Chapter 6. Disaster preparedness and response in Colombia

This chapter reviews Colombia’s disaster response capacities under the leadership of a central lead institution, and reviews the effectiveness of co-ordination mechanisms established to mobilise a timely disaster response. The chapter reviews disaster preparedness planning and emergency response capacity across the country. This is includes an evaluation of the effectiveness and coverage of early warning systems, provisions for crisis management exercises and drills and mechanisms for continuous improvement in disaster response.


Effective and timely disaster response that limits disaster losses and damages hinges on solid preparedness and planning. Disaster response units need to put the necessary resources and operational capacities in place and regularly practice emergency management plans to ensure co-ordinated disaster response. The OECD Recommendation of the Council on the Governance of Critical Risks (OECD, 2014) underlines the need to build preparedness, establish well co-ordinated response mechanisms with clear leadership and protocols, and stresses the need for good governance throughout disaster preparedness and response activities (OECD, 2014). This chapter evaluates Colombia’s practices in this regard against the provisions of the OECD Recommendation, with a focus on the extent to which these are promoted in disaster preparedness and response policies.

Effective disaster preparedness and response: Key aspects of Colombia’s disaster risk management

Disaster preparedness and response are at the heart of Colombia’s national disaster risk management agenda. In line with the OECD Recommendation (OECD, 2014), Law 1523/2012 calls for stakeholders to engage in preparedness planning, including the adoption of national and subnational strategies for disaster response, civil protection exercises and trainings, and the installation of warning systems.

The National Plan for Disaster Risk Management (Plan Nacional de Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres, PNGRD) formulates concrete disaster preparedness objectives for public stakeholders in the National System for Disaster Risk Management (Sistema Nacional de Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres, SNGRD) (Table 6.1). The objectives aim at strengthening preparedness and response capacities at subnational government levels, with a strong technical assistance role given to the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (Unidad Nacional para la Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres, UNGRD).

The UNGRD is tasked with ensuring that the National Emergency Response Strategy (Estrategia Nacional para la Respuesta a Emergencias, ENRE)1 is implemented at all levels of government, that national as well as subnational stakeholders receive the necessary emergency response trainings, and that the necessary capacities are in place. The latter includes the installation of early warning systems, carried out by technical agencies and municipalities, but overseen by the UNGRD. To this end, the UNGRD has started to identify the national maximum required response capacity. The United Kingdom’s Resilience Capabilities Programme could be a model worth considering for Colombia. The programme’s goal is to increase response and disaster recovery capabilities by means of understanding what capacities are needed for which type of emergency (United Kingdom Cabinet Office, 2018)(Box 6.1).

Box 6.1. United Kingdom’s Resilience Capabilities Programme

The United Kingdom’s Resilience Capabilities Programme (RCP) supports departments in understanding the capabilities needed to effectively respond to and recover from disasters.

The RCP is informed by the UK National Risk Assessment (NRA) (see Box 4.1), and benefits from co-operation between responsible stakeholders. Around 80 scenarios, including disasters, major accidents and malicious attacks, have been identified in the NRA, and have guided the development of capacities under the respective lead department. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat within the UK Cabinet Office oversees and steers the development of capacities under the RCP. Close co-operation with the Resilience and Emergencies Division in the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Infrastructure Resilience team within Cabinet Office ensures adequate capacities at subnational as well as at critical infrastructure levels.

The Resilience Capabilities Programme Board, together with the Ministerial Sub-Committee on Resilience and the National Security Council Ministerial Sub-Committee on Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingencies oversees capacity assessment.

Sources: United Kingdom Cabinet Office (2018), United Kingdom Cabinet Office (2017).

Roles and responsibilities

The actors involved in response to a disaster depend on the scale of the respective crisis. Law 1523/2012 differentiates between municipal, departmental and national disasters. The mayor or governor of an affected municipality or department can declare a state of disaster, upon recommendation by the respective subnational council. The President of Colombia declares a state of disaster following the recommendation of the National Council, reflecting the fact that disaster declarations open up access to central government assistance (see Chapter 7). Disasters may be declared up to two months after the onset of a disaster.

The National Strategy for Disaster Response specifies roles and responsibilities for stakeholders involved in disaster preparedness and response. Colombia’s local response entities are first in line to respond to disasters. These include the local police and military units (fuerza pública), the fire brigade, as well as the local branches of the civil society organisations of the Colombian Red Cross (Cruz Roja Colombiana) and the Colombian Civil Defense (Defensa Civil Colombiana). The response functions at the local level include search and rescue, the provision of first aid and emergency relief. If a disaster is declared, additional response units from other territorial entities or the central government can be mobilised in complement to local response units. This may include the Military Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Militares de Colombia).

