World Journal of Engineering and Technology, 2014, 2, 78-84
Published Online September 2014 in SciRes. http://www.scirp.org/journal/wjet
How to cite this paper: Cháves, J.R., Arce, M.F., Solís, D. and Villalobos, R.B. (2014) Assessment of Physical Vulnerability in
Santo Domingo De Heredia, Costa Rica, Central America. World Journal of Engineering and Technology, 2, 78-84.
Assessment of Physical Vulnerability in
Santo Domingo De Heredia, Costa Rica,
Jonnathan Reyes Cháves1, Mario Fernández Arce2, Daniel Solís3,
Rafael Bolaños Villalobos4
1Escuela de Geografía, Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR)
2Preventec-Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR), Escuela de Geografía-UCR and Centro de Investigaciones en
4Casa de la Cultura de Santo Domingo de Heredia
Received Ju ly 2014
This work assesses the physical vulnerability of the Santo Domingo Canton in the province of He-
redia in Costa Rica. We evaluate the vulnerability of areas located in high risk zones as well as the
structural resistance of structures of the canton and then combine them to obtain an index of
Physical Vulnerability. Most of the communit ies in high risk areas in this Canton have not been
properly identified and mapped. This identification and mapping will enhance the management of
disaster risks, reduce the infrastructure vulnerability and protect vulnerable families in there. We
created an index ranging between 0 and 1 for each indicator of physical vulnerability (human set-
tlements in areas of high risk and structural resistance) and another similar index resulting from
the combination of vulnerability information from both indicators. The greater part of the terri-
tory of Santo Domingo has low physical vulnerability but there are critical sites in the West and
the East of the canton.
Vulnerability, Santo Domingo, Heredia, Disasters, Prevention, Costa Rica
According to Wilchez , human vulnerability is divided into 11 components, namely: Natural, P hysical, Social,
Econo mic, Technical, I nstituti onal, Po litical, Educatio nal, Eco logical, Id eological and Cultura l. In this p aper we
shall confi ne our selves to onl y the P hysica l Vulne rabil ity i n the ca nton Santo Domi ngo (Fi gure 1). Physical Vul-
nerability is the location of human settlements in areas of disaster risk and the low resistance of the structures
situated in such settlements. Such vulnerability is manifest by deficiencies of the physical structures to res-
J. R. Cháves et al.
Figure 1. The territory of Santo Domingo, its districts and its Minimum Geostatistical Units (small areas within the dis-
ist the impacts from the disaster threats.
Those who choose to build homes in high-risk areas usually do it not by desire, but because lack of options,
primarily because their purchasing power is below the price of land in more secure and stable areas. And they
often end up there by various means incl uding illegal in vasions, po litical patronage or bad business practices in
which illegal constr uctors do not have the minimu m liability against its cu stomers. Resid ences in these areas are
highly vulnerabl e not onl y economically but in many a s pec t s.
This research was carried out because there are vulnerable neighborhoods in Santo Domingo that have high
disaster risk and are often impacted by threats. The case of Barrio Fatima is known but without a specific study,
it is difficult to know all of those neighborhoods with high vulnerability index. With the passage of time it has
bee n pr o ven t hat disa sters are increasing instead of decreasing, and this is due both to the increase in the popula-
tion, resulting in increased exposure to threats, and the increase of poverty.
Therefore, we must clearly identify and measure indicators of Physical Vulnerability in Santo Domingo, in
order that work to minimize such risk factor can begin and most importantly, to protect the vulnerable fro m the
impact of the threats. We want our results to affect both the development of the canton and to promote the safety
and well-being of the population. We want this investigation to promote mitigation through non-structural ac-
tions, codes, legislation, co mpulsory observation of precautions, appropriate design and calculation of structures.
But we aspire to something much better: the prevention of disaster which would necessarily include the reloca-
tion of the families which today occupy at-risk sites where their lives and pro perty are in danger.
