Mitigating Risk in Earthquake-Prone Chile: In Conversation with Mayor Carolina Leitao

Welcome to the fourth episode in our web series, Resilient Housing Across the Americas, a set of 1:1 conversations with leaders across countries and sectors discussing challenges and the future of housing.

This week we are joined by Mayor Carolina Leitao of Peñalolén, Chile to discuss how to mitigate earthquake risks, the responsibility of cities, and challenges in creating resilient social housing. In case you missed it, make sure to catch the first three episodes in our series with Mayor Mitch Roth of Hawaii County , Mayor William Dau of Cartagena, Colombia, and Matt Strahan of the World Economic Forum.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Manuela Pinilla: Hello, I’m Manuela Pinilla. I’m the Director of Build Change in Colombia. And we are in our web series, talking about resilient housing in the Americas. We are here with Mayor Carolina Leitao from the Peñalolén municipality in Chile. Welcome, Mayor. 


Carolina Leitao: Hello, how are you? Thank you very much. 


MP: Well, we all know that Chile has a special place in disaster management, not only in Latin  America but also worldwide. And we would like you to tell us a little bit about those threats faced by the city you lead. 


CL: Well, the truth is that in Chile we have several threats. The first and most well-known probably worldwide are earthquakes, but probably the ones we are most prepared for. However, the effects of climate change have also translated into a significant number of events that have been increasing in magnitude…before climate change, but now with greater importance, the risks of mudslides, the risks of excessive winds, and above all, things that intensify, such as extreme cold or heat. 


In fact, this summer we experienced in the Metropolitan Region the hottest summer in a long  time. In fact, some pavements cracked, which shows the effects of global warming, the effects of  climate change in general, and therefore we are also preparing for it and developing initiatives to face the effects of climate change in our lives. 


MP: Sure, could you tell me a little more about those initiatives and if there are any specific ones related to housing? Yes, indeed, together with the Ministry of Housing we have promoted both in Peñalolén and in the Metropolitan Region, as well as in the country. 


There are social housing units that were built with state funding many years ago, and those houses are…They have several things that need to be changed due to usage and time. 


And since they are social housing, families don’t have the money to make those investments, so a lot of work has been done on the topic of housing improvement, linked to creating houses with greater thermal resistance, for example, by changing windows, replacing old windows with double-glazed windows to absorb cold or heat, or to insulate from cold and heat. Roofs have been replaced as well, using insulating materials, and the houses are intervened to make them more resilient to temperature changes, for example. 


This has been done through programs by the Ministry of Housing that generally provide subsidies. Families contribute a portion as well, a small savings, and the municipality also. We have promoted initiatives for new social housing units that come with some of these features. In their construction, we can collaborate with a fund to precisely increase the protective measures to address primarily thermal insulation, etc. 


There are also initiatives today that have to do with, for example, providing houses with solar panels or transforming them into solar panels for energy savings. In other words, there are different initiatives being developed along those lines. 


MP: Of course. Well, let’s say that when we talk about housing today, you know that very well, having worked in that field so much, generally, there is a need for different actors to contribute. You told me that the Ministry, on one hand, the Municipality, and on the other hand, the family contributes. Are there any other types of actors, for example, from the private sector, or other types of actors? If they are not involved, it is necessary to involve them so that this can be done on the scale and the  speed needed because climate change is already upon us. 


CL: Well, indeed, we always try to promote initiatives, and public-private partnerships are very important. In Chile, there are  also some foundations that focus on housing issues, more specifically, family consulting, working with settlements, etc, but there is also potential to work with them. And there are also foundations associated with companies that contribute to developing different types of projects in energy matters, neighborhood improvement, etc.  


Therefore, I believe that what is lacking is always involving the community more, the business world, of course, but also these foundations that are dedicated in some way to these types of issues. There are many foundations dedicated to public space, to the improvement of public space, but not as many finance projects related to resilience or, essentially, addressing today, for example, the effects of climate change. 

