Chapter 2. National context for disaster risk management in Colombia

Colombia is exposed to a continuously changing risk landscape. Natural hazards, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, as well as floods, droughts and storms threaten most of the country. In addition, new emerging risks, such as natech risks, put Colombia’s disaster risk management system to test. A large-scale influx of migrants from the bordering Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela presents new challenges to managing crises and their longer term implications. Other socio- economic factors have contributed to the continuous increase in disaster risk across the country. Years of armed conflict have resulted in internal displacement and contributed to often unplanned urbanisation in hazard-prone areas. Changes in Colombia’s climate are expected to drive disaster risk in the future.


Colombia’s exposure to natural hazards is significant

Located in the north-western part of South America, Colombia is characterised by its diverse topography and climate, making it prevalent to a range of natural hazards, both geophysical, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as hydro-meteorological, such as floods, droughts and storms (Table 2.1). An estimated 90% of Colombia’s population and assets are exposed to at least one source of hazard, with over 80% exposed to two or more (OECD/UN ECLAC, 2014; OECD, 2014; GFDRR, 2017; DNP, 2018). Hydrometeorological phenomena have been the most recurrent cause of disasters, making up 85% of all recorded disaster events since 1998 (UNGRD, 2018). Major disasters can produce significant death tolls ( (EM-DAT, 2017); see Table 2.2), with single events, such as the volcanic eruption in Nevado del Ruiz in 1985, which caused over 20 000 deaths (Figure 2.2). More recently, in 2017, a landslide in the Andean city of Mocoa cost 329 lives (EM-DAT, 2017; BBC, 2017; Reliefweb, 2017; Aon Benfield, 2017).

Table 2.1. Types of natural hazards prevalent in Colombia

Natural hazard category

Type of natural hazards


Earthquakes, volcanic activity, tsunamis


Floods, landslides, storms, droughts

Source: (EM-DAT, 2017)

Table 2.2. Major disasters in Colombia (since 1980)

Disaster event/location



Estimated damage (in USD)




410 million

Volcanic eruption/Nevado del Ruiz


21 800

1 billion

Landslides Villatina/Medellin



not available



1 200

1.8 billion

Flood (La Niña)/Salgar, Gramalote)


1 374

6.3 billion




not available

Sources: (EM-DAT, 2017; Aon Benfield, 2017)

In terms of economic costs, estimates suggest that disasters in Colombia cause average annual losses between USD 177 million (Campos Garcia et al., 2011)and USD 381 million (PreventionWeb, 2017), with specific events, such as the 2010/11 La Niña disaster (Box 2.1), producing cumulated damages of around USD 6.3 billion (Figure 2.3), equivalent to about 2% of Colombia’s gross domestic product (GDP) (OECD/UN ECLAC, 2014; CEPAL, 2012).

With most of the resources to finance the response to disasters coming from the government, the fiscal impact of major disaster events can be significant. Annual average disaster-related contingent liabilities for the government have been estimated at USD 490 million, equal to 0.7% of the 2010 government budget and 0.2% of 2010 GDP. Taking the 2010/11 La Niña events as example, only an estimated 7% of damages were insured (OECD, 2014). This makes disasters the second largest fiscal risk to the government of Colombia, after legal claims against the government (OECD/ World Bank, Forthcoming; GFDRR, 2012).

Box 2.1. The 2010/11 La Niña rainy season

The 2010/11 La Niña rainy season was marked by intense rainfall across Colombia, causing numerous floods and landslides throughout the country. In the north and Pacific regions, precipitation rates exceeded twice the average of previous years. More than 2 000 emergencies were declared, of which over half were due to floods. Over USD 6 billion in damages were registered, predominantly affecting housing (44%) and infrastructure (38%). The rainy season also affected economic activity, causing 2% of GDP in economic losses and a 2.8% decrease in the share of the working population.

Aggravated by the environmental degradation associated with deforestation and unplanned changes in land use, La Niña illustrated the significant underlying drivers of risks. It also demonstrated the need for Colombia to fully embrace disaster risk reduction, and specifically disaster risk communication, and to take the future drivers of disaster risk, including changes in climate, into account.

Source: CEPAL (2012), IDB-ECLAC (2012).

Figure 2.1. Disaster-related deaths in Colombia
Figure 2.1. Disaster-related deaths in Colombia

Sources: (GTD, 2016; EM-DAT, 2017)

Figure 2.2. Average annual deaths per million inhabitants in Colombia and across the OECD, 1995-2015
Figure 2.2. Average annual deaths per million inhabitants in Colombia and across the OECD, 1995-2015

Note: Due to methodological differences in the attribution of deaths to heatwaves, the figure comparing average deaths per million inhabitants against the OECD average excludes these deaths. In line with the all-hazards approach taken by OECD (2014b), deaths due to intentional man-made hazards are included.

