Disaster as an Opportunity

Alternatives for Debris Management at the Los Perros Riverbank in Oaxaca, Mexico

Penny White Project Fund Awardee and David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Research Grant Recipient

Deni Lopez (MDes Risk & Resilience/MAUD ’19)

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Image by Deni Lopez.

The Tehuantepec Isthmus is a region in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz in Mexico. It is the narrowest area between the two oceans (Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean, in its section of the Gulf of Mexico).The center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) controls the state of Oaxaca and the federal government. This facilitated a top-down takeover in the Tehuantepec Isthmus, in contrast with community-led responses in places like Morelos or Mexico City, governed by the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Army men and private developers took over reconstruction in Oaxaca, leaving local economies, knowledge, and workforces aside to demonstrate capacity to handle a crisis.

How can design generate alternate anticipatory strategies that integrate debris reuse and community-led recovery tactics in disaster-prone rural areas?

Mexico, like many other geographies, currently struggles with the aftermath of natural disasters that areis inherently tied toenhanced by its social and political instability. Facing a lack of preemptive planning and a misunderstanding of risk, different stakeholders struggle to find holistic recovery actions that do not exacerbate the rural-urban divide. Countryside areas such as the earthquake-prone Tehuantepec Isthmus in Oaxaca, for example, received attention only after an exceptional inter-plate earthquake hit Mexico City last year (even though the Isthmus suffered from a higher-magnitude earthquake just days before). Recovery currently focuses on government-financed rapid housing production led mainly by private developers and the army, while neglecting local needs, lifestyles, and knowledge. Therefore, the question is: how can design be of service when creating integrative tactics that go beyond short-term reconstruction and volatile political cycles?

While essential for post-disaster or war recovery, the question of how to handle debris is usually not a primary concern. Dealing with debris is a complicated process that often results in unprotected landfill. Rubble composition varies from situation to situation, but typically contains a wide range of liquid and solid hazardous waste. Using such components as landfill or discarding them next to water sources creates serious environmental pollution concerns. Yet, due to their lack of planning for these issues, governments tend to make exceptions, opting for easy and quick fixes1.

In the case of the Los Perros river in Oaxaca, the 2017 earthquakes causedproduced more than 10,000 tons of rubble (the equivalent to 50 blue whales) to accumulate. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) was responsible for managing earthquake debris, and in Oaxaca, they made an exception to their no-discarding-next-to-a-waterbed rule2. This top-down impromptu plan received community backing because the area suffers from periodic floods - ranging from 0.20 to 2.70 meters3. Therefore, a complementary initiative (led by the federal government) hired workerslocals to remove rubble from their own houses for a one-time payment of nearly USD 1304. Locals hoped that rubble would act as a buffer for the next flood season and contain sewage ruptures caused by the 2017 (and future) earthquakes. Nonetheless, this action had little regard for the ultimate environmental impact at the riverside dumping location, and it worsened the effects of six pre-existing dump sites along Los Perros5.

It is unacceptable to think that an earthquake-prone region like Tehuantepec still lacks an integrative plan to deal with natural disasters. Nonetheless, it is difficult to plan preemptively when collective information is insufficient. As a practical discipline able to synthesize other forms of knowledge and materialize it into tangible solutions, design brings a lesser-known alternative approach to the pressing issue of post-disaster recovery.

While environmental disasters are nowhere near a new phenomenon, their systematic study is a fairly recent science. With support from the Penny White Project Fund and the Summer Research Travel Grant of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Nadyeli Quiroz (MLA 1 AP), Betzabe Valdés (MDes Critical Conservation), and I will conduct a site investigation over the summer to study the Los Perros riverbank. Following the devastating earthquakes of 2017, the riverbank became an improvised and unprotected rubble dumpsite to serve as a barrier against periodic floods. Our research will consist of a community needs survey, a thorough mapping and ecological study, and interviews with key actors within and outside the local population. In conjunction, these processes will help us find prospective rubble deposits, understand the towns on the riverbank along with their pre-and-post disaster underlying power structures, and synthesize a proposal that has the potential to strengthen itsthe local sense of place.

We intend to develop an environmentally conscious project-based plan for incremental action that serves as a foundation to deal with inevitable upcoming disasters and one that has the ability to negotiate between the local community, institutions, and other development experts. In other words, we view this as the first step to create a comprehensive flood-control project and community-led public space along the river. We also aim to advance emerging expertise about urban, social, and geophysical conditions in similar global settings. The project will initiate our year-long thesis, set a precedent for a different kind of preemptive intervention in rural areas, and hopefully contribute to a community-led design project. We promise to get back to you with the results!


  1. Lucy, Rodgers. 2017. "Who Cleans Up After Hurricanes, Earthquakes and War?" BBC News, October 20, 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-d7bc8641-9c98-46e7-9154-9dd6c5fe925e.

  2. Briseño, Patricia, Con escombros por sismo, refuerzan bordo de río en el Istmo.Excelsior, October 10, 2017.

  3. Gobierno Federal SEDESOL, Atlas de Riesgos Naturales del Municipio de Heroica Ciudad de Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca 2011. SEDESOL. 31 de Enero de 2012.

  4. Jorge Morales, Damnificados en Juchitán, Oaxaca, se inscriben para obtener empleo temporal. October, 2017.

  5. Diario Despertar de Oaxaca. Juchitán, Pueblo que se hunde en la basura. Despertar de Oaxaca. June 9, 2014.

Additional Sources:

  1. Brown, C., M. Milke, E. Seville, and S. Giovinazzi. 2010. "Disaster Waste Management on the Road to Recovery: L’Aquila Earthquake Case Study."University of Canterbury. Civil and Natural Resources Engineering, . http://hdl.handle.net.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10092/4160.

  2. Brown, Charlotte and Mark Milke. 2016."Recycling Disaster Waste: Feasibility, Method and Effectiveness." Resources, Conservation and Recycling 106: 21-32. doi:10.1016/j.resconrec.2015.10.021.

  3. Brown, Charlotte, Mark Milke, and Erica Seville. 2011. "Disaster Waste Management: A Review Article." Waste Management 31 (6): 1085-1098. doi:10.1016/j.wasman.2011.01.027. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0956053X11000596.

  4. Faleschini, Flora, Mariano Angelo Zanini, Lorenzo Hofer, Paolo Zampieri, and Carlo Pellegrino. 2017. "Sustainable Management of Demolition Waste in Post-Quake Recovery Processes: The Italian Experience." International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 24: 172-182.

  5. Karunasena, Gayani and Dilanthi Amaratunga. 2016. "Capacity Building for Post-Disaster Construction and Demolition Waste Management." Disaster Prevention and Management 25 (2): 137-153.

  6. Kawamoto, Kiyomi and Karl Kim. 2016. "Social Capital and Efficiency of Earthquake Waste Management in Japan." International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 18: 256-266. doi:10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.10.003.

  7. Medrano Rivera, Victor Hugo. 2012. "Análisis Del Comportamiento Sísmico En Una Zona De Suelos Blandos Del Valle De Oaxaca."Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

  8. Villegas, Paulina, Elisabeth Malkin, and Kirk Semple. 2017. "Mexico Earthquake, Strongest in a Century, Kills Dozens." New York Times (Online), Sep 8,. https://search-proquest-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1936406189.