South America have suggested that when governments are faced with mixed early warning signals, preventive and preparatory actions generally do not secure a large political space (Olson et al., 2000; Ramirez, 2006). Based on observations following the 1997-1998 El Niño, McEntire (1999), McEntire and Fuller (2002) observes that broadly speaking, Peruvian departments implemented very few mitigative measures. The problem, he argues, is that “the government did not expect flooding to be a problem outside of the Northern departments” (McEntire, 1999, p. 19), due to their reliance on lessons from the 1982 to 1983 event. Given the high variability of consequences between events and regions, El Niño demands new thinking not only on the part of disaster planners but from academics in the form of relevant models and social theories as well (Zebiak et al., 2015). Given the high uncertainty under which disaster managers charged with El Niño preparedness work, they often receive too much, as opposed to too little information (Staupe-Delgado and Glantz, 2017). The problem thus becomes one of finding quality information in a sea of potential misinformation so that planning for El Niño becomes possible.

2.2 Preparedness

Preparedness can be defined as “the knowledge and capacities developed by governments, professional response and recovery organizations, communities and individuals to effectively anticipate, respond to, and recover from, the impacts of likely, imminent or current hazard events or conditions” (UNISDR, 2009, p. 21). Overall, preparedness conceptualisations stress its active, continuous and anticipatory nature (Staupe-Delgado and Kruke, in press). Preparation aims to minimise loss of life and damage to the built environment and ease the transition from response to recovery in the aftermath of a disaster. Reaching this stage is difficult in practice and depends on a number of hazard-specific factors, such as predictability of the hazard, frequency of reoccurrence, controllability of impacts and onset, onset speed of the hazard, length of forewarning before onset, duration of impact after onset, geographical scope of impact and intensity of impact, which also depends on underlying societal vulnerabilities and natural exposure (Cardona, 2003; Dynes et al., 1981). Hence, a “long-term approach to disaster planning is a more effective way of offsetting disaster than a heavy emphasis on each individual disaster event and the relief measures which accompany it” (O’Keefe and Westgate, 1977, p. 25).

Planning is a cornerstone of preparedness practice (Kruke, 2015). The hazard-specific considerations listed above notwithstanding, most disasters and their mitigation often put similar demands on societies, offering key similarities and valuable lessons that can be formalised in the form of written plans (Alexander, 2009). However, as Perry and Lindell (2003, p. 226) warn, excessive “emphasis on written plans tends to draw attention away from the process of planning itself and the original objective of achieving community emergency preparedness”. This creates a risk of producing so-called “fantasy documents” (Clarke, 1999), or plans that will not be relevant in a disaster situation. Predisaster planning should, therefore, be considered a continuous process.

Increasing response capacity and assessing possible disaster-generated societal needs is also a key concern for preparedness scholars and practitioners. Indeed, emergencies are often understood in terms of an overwhelmed or otherwise insufficient capacity for responding to and coping with a hazard (Alexander, 2002; Boin and Lagadec, 2000). The role of preparedness across levels of governance is then to ensure that at every level, from household to national government, each institution is willing and able to assist when lower-level capacities are exhausted by an event. This is known as the “principle of subsidiarity” and is characterised by the promotion of local capacity and reliance on higher-level intervention only once local capacity proves inadequate (Kruke, 2015). Here, “the main idea is that the people closest to the actual crisis are usually the most capable of understanding the situation and thus they are best suited to handle it” (Kruke, 2015, p. 180). Furthermore, this approach focusses on assistance rather than assuming control. For example, Gillespie and Streeter (1987, p. 156) conceptualise effective preparedness as “the degree of readiness to deliver services in response to disaster”. Thus, a major part of preparedness literature (Alexander, 2009; Staupe-Delgado and Kruke, in press; Quarantelli, 2000) focusses on the twin issues of enhancing community capacity (or self-reliance), while also having contingency plans for assisting these communities if local capacities prove inadequate.

Acting on early warning signals, before a disaster strikes, is a relatively under-theorised function of preparedness. Success in this regard is difficult to report on, as such actions would result in a non-event. While disaster response attracts the attention of the media and electorate, a prevented disaster does not. Establishing whether a disaster would have happened in the absence of an intervention is also difficult to assess with certainty. Still, contemporary conceptualisations of preparedness surpass a response-oriented focus, highlighting the role of preparedness in protecting communities and mobilising short-term preventive actions, such as sandbagging and unclogging drains or getting people out of harm’s way (Alexander, 2009; Perry and Lindell, 2003).