Sources: (GTD, 2016; EM-DAT, 2017)

Figure 2.3. Total annual damage from disasters in Colombia
Figure 2.3. Total annual damage from disasters in Colombia

Note: Data are based on the EM-DAT database of the Catholic University of Louvain. The total annual damage represents the sum of the damage caused by all types of disaster events in a given year. Figures are true to the year of the event. “0”values could mean that no disasters occurred, or that disasters that occurred had no damage recorded.

Source: (EM-DAT, 2017)

A number of factors have been driving Colombia’s disaster risk exposure

Disaster risk in Colombia has been influenced by a number of socio-economic and environmental factors.

Fast-paced and often unplanned urbanisation in hazard-prone areas has contributed to an increase in disaster risks, with a significant impact on the urban poor. The capacity of the state to provide public services and housing has not grown at the same speed to meet the needs of this rapidly growing population. An estimated 77% of Colombia’s population lives in large metropolitan areas, up from around 45% in 1960 (World Bank, 2012). Urban areas are concentrated along the Andean mountains as well as along the Caribbean and Pacific coastal areas. With over 20 000 citizens per square kilometre, the three biggest cities – Bogota, Medellin and Cali – have among the highest population densities in South America.

Forced displacements caused by decades of armed conflict (Box 2.2) and the recent influx of migrants from the bordering Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Box 2.3) have contributed to the trend of rapid urbanisation. The pressure to expand urban areas to accommodate citizens has forced construction to take place in unsuitable areas, such as on steep slopes and terrains at the foothills of the Andean mountains (Parés-Ramos, Álvarez-Berríos and Aide, 2013).

Vulnerable people in particular, such as the poor, end up living in informal, hazard-prone housing, with lower-income households often overrepresented in hazard-prone areas. In Bogota, for instance, more than 200 000 people are estimated to live in high-risk areas, many of them living below the poverty level. As a result, the impact of disasters is comparably higher where per capita income is lower, calling for targeted policy action (Baker, Anderson and Ochoa, 2012; Winsemius et al., 2015).

Figure 2.4. Population affected by hydro-meteorological hazards 2010-2015 vs. GDP per capita
Figure 2.4. Population affected by hydro-meteorological hazards 2010-2015 vs. GDP per capita

Source: DNP, 2018.

Changes in Colombia’s climate in the long run and in climate variability in the short run are expected to add to the uncertainty of future disaster events. The expected influence of climate change differs by geographic region. The Caribbean and Andes regions are projected to change from a semi-humid to a semi-arid climate. As a consequence, the Andean glaciers are expected to shrink, which in turn increases the risk of landslides, as slope stability is reduced. Similarly, the risk of flooding may increase as glacial water is set free at faster rates. Deglaciation along Colombia’s several glacier-clad volcanoes is expected to drive volcanic activity and associated hazards. Climate change-related sea-level rise is expected to increase coastal flood risk. In the Amazon region, increases in precipitation are expected to drive flood risk, while rainfall levels in the eastern savannah are expected to drop, increasing drought risk (OECD, 2013; Schaub et al., 2013; Huggel et al., 2007; OECD, 2014).

Another man-made hazard that is expected to drive Colombia’s future exposure to risk is the exploration of new sources of energy, such as hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – and hydropower. Among other factors, the rising exploration of oil and gas through fracking and the significant expansion of hydropower through major hydropower plants are expected to create major interconnected, Natech risks. The recent Ituango hydropower (Hidroituango) project illustrates the potential threat these interconnected risks may pose (Box 2.4) (Villamizar, 2018; National University of Colombia, 2018; Bogota Post, 2017; Bogota Post, 2018).

Box 2.2. Managing conflict and post-conflict challenges in disaster risk management

After decades of internal armed conflict, the 2016 peace agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government is being implemented, while another peace agreement is being negotiated with the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Colombia’s 2016-18 Strategic Plan for the Defence and Security Sector seeks to reduce the principal criminal phenomena associated with organised armed groups and organised criminal groups. This places the country in a transitory state, where some areas are still suffering from the effects of the armed conflict whilst others are transitioning towards a post-conflict scenario.

In this hybrid context, the worst affected communities continue to be the poorest ones, including the communities of Afro-Colombian descent and indigenous people. These communities tend to be those that are harder to reach in terms of public service. As a consequence, victims of the conflict are therefore also more vulnerable as they have limited capacity to cope. Effectively linking victim support and other aspects of the peace process with disaster risk management is an important challenge.