To measure the sp atial distr ib ution o f the Ph ysical Vul nerab ilit y of Santo Domingo we evaluated 2 indicators:
exposed human settlements and resistance of structures. For this, literature review was necessary and field work
to identify areas highly exposed to different threats  . Information on indicators of vulnerability was used
to make indexes of value between 0 and 1.
The most important findings include the identification of Physical Vulnerability in the West of the canton,
where floods and landslides are a threat to the developments. We also found clear evidence that exposure to
threats and poverty occurs together in the most vulnerable communities of Santo Domingo de Heredia.
Altho ugh Sa nto Domi ngo is a mon g the can tons wit h higher index o f huma n develo pment in Costa Rica, it al so
J. R. Cháves et al.
has poor neighborhoods that have origins in the industrialization era. Indeed, in the middle of the 20th century,
Costa Rica, like the others countries of Central America, entered into the era of industrialization after facing a
very critical per iod for the international sale of t he monoculture product coffee, who’s price was devalued since
the crises of 1929 and World War II. The two economic crises produced a large loss of wages within of coffee-
producing areas, mainly located in the Central Valley of Costa Rica. When Costa Rica started this process of
crop substitution and establishment of manu fact urin g ind ustr ies, the p op ulatio n be gan t o m igra te fr om t he co un -
tryside to the cities a nd it is in this conte xt t hat a numbe r o f sl ums and marg ina l urb a n ar e as i n the c a nt on s i n t he
central of the country such as Monte Carmelo. In addition to the arrival of many rural families in urban areas,
new manufacturing businesses were established in the country like in much of Central America as part of the
Central American Common Market which was created with the stated purpose of sending farmers to factory
In 1960, the North-West border of Santo Domingo had a large and very poor neighborhood of native families
who had no homes and could not afford rent on homes therefore, built slums and lived without electricity and
drinking water along with other problems at that time. In this environment there was constant violence, drugs,
and abuses of all kinds. The image that was projected to the rest of the community was not very exemplary in
addition to the typecasting of these marginal groups.
In the early 1970’s the “Damas Israelitas (Israeli Ladies)”, a group of Israeli women residing in Costa Rica,
became concerned with the condition of these families and started very commendable work for the eradication
of this precarious neighborhood involving participation of community organizations and local government. Ex-
isting dwellings with some exceptions were rebuilt four decades ago so many of these families are able to have
better housi ng condit i ons, althoug h the problems of slums still persist.
Previous studies have provided evidence for the presence of vulnerabilities in Santo Domingo. Fernández et
al.  investigated the floods generated by overflows of the Rio Bermudez and reported that several communi-
ties of Santo Domingo were severely affected by floods in 1999 and 2010. In 2012, the study called “Determina-
tion of the ri sk of disaster in Santo Domingo de Heredia” began. Conducted between 2012 and 2014, this study
led to a comprehensive analysis of the vulnerability in the canton. Two important works related to the vulnera-
bility of the population of Santo Domingo came from this project. One of them is Reyes and Fernández  in
which they presented the results of an analysis of maximum human vulnerability in the canton and shown that
such vulnerability is greatest in the areas where the proximity of the threat and poverty are combined. Another
impo rtant wor k is t hat of Re ye s et al.  whic h con sist s of a co mpre hens ive stud y of t he r isk o f di saste r i nclud -
ing natural and anthropogenic threats as well as a comprehensive anal ysis of vul nerability. Twenty five indica-
tor s of vulne rabilit y were a nalyze d in thi s stud y and a map of vulne rability for the entire canton was prod uced.
That map shows that there is increased hazard vulnerability in the south and west areas of the canton.
For every Minimum Geostatistics Unit (MGU) of Santo Domingo (140 in total) we measured 2 indicators of
Physical Vul nerabilit y as sho wn in Ta ble 1 . Field studies and data from the 2000 Census  were used to create
a score of value between 0 and 1, with a higher value indicating greater vulnerability.