Hazards characterised by long forewarning, onset and duration are easier to respond to preemptively than are rapid-onset disasters. This means that countries may choose between a strategic (long-term proactive preparedness), tactical (short-term preparedness) or reactive approach to El Niño readiness, depending on how early they can, and are willing to act (Glantz, 2017). Which decision a country opts for will ultimately depend on cost and political commitment to disaster prevention, given other pressing issues that compete for the attention of decision makers.

Based on this short review of the preparedness concept, it is evident that its associated conceptualisations and characteristics are both idiosyncratic and contested. For the sake of convenience, it may be fruitful to consider these three strains of conceptualisation in isolation:

  1. planning → effective response and swift initiation of disaster recovery;

  2. capacity building → promote community self-reliance; and

  3. preemption → prevent an emerging hazard from becoming a disaster.

The theoretical discussions grappled with here inspired our own empirical study of how preparedness dilemmas and conceptualisations influence practice. Our study aims to explore how disaster managers in Nariño, Colombia prepare for the adverse impacts of El Niño events. These perspectives are in turn contrasted with the situation in rural areas surrounding the departmental capital of Pasto where the disaster managers work. Insights from this contrast shed light on some of the conceptual problems inherent in the preparedness tradition of “contingency planning”. We now turn our attention to elaborate on the methods we employed in our effort to shed light on these questions.

3. Method and research context

This study is inspired by meteorological studies of the 1997-1998 El Niño event suggesting that El Niño impacts are more difficult to forecast in southern Colombia than elsewhere in the Andes region (Buizer et al., 2000). As illustrated in the 1998 El Niño climate outlook in Figure 1, the area labelled “C” refers to climatology, “meaning equal probability for above-, near-, or below-normal rainfall” (Buizer et al., 2000, p. 2134). As indicated by the numbers, northern Ecuador had a 70 per cent chance of above-normal rainfall whereas central and northern Colombia had a 75 per cent chance of below-normal rainfall during the 1997-1998 El Niño. Nariño, on the other hand, had an equal probability of above- and below-normal precipitation. As such, uncertainty surrounding El Niño impacts can be seen as higher in the Colombian Andes. This area, therefore, provides a practically and theoretically compelling case for the study of preparedness, given the uncertainty of its exposure.

Studies of both the El Niño of 1997-1998 and 2015-2016 also suggest that the southern departments, which include Nariño, are among the most vulnerable departments in Colombia both in terms of El Niño exposure and in terms of socio-economic condition. A recent assessment by Azcárate and Mejía-Fajado (2016) found that the Andean region tends to experience a higher prevalence of dengue and malaria, daytime temperature increases with associated reduction in humidity, as well as a 20-40 per cent reduction in rainfall. Disaster risk management in this context is characterised by coordination problems (Güingla, 2006; Ramirez, 2006), which make it difficult to act on early warning signals and prevent these impacts.

A prevalent strategy in the Andean region consists of setting up ad hoc agencies in response to large El Niño impacts, but this alienates existing agencies in charge of disaster risk reduction and inhibits effective learning between events (Olson et al., 2000). Such initiatives also depart from the view represented by the similarity principle (Kruke, 2015), which emphasises that existing organisational structures should also be maintained during disasters. The extent of the impacts and the fact that they do not materialise in the form of widespread destruction may contribute to a sense of illusiveness for disaster managers in the country, who are more familiar and better equipped to deal with rapid-onset disasters with localised and concrete impacts.

In Latin America, sub-national governments or provinces are often referred to as departamentos; thus, the term “department” will refer to sub-national government in this text. This qualitative study draws on two months of fieldwork in the Nariño department of Colombia. The methods employed during the fieldwork include participant observation, unstructured interviews with key disaster management officials, document analysis of contingency plans and reports from departmental government agencies and field conversations with rural dwellers in four affected municipalities in Nariño (in addition to the interviews with key departmental agencies in Pasto). The study is limited to five municipalities (see Figure 3 in Section 4.2), based on recommendations emerging from the interviews with the Nariño unit of the Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientale and the contingency planners at the Gobernación de Nariño. Thus, our design essentially aims to contrast the views of the more centralised disaster management agencies in the departmental capital of Pasto with those of local people in four adversely affected communities.

