Coordination and communication - Santo Domingo Este, Dominican Republic


Patrick Fuller

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

La Isla Barrio stands in stark contrast to the popular images of palm-fringed beaches frequented by tourists visiting the Dominican Republic. La Isla is one of the many illegal settlements in Santo Domingo Este, the eastern municipality of the nation’s capital. This sprawling community of 300 homes has been constructed on steep hillsides which lead down to the edges of the Ozama River. The river divides the city between east and west. Its waters are heavily polluted, largely in part due to the waste produced by the communities living on its banks. 

Juan Carlos De Los Santos is the former President of Las Isla’s neighbourhood association. 

‘When it rained, the water would cascade down the hillside. We would have landslides and whole houses would be lost. There was always flooding’. 

Last year the municipality of Santo Domingo Este stepped in and constructed a 400-metre storm drain which channels the seasonal rains straight into the river below. Now, disaster losses in the community are minimal. 

With a population of 891,952, Santo Domingo Este is one of the biggest and most populous municipalities in the country. An estimated 45% of the population is at risk from flooding each year and 37% live in coastal areas where tsunamis pose a threat. Much of the municipality is low-lying and the amount of rainfall received each year exceeds the absorption capacity of the city’s underdeveloped drainage infrastructure. 

The department of urban planning has begun mapping the risks in the city in line with its new disaster risk reduction (DRR) action plan, developed with support from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) under the initiative ‘Making Cities Sustainable and Resilient’ initiative, a project funded by the European Commission. 

‘We have identified 17 vulnerable areas of the city that have three things in common; their vulnerability to landslides, their vulnerability to flooding and their poor drainage infrastructure’, explains Isidro Romano, director of the municipality’s urban development department. 

Technicians from the general directorate of territorial planning are collaborating with the urban development team to establish a clear picture of zoning in the city in order to regulate where people can build and prioritise development and investment in drainage infrastructure where it’s most needed.

Almost 50% of construction in Santo Domingo Este is thought to be illegal, resulting in too many people living in unsafe areas. The Barrio of La Barquita is situated in one of the lowest-lying areas of the city. During the rainy season much of the local population lived in a constant state of alert due to the threat of flooding. Now, the municipality has relocated 2600 families to apartment blocks in safer areas. Much of La Barquita has been reclaimed to serve as a park for local residents.

‘Before we started work on the plan, disaster risk reduction was a new concept for most people working in the municipality and for the general public’, explains Luisa Taveras who has been the focal point for the Making Cities Sustainable and Resilient initiative. She is now leading the establishment of a dedicated municipal office for DRR to oversee the implementation of the city’s DRR action plan. 

One of the objectives is to develop and improve people’s knowledge and understanding of DRR. A digital library of ‘risk knowledge’ resources has been established on the municipality’s web site which hosts resources and reports produced by a variety of organisations on issues relating to climate change. 

To improve its understanding and inform disaster risk planning in the city, plans are also in place to establish a database using ‘Desinventar’ a digital tool that captures historical information and data on disaster losses. 

When assessing the city’s level of disaster resilience, one of the strengths identified was the quick response by the emergency services to local emergencies. But there was also criticism that coordination and communication between agencies remained weak. One of the biggest achievements of developing the DRR plan is that now, different departments know what each does which has been the starting point for a more unified approach to disaster response.

‘Before we were just reacting to disasters with each agency working on its own without a real plan,’ explains Rudolfo Castilla from the municipality’s health department. ‘If there was bad flooding the fire brigade didn’t always know where to evacuate people to but now, they are working more closely with teams from civil defence and health who provide food, shelter and medical care for evacuees.’

The development of the DRR plan was a unique opportunity to bring together a wide cross-section of national organisations to work together with the municipality including; the national office for seismology, the national office of meteorology, national corporation of aqueducts and sewerage and the ministry of public works. 

Hugo Ramon heads the Dominican Radio Club, a network of ham radio operators across the country. He is helping to improve communications between emergency responders in Santo Domingo Este by installing a VHF radio network that links civil defence volunteers across the municipality with the Town Hall and other members of the emergency services.

‘Maintaining channels of communication in times of disasters is vital. Mobile communications channels are often disrupted and radio still represents the most reliable way to gather and share information’, explains Ramon.

Community engagement is one of the municipality’s growing priorities. ‘Our engagement with communities used to be mainly limited to interactions after a disaster. Now, the focus is on educating them on what they should do, before, during and after a disaster’, explains Luisa Taveras.  

535 community groups exist in neighbourhoods across Santo Domingo Este. Each group now has one person who is designated to be a focal point for the town hall on DRR issues. The municipality has organised two earthquake simulations in vulnerable areas of the city which have involved the participation of the vice mayor, local NGOs, firefighters and the army. Monthly simulations and educational sessions on disaster prevention are also being held in schools.  

For Mayor Alfredo Martinez, the foremost challenge is getting the public involved.

‘Disaster Risk Reduction is about preventing people from living in high risk areas, but it is also about communicating our plan to local residents and making sure they are fully engaged. We want everyone working together on risk prevention’.

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