Once the index values were calculated, they were summed , re-indexed on a new scale of 0 to 1.00, assigned to
each of the UGM and imported to a system of geographic information (GIS) as a data layer. These values were
then stratified using the method of natural breakings and displayed on maps. A comprehensive vulnerabilit y in-
dex score was created on surface through the UGM to inhance the display.
4.1. Human Settlements in High Risk Zones
The distrib ution of human set tlements located in are as of risk in San to Domingo is sho wn in Figure 2. Critical
sites are the neighborhoods Fatima, La Rinconada, San Martín, RIncón de Ricardo, the extreme southwest of
Santo Tomás, and La Presa in the district Paracito.
Fatima and Monte Carmelo (next to Fátima) communities are located on the southern slope of the Río Ber-
múdez , wh ic h is the bo und ar y bet ween t he c anto ns San P abl o a nd Sa nto Do mi ngo. For man y year s t hese nei gh-
borhoods did not suffer flooding because the river flow was small but with the increase of the urbanization
process and the consequent increase of the waterproofing of soils, the once insignificant River now floods fre-
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Table 1. In d icators of Physical Vulnerability.
Type of Vu lnerab ility Indicators
Physical Vulnerability Human Settlements in High Risk Areas
Figure 2 . The red areas correspond with the human settlements in zones of high risk in Santo Domingo.
quentl y. Acco rding to Fernán dez et al.  this neighborhood was severely affected by floods in 1999 and 2010
and about 30 homes were declared uninhabitable. But even today families remain in this area of high risk for
flooding and where there is evidence of landslide. During walks through this neighborhood we observed col-
laps es in the bac kyard o f some ho uses, crac ks in the gro und i n front of the ho uses and c racks bo th on the wal ls
and the floors of them generated by the soil instability and the inadequate channeling of waters. In houses de-
clared uninhabita ble several years ago fa milies still lived de spite the great r isk to life.
Fátima was affected by the large amount of water that now reaches the Río Bermúdez which did not exist a
few decades ago. The water level now rises beyond the limits to which communities have adapted to and the
people there ca n no longer live with t he risk i n Fátima. Physical vulnerability has no doubt aggravated the eco-
nomic vulnerability of this community because the floods of the river causes them great economic losses. The
only alternative to this community is their total relocation and conversion of this space to a protected forest area.
There are several houses at the foot of small vertical slopes made of soft clay soil which emit lots of water
during the rainy season and where small landslides occur in the form of slices or wedges of soil. This could
evolve towards one large landslide and several homes could be affected and there could even be deaths. Along
the entrance street to Barrio Fatima one can see a wall being subjected to great pressure from the hilside behind
it. As a result of such pressure, the wall is deformed curved and fractured in its central section. This wall re-
presents a danger for all those who enter or leave the Fátima neighborhood. The sudden collapse of the wall
could be deadly for people who pass in front of it.
In Rincón de Ricardo, the problem is that some settlements have been located in a small plain of the Bermu-
dez river. Before July 2010, about 5 families with very limited economic resources lived here. In July 2010 the
river overflowed and flooded the plain destroying 4 of 5 houses. Only one hou se withstood the flood and it still
remains inhabited and is exposed to floods. Something similar happens in Barrio San Martín and La Rinconada.
The re peop le live on the b anks of the B ermúdez r iver, in p oorly cons tructed houses and in very poor condition.
La Presa is another settlement near a river.
J. R. Cháves et al.
In the extreme southwest of Santo Tomás, there is a group of homes and commercial establishments located
very close to a pipeline carrying fuel. In this case the minimum distance that is set for this type of structure is not
observed and those who live in those houses and working in the commercial establishments are therefore ex-
posed to a potential incident involving the pipeline. In other sections of the pipeline, near Santo Domingo, there
have already occurred serious incidents that have caused economic losses and caused much fear in the people
who live near these sites .