Table 6.1. Disaster preparedness and response management objectives in the National Plan for Disaster Risk Management, 2015-25 (selection)
Table 6.1. Disaster preparedness and response management objectives in the National Plan for Disaster Risk Management, 2015-25 (selection)

In recognition of the whole-of-society approach in disaster risk management that was adopted through Law 1523/2012, the National Strategy for Disaster Response specifies roles for businesses, including infrastructure operators, as well as individual citizens. Infrastructure operators are, for example, required to contribute to the provision of relief items listed in the strategy. To engage citizens in disaster response, local response units offer first aid trainings and organise preparedness seminars for local populations. The Colombian Civil Defense, for instance, has trained over 16 000 volunteers for disaster response operations, and the UNGRD trains community leaders as first responders, complementing public response capacities with civil society potential (Colombian Civil Defence, 2017; UNGRD, 2017). Good practice from Mexico offers further inspiration for engaging citizens in disaster response efforts to complement government information on the extent of disaster damages and response needs (Box 6.2).

Box 6.2. Mexico: Using data in disaster response

In Mexico, various tools to support disaster response operations are available. Following the September 2017 earthquake in south-central Mexico (Morelos, Chiapas, State of Mexico, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Mexico City), these tools were put to a test, showing their use in improving and co-ordinating disaster response. Shortly after the 7.1 earthquake, the Mexican government, through its National Digital Strategy and the National Emergency Committee, started to make use of these tools:

  • To quickly collect information on the extent of damage to buildings and infrastructure, a public call through an open, online process was launched, resulting in ca. 17 000 data points. To support the citizen-driven collection of data, the government of Mexico released information on public Wi-Fi spots, along with information on the list of municipalities affected by the earthquake. With the use of this data, the National Emergency Committee was able to plan emergency response in a timelier manner, and better concentrate efforts on the most affected areas.

  • To boost the efficiency of response efforts, digital tools such as Google’s Person Finder, Alerts and Crisis Map; Waze’s data about traffic in Mexico City; Facebook’s Safety Check and automated chatbot; Twitter’s communication efforts; and Carto’s mapping infrastructure were used in planning and co-ordinating disaster response efforts. For this purpose, the government agreed a communication protocol with the various technology companies. Agreements with third-sector efforts (e.g. and further contributed to co-ordinating and prioritising disaster response efforts.

Source: OECD (2018), OECD (2016).

Early warning systems

In the event of a disaster, stakeholders with disaster response responsibilities need to be able to act quickly (OECD, 2014). Early warning systems monitor hazards and issue timely warnings in case of disaster, making them a critical factor in enabling effective disaster response from responsible stakeholders, as well as from those directly affected by a disaster. In addition to setting up early warning systems, the OECD Recommendation provides that results should be fed directly into timely decision making (OECD, 2014).

In Colombia, Law 1523/2012 provides for the establishment of early warning systems to activate disaster response capacities. Currently, warning systems are in place for some hazards and in some areas. To warn about impeding earthquakes and volcanic activity, the Colombian Geological Service (Servicio Geológico Colombiano, SGC) maintains a warning system as part of its seismological network (Red Sismológica Nacional de Colombia, RSNC). For hydrometerological hazards, including storms, torrential rain and landslides, the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales, IDEAM) issues alerts, but does not yet have a real-time early warning system in place (Box 6.3). In La Guajira, the Colombian Red Cross and the Autonomous Corporation of La Guajira (Corpoguajira) monitor hydro-meteorological conditions and alert communities (Colombian Red Cross, n.d.; UNGRD, 2015; UNGRD, 2018).

Box 6.3. Vigicrues: France’s flood warning system

To enable timely and co-ordinated response to floods, the French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy collects information on water levels of the country’s main bodies of water. The ministry makes information on water levels available on the Vigicrues online platform ( Flood alerts are also issued through this public platform, with the level of risk illustrated on a colour scale (green, yellow, orange and red) on a map of France. A click on the map activates a zoom function and highlights individual monitoring stations, where the user can get additional information on current water levels. Periodic information bulletins from monitoring stations complement this information with further details, as well as with self-protection guidance.

Source: French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy (2018).