The cost of a catastrophe is not only the cost of construction or the collapse of a building, many people will die…What we have to think is, what if it happens to me, what would be the cost to my administration of facing the death of thousands of people or hundreds of people or a family?

MP: Well, for us, for example, in Colombia, Chile, is a very positive reference in how it managed to overcome the structural vulnerability of housing. Let’s say that in Chile there are earthquakes every day. Could you tell me a little about what countries can do that are facing such high levels of vulnerability that Chile has managed to overcome, that have worked in Chile to successfully get out of the risks we face?


CL: Yes, I believe that the first thing is the issue of planning. In our case, with these changes, for example, our municipality is in the foothills and faces the permanent risk of avalanches. So, urban planning must be done in such a way that people are not exposed to that type of risk. 


In the case of earthquakes, all the construction regulations in our country are reviewed and strictly enforced, I would say constantly monitored, and the penalties for non-compliance are quite severe. 


We experienced it in the 2010 earthquake, where some buildings collapsed and it was discovered that the regulations were not followed. It wasn’t that the earthquake was more severe than expected. Most things are built with seismic codes. Today, for example, we have some areas that are being studied as a fault zone that passes through our municipality and others, and we were discussing, well, there are many things already built on the fault because its location has only been roughly determined. 


So, what do we do now with what’s to come? We say, well, we take the risk because the fault may activate in 500 years, maybe 100 in 2000 or in 8000. Actually, it says that every 10,000 years it has been activated and it did once, a thousand years ago. So, we are like in the year… in the last year of the thousand year period, but it could be in a day or a thousand more. 


So the question is what do we do? Do we prohibit further construction? Do we establish regulations for resilient constructions? None of them can support a fault, an earth fracture, but at least they are, for example, not tall buildings, etc. In other words, things that are more resistant to that type of earthquake. So, we are having that discussion today. 


So, what I would say to other countries is planning, how the city is planned, how construction is planned, is very important. Sometimes, when I go to other countries and I see that they build without any regulations, for example, it makes me nervous because I think, doesn’t it shake here? You look and think, there are no earthquakes here because no one can build like that. I was in Lima, for example, and I’ve also seen it and I say, doesn’t it shake here, and yes, it shakes. 


So, how well prepared are we in terms of construction standards? Well, indeed, it has a higher cost, it’s more expensive, but the investment is absolutely worth it, and also because it has to do with the trust of the family. The people who are going to live in their homes today, whether it’s social housing or a high-value home, are fully aware that their home is resistant to the earthquakes we all know in Chile. Therefore, that also provides peace of mind, that vulnerability is not a condition that exposes you more to earthquakes in Chile, at least. 


MP: There is one thing that we face a lot in countries, and here I want to ask you a little bit about it because you also know about this. And it’s that, of course, in Chile, it trembles every day, people always say that when Chileans get scared of an earthquake, it means that it’s a cataclysm. 


CL: Everyone says, where could the epicenter have been? And the epicenter was near. You always think that the most serious thing happened somewhere else and not where you lived it. 


MP: Exactly, and one of the challenges we face in our countries is that we are vulnerable to the threat we have. Even in Colombia, there are constructions like these. In Medellin, I saw many of these…This is Bucaramanga, and this is a city that is under a high seismic threat and it’s near one of the most  active seismic zones on the planet, so…this is really something that sometimes you can’t believe is happening, but one of the things that we do face is the issue of risk management, as you mentioned. It can happen tomorrow or it can happen in a thousand years. So, how do we  convince governments, communities, and others to prioritize risk management? 


Whenever there is uncertainty about the return on investment, I believe that is one of the  big problems we face in countries. We don’t have frequent earthquakes, but we know we can have them, and when the day comes it  will have devastating consequences. But that’s always the dilemma of risk management, when do you invest if you have uncertainty that it may not happen? 