Source: Colombian Ministry of Defence (2016).

Box 2.3. The novelty of Venezuela’s migrant crisis for Colombia’s disaster risk management

Since 2013, and in particular since 2015, tens of thousands of migrants from Venezuela have arrived in Colombia in search of protection and economic alternatives. Between July 2017 and January 2018, the number of Venezuelans in Colombia doubled, from 300 000 to nearly 600 000.

The International Federation of the Red Cross estimates that the number of people crossing the border between Colombia and Venezuela has been growing since mid-2017 and has recently increased significantly. Between 2 000 and 10 000 people are estimated to move every day across the border and within Colombia. This sudden increase in migrants has placed the National Disaster Risk Management System under pressure to understand the extent of the situation and its effects, and to co-ordinate the protection requirements of this vulnerable population. The National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (Unidad Nacional para la Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres, UNGRD) has engaged in efforts to understand the scale of the situation by conducting a census of those who have entered the country recently and is working with international humanitarian agencies to address the most critical needs. A key challenge remains to move beyond the immediate humanitarian response towards a process that enables the receiving communities to cope with further population movements, while at the same time continuing to assess the situation to identify longer term strategies.

Sources: IFRC (2018), Humanitarian Response (2018).

Box 2.4. The risk of inter-connected natural and man-made risks: The case of the Hidroituango hydropower dam

Located along the Cauca River in Antioquia, the Ituango hydropower (Hidroituango) dam was initially conceived in the 1980s, but construction did not begin until 2011. The dam is one of the most ambitious and biggest hydropower projects in Latin America. Once completed, it is expected to supply 17% of Colombia’s electricity demand.

In 2018, shortly before the expected start of the operation of the dam, heavy rains and landslides blocked the only diversion tunnel that was still in use at the time. This caused the reservoir to fill up and threatened the dam to break, potentially flooding downstream communities. When the other two diversion tunnels eventually opened, the sudden increase in water flow required the evacuation of approximately 25 000 inhabitants in Córdoba, Sucre, Bolívar, Antioquia and Puerto Valdivia. The dam operator, Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), provided temporary shelter for the affected population.

The Hidroituango incidence illustrates the critical importance of assessing and managing risks that large infrastructure investments may generate. Effective disaster risk management requires the sharing of information on prevailing risks and their interconnected nature, adherence to resilience standards, as well as emergency plans in case a risk materialises.

Sources: Villamizar, E. (2018), National University of Colombia (2018), Bogota Post (2018).

Although rare in occurrence, the damage potential of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions is significant

Due to its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the Nazca, Cocos and Pacific plates converge, Colombia is prone to strong earthquakes. The areas most at risk are the densely populated Andean mountains ranging from the south-western part to the north-eastern part of the country, as well as the coastal areas in the north-west, where the majority of the Colombian population and important economic centres are concentrated. An estimated 86% of Colombia’s population is exposed to medium to high earthquake risk (GFDRR, 2017; World Bank, 2012).

The most recent devastating earthquake occurred in 1999 in Armenia, the central coffee-growing region. It killed an estimated 1 200 people, and caused economic losses of around USD 1.8 billion, making it one of the most impactful disasters in Colombia’s recent history (Box 2.5). The experience of the 5.5 magnitude earthquake that struck Popayán in 1983, causing 300 deaths and around USD 410 million in damages, resulted in the adoption of Colombia’s first code for seismic-resistant building in 1984 (EM-DAT, 2017).

In addition to earthquake risks, the Pacific Ring of Fire exposes the country to the risk of volcanic eruptions. Fifteen active volcanoes are spread throughout the Northern Volcanic Zone of the Andean Volcanic Belt, where much of the Colombian population and economic activity is concentrated. The glacier-clad Nevado del Ruiz volcano is one of Colombia’s most active volcanoes, and has erupted several times in the past 40 years. One of the most forceful eruptions occurred in 1985, resulting in 23 000 fatalities and an estimated USD 1 billion in damages. The Galeras volcano in the west of Colombia has also shown activity in recent years. In 2009 and 2010, a series of small eruptions caused repeated evacuations of surrounding towns (Klemetti, 2012; VolcanoDiscovery, 2018; Carreño et al., 2009).

Box 2.5. The 1999 Armenia earthquake

The Armenia earthquake occurred on 25 January 1999 and affected Colombia’s central coffee-growing region (Quindío, Risaralda, Caldas, Valle del Cauca and Tolima). Even though the earthquake had a relatively moderate magnitude of 6.2, its occurrence on volcanic soil and anthropogenic landfills coupled with limited preparedness capacity brought about significant losses.

