SOUTH AMERICA • How is Mexico City learning to cope with its earthquakes?

On September 17th 2017, Mexico City witnessed its latest deadly earthquake. At least 326 persons have been killed, many buildings collapsed and the reconstruction efforts are to have long lasting effects on the local and national economy. The Central American capital has a long history of regular earthquakes, the most imprinted upon collective memory being the 1985 Michoacan earthquake with at least 10,000 deaths according to the official numbers.

Mexico, a risky situation

Mexico is affected every year by numerous disasters and is becoming more and more exposed to risks. The country is located at the intersection of several tectonic plates that account for the intense seismic and volcanic activity. Both the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines are regularly hit by tropical storms and hurricanes. These natural hazards are risks precisely because they affect exposed populations. For instance, in Mexico City, vulnerability is at its highest because of the sheer number of people living across the metropolitan area.

The whole country has become increasingly vulnerable to natural hazards over the past decades due to the effects of climate change. As the population continues to grow and cities continue to expand, more and more areas are being exposed to hazards while their vulnerability is aggravated by unplanned and unregulated land use and the lack of robust building standards and environmental control.

Many reasons explain the high numbers of casualties and the extent of the damage regularly occurring in Mexico City. The nature of the soil on which Mexico City is built upon is quite unstable, for the city lies upon a plateau surrounded by mountains that used to be covered by lakes and was gradually drained to build the city of Mexico. During earthquakes, the sand and soft clays amplify the vibrations.

Another factor that contributes to the high risk is the nature of the infrastructure, which is not always seismic-proof. Even though the country strengthened construction legislation after the 1985 earthquake to make new buildings seismic-proof, the law is rarely enforced and many old buildings were not designed to withstand a shock of great magnitude. The latest earthquake mainly destroyed the old and already fragile buildings of the historic neighborhoods of Roma and La Condesa.

A national response system that lacks local reinforcement

Over the past decades, Mexico has designed various measures to better handle natural hazards that are not merely technical (such as building standards) but also by addressing the political, economic and social aspects of risk management. Risk mitigation policies have been largely designed, enforced and implemented after the 1985 earthquake, for neither the city nor the country were prepared for such an event. National measures included upgrading Mexico’s civil protection capacities, reinforcing early warning systems and implementing a more efficient disaster recovery fund. These measures have proven to be effective ever since, but lack reinforcement, financial capacity and technical expertise at the local levels of governance limit their impact.

An example of this lack of local expertise is Mexico’s shifting landscape of vulnerabilities. The case of housing is crucial in understanding how socio-economic factors can shape a population’s resilience to a natural disaster. In Mexico City, informal settlements do not follow building standards, housing regulations and land-use planning, and therefore are still the most exposed in the case of a very powerful earthquake. Informal settlements occupy about half of the metropolitan area and 60% of the population is therefore concerned by these vulnerabilities, all the more so as those properties have very little insurance coverage allowing a faster recovery in the wake of a disaster.

Reproducing patterns of vulnerability

Reconstruction policies are also relevant in the shaping of new vulnerabilities across urban landscapes. Reconstruction is never politically neutral and generally aims at transforming cities for the benefit of a given population. For example, after 1985, infrastructure was rebuilt in Mexico City following stricter building regulations and building up resilience capacity — but for whom?

Most of the buildings that were destroyed in 1985 were high-rise housing estates and low-rise apartment buildings called viviendas. These were low-cost and sometimes informal alternatives to the housing shortages due to high rates of immigration to the capital city. It was therefore the poorer populations that were most hit by the earthquake. Reconstruction certainly did improve resilience by integrating better anti-seismic standards to the buildings, but those new buildings were too costly for the initial population to move back in and thousands of tenants were expropriated to rebuild those areas. Either the tenants refused to leave their neighborhood where they were close to the city centre and had economic and social ties, or they were relocated as far as ten kilometers from downtown. In the first case, earthquake victims continued living in the damaged and unrepaired viviendas. In the second case, inhabitants were uprooted from their economic livelihoods and their community networks. In the end, reconstruction policies reproduced the social and material conditions for increased vulnerability to natural disasters, instead of mitigating them.

Managing natural risks: a challenge for the years to come

Learning how to manage risks is a long and on-going process, especially for countries with emerging economies with less funds or experience at managing large-scale emergency programs. At a national level, Mexico has invested into a more structured and efficient prevention-response-mitigation system, supported by international development organizations as the World Bank. However, the challenge now is to increase the resilience of the whole population. Resilience does not just refer to the ability of infrastructure to resist hazards and the ability of locations to recover quickly in the aftermath. Resilience also implies taking into account micro-level socio-economic factors, especially in urban areas.

If irregular settlements occupy roughly half of Mexico City and the implementation of regulations concern the official housing procedures, a large portion of the population is therefore excluded from the “formal” disaster prevention and recovery measures. The capital would need a comprehensive housing recovery plan as part of a larger strategy to reduce urban inequalities and promote social justice. The key in strengthening disaster mitigation therefore lies in addressing both urban planning and human development simultaneously. If unplanned and unregulated urban sprawl is not checked for and informal settlements are hardly recognized as part of the urban fabric by policy-makers, then conditions for resilience can barely be improved for a large part of Mexico City’s inhabitants.

Article written by Sofia MORGAVI


Priscilla Connolly. The Case of Mexico City, Mexico: Understanding Slums, Case Studies for the Global Report on Human Settlements 2003  

François Mancebo, Natural hazards and urban policies in Mexico City, Revue de Géographie Alpine | Journal of Alpine Research, 95-2 | 2007, 108-118.

Rachel Nadelman, Caroline Nichols, Sara Rowbottom, Sarah Cooper, Learning from the Mexico City Earthquake: Dynamics of Vulnerability and Preparedness. The Case of Housing (2007)


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