Conducting research in Nariño is challenging for a number of reasons. First, it is one of the poorest departments in Colombia, and its departmental capital, Pasto, has encountered a series of recessions in recent decades. Capital flight resulting from investment frauds and pyramid schemes has crippled the economy and led to high unemployment and severe social problems (Arboleda et al., 2004). Second, Nariño is the main coca-growing region of Colombia, and large parts of Nariño have only recently become accessible due to a de-escalation of conflicts in the region. Yet, many municipalities outside Pasto are considered risky or “red-zone”, thus limiting access and freedom of mobility in these areas. Third, Colombia has become known as “the Latin American country where violence has been the most widespread and persistent” (Kay, 2007, p. 7), even though crime levels have decreased markedly in recent years (Holmes and Gutiérrez de Piñeres, 2014). Distrust among community members, especially towards authority figures and civil servants, makes it challenging to build trust with informants to facilitate open and critical discussion of key aspects of the preparedness process. It may seem surprising that the country is often considered a pioneer of DRR work at the organisational level (World Bank and GFDRR, 2011). However, large gaps remain. The La Niña cold event of 2010-2011 resulted in immense losses, and while the country’s DRR institutions have been deemed effective, disaster losses continue to rise (World Bank and GFDRR, 2011). In the context of El Niño, one limiting factor may be the conventional contingency planning logic itself, which seems to perform poorly in the context of slow-onset disasters, as is indicated by the study’s findings.

4. Findings

The main findings from the fieldwork are presented in this section. Naturally, fieldwork observations and impressions span a massive range of topics and research interests, so a great deal of effort has gone into restraining the analysis to the topic delimitated by the research aim. More specifically, this section first elaborates on the strategies employed by the departmental government of Nariño (El Gobernación de Nariño) in the city of Pasto, before presenting their perceived effectiveness in the outlying rural towns of El Tablón de Gómez, Arboleda, Nariño (municipality) and Ancuyá.

4.1 DRR activities in the departmental capital of Nariño

Important aspects of Colombia’s socio-political and economic history play directly into the way in which its DRR institutions are organised. These societal factors in combination with large disasters of the past have contributed to national and departmental institutions that favour decentralised and proactive approaches in their strategy. Important steps still need to be made in the way they manage slow-onset hazards, such as El Niño, where long lead times somehow fail to trigger early action for a number of reasons.

First, effective disaster risk management is in large part about building trust with communities, and understanding local needs (Gaillard and Mercer, 2012; Shaw, 2016). A major challenge for disaster managers in Pasto is that public officials are not held in great esteem in the surrounding towns. This tendency is arguably perpetuated by a low level of inclusion in preparedness processes, including planning and vulnerability analyses, and a strong preference for technical and formal language over the common language used by farmers and villagers in the countryside.

Second, reliable forecasts that are widely disseminated and acted upon enable those most dependent on climate predictability to protect their livelihoods (Pfaff et al., 1999). Adaption of diversification strategies depends on the production of more user-friendly and reliable ways of disseminating uncertainty in long-term El Niño forecasts. In addition, while forecasts of the onset of El Niño are becoming more reliable at the international level, it remains difficult to predict localised El Niño impacts. This means that disaster managers in Pasto are reluctant to reach out to potentially exposed populations with reliable information in advance of El Niño events.

Lastly, there is a common misunderstanding of what the word “proactive” refers to in the context of contingency planning, both in the literature and among disaster managers in Pasto. Proponents of a more proactive approach to contingency planning and disaster preparedness correctly argue for the importance of producing disaster plans before – as opposed to during – a disaster (Alexander, 2009; Kruke and Olsen, 2005). Disaster managers in Pasto should be applauded for having contingency plans for all 64 municipalities in the department. Nevertheless, being proactive about the plan production, as opposed to its activation, is necessary but not sufficient.

Looking at the vocabulary used by disaster managers in Pasto it became clear that contingency plans are conceptualised as measures that “are activated” (in Spanish: se activan) once communities suffer a disaster of a certain severity. Similar language can be found in written contingency plans and related policy documents (UNGRD, 2014; IDEAM, 2002). These concepts appear to be based on the idea of rapid-onset events, such as floods, where short lead times produce impacts that immediately trigger the plans. In other words, there is a tendency to think that disaster must come before response. El Niño (and other slow-onset hazards) on the other hand, do not behave this way and requires that plans contain specific triggering conditions and thresholds. After all, delayed action results in fewer opportunities to cushion the worst impacts of El Niño.