To close gaps in coverage, the National Plan for Disaster Risk Management includes several projects to expand early warning systems. For instance, a project on early warning systems for maritime hazards is currently under way, with permanent tsunami hazard monitoring and a tsunami alert centre (Centro de Alerta por Tsunami, CAT) already established. In addition, as part of a project to install 78 early warning systems for hydrological hazards, 16 cities have installed early warning systems that monitor water levels and issue warnings in case of high flash flood risk. Additional flash flood early-warning systems are under development in 14 municipalities in the Putumayo and Huila departments (DIMAR, 2018; UNGRD, 2015; UNGRD, 2018)

Emergency and response planning

Emergency management plans and response protocols are important factors in ensuring effective and co-ordinated response to disasters. In Colombia, Law 1523/2012 requires the adoption of national and subnational strategies for disaster response, which should include emergency plans and response protocols. With the National Strategy for Disaster Response, an emergency management plan accompanied by response protocols for all aspects of emergency response is in place at the national level. In addition, the National Plan for Disaster Risk Management includes a series of projects for scenario-based emergency planning. Emergency response protocols for volcanic eruptions (Galeras, Chiles and Cerro Negro volcanoes) and tsunamis have been prepared, and the national hurricane response protocol is currently undergoing revision. Response protocols for seasonal climatic phenomena, earthquakes, as well as industrial, technological and bio-sanitary hazards are to follow in the short- and medium term (UNGRD, 2015; UNGRD, 2018).

Law 1523/2012 also requires all public service providers to develop emergency management plans. Some service providers already have plans in place, whereas others noted that plans are currently being developed following the adoption of Decree 2157/2017. For instance, Ecopetrol, Colombia’s primary oil producer, already has emergency management plans in place, and organises regular trainings to ensure employees are familiar with the emergency provisions.

Crisis management exercises and drills

Regular crisis management exercises and drills for stakeholders engaged in disaster response activities ensure that all stakeholders are familiar with the emergency plans and response protocols, and know exactly what to do during a crisis. Exercises also present an opportunity to validate emergency plans and protocols, and to communicate hazard and risk information. They represent an opportunity to promote the need for whole-of-society preparedness to the public (OECD, 2014).

In Colombia, the UNGRD, together with stakeholders in the National System for Disaster Risk Management, have a strong track record in organising disaster management exercises. Typically, these exercises are also used for risk communication and to raise public awareness. Communication material on the exercises includes websites, video clips and social media posts. Examples include the annual National Emergency Response Simulation (Simulacro Nacional del Respuesta a Emergencias).2 This simulation offers an opportunity to practice response procedures for the main natural hazards Colombia is exposed to. The UNGRD regularly organises bilateral disaster preparedness exercises with neighbouring countries, including Ecuador and Peru, as well as with international organisations. The 2016 SIMEX exercise in Bogota, for instance, was organised with United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), to exercise the use of UN search and rescue procedures in earthquake response activities.3 Upcoming international exercises include the tsunami exercises “Caribe Wave 18” with countries in the Caribbean, and “PacWave18” organised with the Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Pacific Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System.4

Co-ordination mechanisms for effective and timely disaster response

Effective and timely disaster response requires strong co-ordination mechanisms and government leadership. To this end, the OECD Recommendation provides that a crisis cell to co-ordinate disaster response efforts should be in place, and government leadership should be reinforced (OECD, 2014). In Colombia, the UNGRD is the lead agency in charge of co-ordinating the national response to national emergencies. It brings liaison officers from all stakeholder groups involved in the response efforts together in a national crisis room, along with delegates from all other relevant ministries, the three technical committees and the National Council, to co-ordinate actions (Box 6.4). The National Committee for Disaster Management (Comité Nacional para el Manejo de Desastres, CNMD), as the body to co-ordinate policy making for disaster response and recovery, provides technical and strategic advice and guidance throughout the disaster response efforts.

Box 6.4. Colombia’s National Crisis Room: Co-ordinating multi-stakeholder disaster response

Established by Law 1523/2012, the national crisis room is Colombia’s main co-ordination and decision-making mechanism in case of national disaster. In it, the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (UNGRD) brings liaison officers from all response units engaged in response operations together with delegates from relevant ministries, the three technical committees and the National Council to co-ordinate response and relief throughout the stages of an emergency. By centralising emergency information, planning the response operations and adjusting response capacities in line with the situation, the National Crisis Room enables effective decisions, avoids duplication of efforts and improves the effectiveness of disaster response efforts.

Activated as a mechanism to support subnational governments in case of a disaster declaration, the National Crisis Room co-ordinates with its respective counterparts at a regional, departmental and municipal level. Therefore, response efforts at the national level are designed and implemented as a complement to departmental, municipal and district response strategies to emergency situations.

Source: UNGRD (2016).

At the subnational level, departmental and municipal crisis rooms, supported by a risk management office in large cities (greater than 250 000 inhabitants), co-ordinate the response efforts. However, the latest implementation monitoring report of the National Plan for Disaster Risk Management shows that to date, only 14 of Colombia’s 32 departments are equipped with a departmental crisis rooms (UNGRD, 2016; UNGRD, 2018).

