Cuts hurt Mexico quake response, outlook ahead of 2018 vote

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Spending cuts and a failure by Mexico’s president to upgrade an earthquake alert system hurt life-saving prevention programs and amplified recovery costs after two major temblors this month, current and former government officials said.

Although President Enrique Pena Nieto is eager to show a prompt and competent response to the earthquakes, which killed more than 430 people, the budget of recovery agencies is threadbare due to cost-cutting by his administration.

Pena Nieto, an unpopular centrist struggling to get a successor from his party elected president next July, on Wednesday acknowledged the problem, urging lawmakers to boost funding in the 2018 budget.

“The reconstruction needs more resources,” he said.

The government has slashed disaster budgets by as much as 50 percent in recent years, part of a broader cost-cutting effort to make up for shortfalls caused by a drop in oil revenues, which finance about 20 percent of Mexico’s federal budget.

The 2017 budget alone reduced funding for Mexico’s various disaster and civil protection efforts by 25 percent, from about 8.6 billion pesos ($475 million) in 2016 to 6.4 billion pesos.

The cuts last year prompted lawmakers to warn in a report that “the state is relinquishing its responsibilities to its population, given inevitable and unknowable disaster risks.”

Now, after the two big quakes, and damage from hurricanes before that, Mexico is hard-pressed to find ways to rebuild. “The reconstruction fund has zero pesos,” Luis Felipe Puente, the government’s emergency services chief, said in an interview.

For those who work in readiness efforts, the current problem is a clear example of what happens when governments skimp on prevention measures, from risk assessments to early warning systems for quakes, volcanic activity and other disasters.

According to the United Nations, every dollar spent on preparedness saves about seven dollars in response. In 2014, Mexico’s federal auditor chastised the government for spending more on reconstruction than on preparing for disasters.

“We should be investing more in prevention,” said Enrique Guevara, a former head of Mexico’s National Center for Disaster Prevention, or CENAPRED. “Firstly because you save lives, and secondly you save money.”

“OLYMPIC SILENCE”

At CENAPRED, founded in the wake of a massive 1985 quake that killed thousands, expenditure fell by 20 percent between 2012 and 2016, hurting the…

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