The DRR section at the Office of the Governor of Nariño estimated the total value of the natural resources and agricultural produce lost to droughts and wildfires attributable to El Niño in 2015 at 524 billion Colombian pesos (US$177 million at the time of writing). El Niño impacts are, like most climate anomalies, difficult to attribute with absolute accuracy (Stone and Allen, 2005). The attribution problem notwithstanding, the relative value of the lost natural resources and lost harvests equals economic disaster for Nariño, one of Colombia’s poorest departments. However, no attempt has been made to quantify loss of life, so for the sake of this study, the 2015-2016 El Niño will be treated primarily as an economic disaster. Figure 2 illustrates the value of forests lost to wildfires as well as the value of stable foods and cash crops in the region. While not directly resulting in large-scale loss of life, economic disasters can greatly affect the livelihoods of people, leaving them more vulnerable than before (Cardona, 2003). The four towns visited as part of this study illustrate this point.

4.2 Field visits to four impacted Nariñense towns

El Tablón De Gómez (1 on the map in Figure 3) is a municipality in Northeastern Nariño and is home to the Inga tribe and the town of Aponte. The local economy is primarily based on coffee production. The typical high altitude, low- but above-freezing temperatures and high humidity characterise the region as an ideal coffee-growing topography, and the municipality produces much of the renowned Nariño coffee. While the municipality is humid overall, the town of Aponte itself is considerably drier than ideal for coffee cultivation, albeit not dry or sunny enough to have notably affected the yields. Any potential loss would have been problematic to attribute to El Niño, however, as the town was undergoing an unrelated slow-onset geophysical event (El Tiempo, 2016). The phenomenon had most notably caused a large crack in the ground where the soil was rising on one side and sinking on the other. While this event is not related to El Niño, it provides a valuable example of the management of slow-onset disasters in the area. As the soil dislocation continued to worsen, speculations arose that the town may require relocation altogether.

The Inga are very distrustful of the departmental government in Pasto. A town council meeting indicated that the Inga community is more inclined to trust the national government in the capital city of Bogotá, international actors such as the United Nations Development Programme as facilitators of the geological survey. While several houses in Aponte had been destroyed by soil dislocation at the time of the study, dozens more were cracked and would arguably become hazardous to live in as the soil dislocation problem gradually worsens over time. The slow response to the Aponte soil dislocation problem suggests that creeping disasters are usually “managed” through a “let us wait and see what happens” approach, rather than dealing with them before they get worse.

Arboleda (2) is a municipality located about 76 km north of Pasto and is characterised by its fertile valley landscapes. The drive through Arboleda on the way to Berruecos, its largest town, put the extent of the El Niño impacts into perspective in a surprising way. Puzzlingly enough, every single patch of maize observed on the way was either severely scorched or barren. Plantain trees also looked bleak but were clearly faring better than the cornfields. However, while the soil appeared dry, the Andean landscape in the horizon looked lush and green, contradicting the current drought. Similarly, bushes, grass, and the natural landscape at large appeared lush. This was even true for areas where the soil was completely dry to the touch. This raises the question of drought definition, as native vegetation appeared to adapt to the drier-than-normal conditions whereas cultivated crops struggled with the El-Niño-induced change in humidity.

Arriving in Berruecos revealed that the local understanding of El Niño was poor. The spring rainy season normally expected for April and May had not come, but none of the townsfolk referred to El Niño when asked about this. Nonetheless, better forecast information and dissemination would have provided households who derive most of their income from agriculture with valuable predictability and possibilities for adopting alternative livelihood strategies.

The department of Nariño also contains a municipality and a town that are both called Nariño. Pasto (3) and Nariño (4) are separated only by Volcán Galeras, an active volcano that was the focus of several international studies and is known to have killed nine researchers in a failed expedition in 1993 (Bruce, 2001). Due to its exposure from Volcán Galeras, Nariño is subject to more departmental contingency planning than most other municipalities in the department.