Mechanisms for continuous improvement in disaster response

In the aftermath of a disaster, it is important to draw lessons and to identify success factors and address bottlenecks to be overcome in future disaster response efforts. Along with mechanisms to evaluate the effectiveness of prevention and preparedness activities, the OECD Recommendation suggests carrying out post-event reviews of disaster response efforts (OECD, 2014) . There are no institutionalised mechanisms in Colombia for drawing lessons from disaster response operations. Law 1523/2012 does not require it. To this end, the UNGRD could leverage the National Committee for Disaster Management. Already tasked with overseeing and advising disaster response efforts, this committee would be an ideal platform to bring stakeholders together to identify lessons and feed them into the disaster response policy-making process. Good practices, such as the RETEX lessons learning procedure in France, could serve as inspiration in establishing a systematic lessons learnt approach in Colombia (Box 6.5).

Box 6.5. RETEX: Improving emergency response through lessons learnt

Post-disaster lessons learning ensures that with each disaster response operations are improved, capacities strengthened and good practices taken forward. In France, the French Ministry of Interior put a standard process in place to do so after each activation of an emergency plan (including after exercises): the lessons learnt (retour d'expérience, RETEX) mechanism.

The RETEX mechanism is a lessons learnt process during which all stakeholders involved in the response efforts get together to jointly identify what went well during disaster response and relief, and what could be improved in future response operations. The RETEX process provides a common space for all stakeholders to share insights, ideas for improvements and agree on recommendations to improve disaster response operations going forward. Recommendations obtained through the RETEX are protocolled and followed up by the responsible stakeholders.

Sources: French Ministry of the Interior, n.d.; Grant Thornton (2018).


Colombian Red Cross (n.d.), Sistemas de Alerta Temprana La Guajira [Early Warning Systems La Guajira],

DIMAR (2018), Centro Nacional de Alerta por Tsunami [National Centre of Tsunami Alert],

French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy (2018), Vigicrues: Service d’information sur le risque de crues des principaux cours d’eau en France [Vigicrues: information service on the flood risk of France’s main water bodies],

French Ministry of the Interior (n.d.), Ministére de l’Intérieur [Ministry of the Interior],

Grant Thornton (2018), Le RETEX appliqué aux projets en crise [The RETEX applied to the projects in crises],

OECD (2016), Open Government Data Review of Mexico: Data Reuse for Public Sector Impact and Innovation, OECD Digital Government Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2014), OECD Recommendation on the Governance of Critical Risks,

OECD (2018), Assessing Global Progress in the Governance of Critical Risks, OECD Publishing.

UNGRD (2018), Guía para aplicar protocolo de corresponsabilidad pública, privada y comunitaria en Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres [Guide for shared Disaster Risk Management responsibilities],

UNGRD (2018), Plan Nacional de Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres - Una estrategia de desarrollo 2015 - 2025. Cuarto Informe de Seguimiento y Evaluación. [National Plan for Disaster Risk Management -A 2015-2025 development strategy.Fourth Monitoring and Assessment Report],

UNGRD (2017), En Villavicencio 100 líderes se gradúan como coordinadores comunitarios de gestión del riesgo [In Villavicencio 100 leaders graduate as community coordinators for risk management],

UNGRD (2017), Plan Nacional de Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres - Una estrategia de desarrollo 2015 - 2015: Segundo Informe de Seguimiento y Evaluación [National Plan for Disaster Risk Management -A 2015-2025 development strategy:Second Monitoring and Assessment Report],

UNGRD (2017), Plan Nacional de Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres - Una estrategia de desarrollo 2015 - 2025: Tercer Informe de Seguimiento y Evaluación [National Plan for Disaster Risk Management -A 2015 -2025 development strategy:Third Monitoring and Assessment Report],

UNGRD (2016), Guía de Funcionamiento Sala de Crisis Nacional [Functioning Guide of the National Crisis Room],

UNGRD (2016), Plan Nacional de Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres - Una estrategia de desarrollo 2015 - 2025 [National Plan for Disaster Risk Management - A 2015 - 2025 development strategy],

UNGRD (2015), Sistemas de Alerta Temprana [Early Warning Systems],

United Kingdom Cabinet Office (2018), Guidance: Preparation and planning for emergencies,

United Kingdom Cabinet Office (2017), National Risk Register,


← 1. (in Spanish, consulted on 24 July 2018).

← 2. Law 1712/2014, Congress of Colombia, (in Spanish, consulted on 24 July 2018).

← 3. See: (consulted on 25 July 2018).

← 4. See: (consulted on 25 July 2018).

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