The earthquake caused an estimated 1 200 casualties and USD 1.8 billion in losses, with housing losses alone making up a third and many historic churches destroyed. Over 60% of buildings were destroyed due to the disregard for building codes. The collapse of several hospitals further undermined the capacity for dealing with such a large-scale disaster, hindering the emergency assistance available for injured people. The disruption of critical infrastructure, such as transport and communications, further complicated disaster response efforts.

Sources: CEPAL (1999), OSSO Corporation, N.D., Restrepo (2000).

Colombia’s extensive coastlines generate significant risks

The Caribbean coast in the north-east and the Pacific coast in the west generate significant risk of coastal flooding due to tsunamis. Tsunami risk is most pronounced along the Pacific coast, where Colombia borders the Pacific Ring of Fire, and to a lesser extent along the Caribbean coast, where the Caribbean and the South American plates converge (DIMAR, 2013). The 1979 Tumaco tsunami was one of the most destructive and followed an earthquake that occurred in this subduction zone. The tsunami killed an estimated 450 people (DIMAR, 2013; Otero, Restrepo and Gonzalez, 2014)

Hydro-meteorological risks make for the most damaging and frequently recurring disasters

Hydro-meteorological disasters have been Colombia’s most costly source of hazards due to its high recurrence. With a tropical climate causing frequent and heavy rains, and a high number of rivers and streams, flood risk throughout Colombia is high. During the rainy seasons in April and November the Caribbean north, the Magdalena and Cauca rivers, and the eastern savannahs are particularly prone to flooding. Many of Colombia’s main economic centres are located along rivers and coasts in areas particularly exposed to flooding. High urbanisation rates coupled with the construction of housing and infrastructure in vulnerable areas have increased exposure to flood risk. Deforestation along basins and streams is also increasing flood risk, as soil absorption rates are reduced and areas for runoff limited (GFDRR, 2017; DNP, 2018). The La Niña weather phenomena have aggravated the frequency and intensity of precipitation, leading to devastating disasters such as the 2010/11 events that caused damages equivalent to 2% of Colombia’s gross domestic product (GDP) (Box 2.1) (CEPAL, 2012; GFDRR, 2017; Reliefweb, 2017).

Landslides are an interlinked risk with high precipitation and floods. They pose a particular threat to Colombia’s densely populated Andes region, as well as to parts of Putumayo, the Amazon region and Arauca. Some 66% of all disaster-related deaths are caused by landslides. A series of landslides occurred in early 2017, with the Mocoa landslide alone killing 329 people (DNP, 2018; EM-DAT, 2017).

Storms are another hydro-meteorological risk prevalent in Colombia. Areas along the Caribbean coast are particularly vulnerable to the impact of tropical storms and hurricanes. The 1988 hurricane Joan was one of the most impactful tropical storms, causing landslides and floods that left USD 50 million in damages in its wake. More recently, hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Maria and Harvey in 2017 caused extreme rainfall and flooding along the Caribbean coast (EM-DAT, 2017; Ortizo Royero, 2012; Adriaan, 2017).

Figure 2.5. . Deaths and damaged houses due to hydrometeorological hazards, 1998-2016
Figure 2.5. . Deaths and damaged houses due to hydrometeorological hazards, 1998-2016

Source: (DNP, 2018)


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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 - 2015 [National Plan for Disaster Risk Management - A 2015 - 2025 development strategy],

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 (2016), Plan Nacional de Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres - Una estrategia de desarrollo 2015 - 2025. Primer Informe de Seguimiento y Evaluación [National Plan for Disaster Risk Management - A 2015 - 2025 development strategy.First Monitoring and Assessment Report,

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

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

UNGRD (2013), Estándarización de Ayuda Humanitaria de Colombia: Colombia menos vulnerable, comunidades más resilientes [Standardisation of Colombia’s Humanitarian Aid: A less vulnerable Colombia, more resilient communities,

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

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

Villamizar, E. (2018), EPM informa la evolución de la situación en el Proyecto Hidroeléctrico Ituango [EPM informs on the evolution of the Ituango’s Hydroelectric Project situation],

VolcanoDiscovery (2018), News from Galeras volcano,

WDS (2018), The largest tsunamis in Colombia since 1906, Service (NGDC/WDS): Global Historical Tsunami Database,

Winsemius, B. et al. (2015), Disaster Risk, Climate Change, and Poverty: Assessing the Global Exposure of Poor People to Floods and Droughts,

World Bank (2012), Analysis of disaster risk management in Colombia a contribution to the creation of public policies (Vol. 2): Main report, Wordl Bank Group,

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