The road out of Pasto towards Nariño follows the base of Volcán Galeras for about 13 km to the north-west and gradually becomes more rural and dominated by agricultural landscapes as it approaches the small town of Genoy. The effects of the reduced rainfall in the Pasto area, which were less severe than the aforementioned drought in Arboleda, could not be readily felt in Pasto. However, once approaching Genoy, it was evident that maize, sugarcane and plantain crops also failed here to varying degrees, depending on which side of the valley the farms were situated. Continuing along the base of Galeras for another 7 km leads to the town of Nariño. Here, the humidity was higher, and there had been some light showers, but all the maize grown in residents’ gardens had perished. However, a drought is not often defined as simply the absence of rain; as explained by Glantz (1994, p. 10), “definitions of what constitutes a drought will need to vary, depending on one’s expectations about moisture needs for specific human activities within a given area”. An important extension of this strain of thought is that the intensity and frequency of droughts can also result from the introduction of inappropriate crops to incompatible environments (Glantz, 1994; Smucker, 2012). This need not be the case, however, as what can be considered an appropriate environment for a certain crop during El Niño neutral years may be an inappropriate one during El Niño years due to its impact on rainfall.

The last municipality surveyed, Ancuyá (5), is located about 27 km east of Pasto, opposite Vólcan Galeras. This area is less reliant on maize due to its steep and hilly landscape, but large areas of dried-up sugarcane were visible on the way to the largest town in the municipality, also called Ancuyá. The town of Ancuyá was subject to strict water conservation measures at the time of the study. While the daily lives of Ancuyá residents did not seem desperate or disrupted, speculation was prevalent over the failure of the rainy season to arrive. An information gap was evident from these observations and dialogues. Without access to knowledge of El Niño, its forecast or its potential impacts, townsfolk could not take steps to mitigate its effect on their livelihoods.

4.3 Reflections on the impacts

The impacts of droughts are often much harder to observe directly than those of floods. These two types of potential El Niño impacts are qualitatively different in that droughts are slow-onset hazards, while floods tend to be rapid-onset (Smith, 2013). During the 2015-2016 El Niño event, the coast and western Andes were subject to flooding, while the eastern half of Nariño faced below-normal rainfall. Daily variations in rainfall and humidity in some regions complicate the observation of qualitative changes in the drought, as the occurrence of these factors does not exclude the existence of a drought. Thus, the rainfall might be just high enough to support native vegetation, yet be insufficient for certain types of crops (Smucker, 2012; Glantz, 1994), such as maize.

The uncertain and varied nature of the impacts of El Niño makes it prone to the attribution problem. Beyond the sheer ambiguity associated with forecasting localised impacts, it is also difficult to determine whether a deviation in rainfall is attributable to El Niño or other climatic perturbations or is consistent with “normal” weather variations. This ambiguity is often “solved” by attributing every deviation to the phenomenon under investigation. However, this leads to significant bias in results and overestimation of needs. Indeed, as repeatedly concluded in the literature, life on the margins in many developing countries can best be described as a permanent emergency (Wisner et al., 2004), where needs are unmet even in the absence of natural hazards.

Whether a society adapts to a hazard or not depends primarily on its ability to learn from experience (Glantz, 2001b). Learning is also associated with response efficiency through the ability to foresee and anticipate common scenarios and contingencies that occur. Affected populations depend on timely and appropriate information if they are to engage in mitigative actions at the household or community levels. Early warning in this context can be understood as:

The set of capacities needed to generate and disseminate timely and meaningful warning information to enable individuals, communities and organizations threatened by a hazard to prepare and to act appropriately and in sufficient time to reduce the possibility of harm or loss

(UNISDR, 2009, p. 12).

While meteorologists and disaster managers in Pasto receive early warnings from their branches in Bogotá, they have no clear procedure for informing farmers and other stakeholders of the most up-to-date forecasts. This was reflected in the low level of understanding of El Niño found among rural townspeople.

In light of the study findings, early warnings provide a valuable perspective on mitigation and its role in protecting livelihoods. Families reliant on maize and plantain cultivation, in particular, could have adjusted their agricultural plans had they only been informed. While no famine ensued, the resulting lost income has worsened conditions for affected families and have left them disadvantaged for preventable reasons.