4.2. Structural Resistance
The other ind icator within the ph ysical vul nerab ility index is the resista nce of str ucture s to ha za r ds fo r whic h we
used the variable from the Census 2000 called Condition of Housing. Using this variable we first obtained a
per centage of ho mes in p oor conditi on and t hen an i ndex fro m 0 to 1 for ea ch one o f the M GU. As you ca n see
in Figure 3, the structural resistance in Santo Domingo is very good. The index of vulnerability for this indica-
tor is less t han 0.48 in ap proxi mately 80% o f the territo ry, which revea ls that the va st majo rity of the struct ures
of the canton are strong and re s ilient. This explains why earthquakes cause little damage in the canton.
Low resistance of structures lies in the areas of brown and red. The red zone of San Vicente is Fatima, an area
with low q uality housi ng. La Za mora ap pear s as an area of ver y high physic al v ulnerabili ty because that area is
poor ly conditioned for living in. M any families lived ther e in conditions of gre at poverty in slu ms unfit for li v-
ing. D wellings were not real houses but places to protect the people from Sun and rain. Very high UGM values
in red (Para and Paracito) correspond to areas where the state of the housing is not good and therefore the people
who live in these houses are physically vulnerable.
Brown areas corresponding to high MGU values are either poor neighborhood or rural areas with homes in
bad condition. The one located in San Vicente has an illegal settlement built on a narrow strip along the route
between Santo Tomas and San Vicente (Figure 4). The land is municipal property and has been occupied by fa-
milies for decades.
4.3. Physical Vulnerability
By combining information from the two previously analyzed indicators we can obtain a map of Physical Vulne-
rability for Santo Domingo de Heredia (Figure 5). That map gives a clear idea of the sites of greatest physical
vulnerability re sulting from exposed se ttlements and the stru ctura l resistance of the hous ing.
Figure 3 . Map of Structural Resistance for Santo Domingo.
J. R. Cháves et al.
Figure 4 . Part of an illegal settlement in San Vicente, Santo Domingo.
Figure 5 . Map of Physical Vulnerability of Santo Domingo.
J. R. Cháves et al.
The fir st t hi ng that sta nd s o ut o n the map is t hat t he ph ysic al vu lner a bi lity i n t he ca nton is e xtr e me l y lo w. The
greater part of the territory of Santo Domingo is covered by areas of green color which represents the low and
medium vulnerability. The most critical sites are undoubtedly the sector of Fátima-San Martín, where there are
inhabited floodplains and neighborhoods close to the rio Bermúdez. La Zamora shows as red because at the time
of this investigation this settlement was the main slum of Santo Domingo and La Presa is a inundated zone.
There are vulnerable families of low income in most of the critical areas that have very few resources to resist to
the flooding threat s. But there is little that ca n be done to resist the threa t by floods there; what local authorities
should do to avoid emergencies in those hig h risk zones is to relocate the fa milies living t here.
The area in brown in the West of the Santo Tomás district, and southwest of the San Miguel District, re-
presents both the exposure to the pipeline and the low structural strength of the housing there. The remaining
areas of Brown are basically due to houses in poor condition of rural areas. Although those zones have high
vulnerability for resistance, they are not exposed to threats so their situation s are not critical.
Human settlements in zones of high risk and the structural resistance contribute significantly to the overall
physical vulnerability of Santo Domingo. The critical areas are in the west and east extremes of the canton. In
the west the human set tlements loca tion in high risk areas is the main contribu te r to the physical vul ner a bility. In
the east the major vulnerability is due to the structural resistance. Approximately 70% of the territor y of Santo
Domingo has Physical Vulnerability between very low and average and 30% between hi gh and very high. The
area’s major vulnerability is in the west and is due to exposure to flooding. Observations in Barrio Fatima,
Monte Carmelo, Rincón de Ricardo, San Martín, La Rinconada, the Western End of Santo Tomás and La Presa
reveal conditions of high risk for residents of such neighborhoods. Families located in Fátima are exposed to
floods and landslides and should be relocated urgently.
Thanks to Dennis Lindwall for improving the style and gramma r of this manuscript.
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