CL: I think that the difference in Chile is that, for example, all the presidents know that they can experience an earthquake, but no one knows when it will happen. Well, we have an emergency fund, but in countries where there are already vulnerable constructions, I think you would consider what is the cost of a catastrophe? The cost of a catastrophe is not only the cost of construction or the collapse of a building, many people will die. 


We saw it in Haiti, for example, in the earthquake in Haiti. In fact, a Chilean died, the wife  of the head of the emergency office. So, you think, well, how do we evaluate? I think that in politics, you need to be very responsible…it’s very irresponsible to say, well, I hope it doesn’t happen to me. Instead, what we have to think is, what if it happens to me, what would be the cost to my administration of facing the death of thousands of people or hundreds of people or a family? And also, the financial cost of reconstruction? Because if it’s rebuilt, it won’t be in the same place or probably under the same conditions. 


So I think that what countries need to search, of course, is when something is already built, urban renewal with habitable conditions that also solve other problems. In addition to the probable overcrowding, finding ways to carry out urban conversion to comply with regulations. In Chile, we have many engineers and others who can advise on this, but clearly, we build social  housing that has a very affordable value, meaning that they are within market prices with a subsidy system that the country has and has been quite successful. So I think we can support that as well. 


MP: Excellent. Mayor, what do you want to take from this conference? What brought you here? The truth is that many things and many topics brought me here. I came for environmental and climate change issues, I also came for issues of open government and transparency, in terms  of public spending I also came because I believe that this opportunity to meet cities from different parts of the world, with different characteristics, different origins and different populations, allows us to share experiences, both successful and failures.


I always say that we should not only share the good, we should also share the bad, share the bad experiences, where we made mistakes. And the most important  thing, along with the panels where specific topics are discussed, the coffee breaks, lunch, one-on-one conversations, bilateral meetings or hallway conversations generate many discussions and also create many alliances. 


So, I take your business card. I heard an idea that I liked, probably I won’t be able to develop it here, but I take your card, I’ll call you later, ask questions,  and I’ll tell my team to look into it. We were with the mayor of Bogota and she was talking about the issue of care, and I wondered, well, how is that policy? Does it work? How much do we need to research to replicate it? 


We are always looking for successful experiences. In the field of climate change, there are many, of course, and in that sense it is very important for us to take away that experience and be  able to replicate it in our locality. Of course, always thinking that not everything is invented, but generally, someone has already thought of it. 


We have a proverb in Chile, I often say it, which is, why should we reinvent the wheel if someone has already invented it? Something different is if the wheel is bigger, smaller, more square, more round. Well, but that’s part of what we have to decide. But the wheel has already been invented, so let’s see what material we can use to improve it.


MP: Is there anything else you would like to share about your management in this topic, let’s say, of climate change? 


CL: Well, the truth is that, for me, the issue of housing in general is a topic of great importance. Before becoming mayor, I was in charge of housing in the municipality, including social housing, so I had to work a lot on this issue and I think that’s exactly what we’re doing here today. 


It is also related to this experience of climate change. I generally see the greatest effects that climate change has and crises in general. We saw it with the pandemic as well, which affects families and the most vulnerable people. It is always the most vulnerable people and women who bear the consequences. They are the first ones in everything, bearing the impact of crises. 


When we saw it during the pandemic, women lost their jobs. Then the issue of care came up.  Who takes care of the children? Who takes responsibility for online classes or going out to find the source of income that the family had? And on the other hand, we have it in the context  of climate change, migrations, employment problems. Also, because there is no longer employment in agricultural areas, women bear the consequences, the women and the poorest people.


So, I believe that the experience each one has to live and see is how we search for ways to face crises in more responsible and efficient ways in our cities. And here there are many successful  experiences that are good to replicate and that, I think, is what I liked the most about this summit. 


MP: Well, Mayor, thank you very much for being here with us and thank  you all for listening.


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