5. From contingency planning to proactive preparedness

As demonstrated in the preceding two sections, the challenge of responding effectively to slow-onset disasters can be understood as one of the main flaws of the contingency approach. Contingency planning may be defined as a “management process that analyses disaster risks and establishes arrangements in advance to enable timely, effective and appropriate responses” (UNISDR, 2009, p. 7). While most definitions of contingency planning do advocate for proactive strategies to reduce disaster risks, they rarely include an aspect of preemptive action. Departing from reactive responses in favour of more proactive requires both a redefinition of the triggering conditions for contingency plans, as well as funding and political prioritisation for such changes.

The severity of a disaster depends directly on the activities undertaken during normal times, before a hazard manifests (Kruke and Olsen, 2005). Overall objectives of sustainable development, including the correction of major social injustices and patterns of discrimination, can be seen as the most effective but most challenging risk reduction measures that societies can undertake (Wisner et al., 2004; Lewis and Kelman, 2012). Preparedness measures can be considered more specialised activities directed at the minimisation of hazard impacts. Proactive preparedness therefore relies on anticipation and preemptive action informed – as opposed to restricted – by written plans and procedures.

In short, proactive measures can reduce the consequences of various slow-onset disasters, but depends on serious consideration of early warning signals. Some residual risk is likely to be unavoidable, however, even where proactive preparedness measures are initiated before disaster impacts manifest. This residual risk will require an excess response capacity to be maintained in case the actions based on the early warning signals turn out to be ill-informed or inadequate. Thus, one can argue that the contingency approach needs to be replaced by a holistic preparedness strategy consisting of three mutually reinforcing steps, where each step addresses one of these challenges according to societal needs and exposure. In Figure 4, we present what a preparedness strategy for slow-onset events may look like.

In summary, slow-onset disasters like El Niño require new thinking in preparedness theory and practice. The development process (which is arguably a process happening in developed and developing countries alike) is responsible for the reduction of long-term risk. This includes addressing maladaptation to prevailing weather conditions (Smithers and Smit, 2008), which is a prerequisite for coping with future climatic conditions and change. In this regard, a first step would be to move from a reliance on reactive response in favour of proactive preparedness and preemptive response.

6. Concluding remarks

For societies to reduce El Niño adverse impacts over the long term, it is necessary to move away from the present reactive contingency planning approach in favour of a more proactive preparedness strategy. In this study, we have demonstrated how the contingency approach to disaster preparedness inhibits proactive management of slow-onset disasters by looking at how the work of professional disaster managers in Pasto, Colombia is not adjusted to the needs of the rural population surrounding the city. Instead of reaching out and working with communities in anticipation of disaster, the current approach revolves around a tendency to respond once impacts are perceived as sufficiently severe to justify a response. Nurturing a culture of self-reliance at the community level would also entail the inclusion of said communities in preparedness efforts and processes. There is reason to believe that this tendency not only holds true for El Niño but for other slow-onset hazards as well.

In an attempt to draft preparedness lessons for slow-onset disasters in general, a simple threefold preparedness model has been presented. As this model illustrates, preparedness for slow-onset disasters must take advantage of the preimpact phase by stressing the role of proactive measures. While slow-onset disaster burden can benefit from a shift towards increased focus on proactive measures, some residual risk is likely to remain. In this sense, early response is a way to stop some slow-onset disasters from becoming full-blown disasters in the first place. In other cases, disastrous impacts will not be readily foreseeable or avoidable, in which case, reactive preparedness and response will be necessary.

Proactive preparedness in the context of El Niño requires proper information dissemination to households to enable them to adopt appropriate coping strategies rather than waiting for losses to get severe enough to “trigger” the departmental contingency plans. Responding to emerging hazards before they pose a significant problem would lessen the disastrous effect of El Niño on personal livelihoods and local economies.


Climate Outlook precipitation forecast of February-April 1998 for Northern and Northeastern South America produced January 1998 in Fortaleza, Brazil

Figure 1

Climate Outlook precipitation forecast of February-April 1998 for Northern and Northeastern South America produced January 1998 in Fortaleza, Brazil

2015 El Niño loss estimates for Nariño in billions of Colombian pesos

Figure 2

2015 El Niño loss estimates for Nariño in billions of Colombian pesos

Map of the research site

Figure 3

Map of the research site

Components of a preparedness strategy for slow-onset disasters

Figure 4

Components of a preparedness strategy for slow-onset disasters


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Corresponding author

Reidar Staupe-Delgado can be contacted at: reidar.staupe-delgado@uis.no

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