Learning from the ‘El Fuego’ volcano

By Lizardo Narvaez, Rodrigo Donoso and Ankur Nagar

World Bank
World of Opportunity
12 min readMar 6, 2020


Rescue workers observe the ‘’El Fuego” volcano in Guatemala after its eruption in June, 2018. © Joaquin Toro / World Bank

How close would you like to live to an active volcano — say one that’s called El Fuego (Spanish for “The Fire”)? The answer may depend on how you perceive risk, and more importantly, time.

In many parts of the world, living near an active volcano is not unusual. There are 1,500+ volcanoes across 86 countries, and more people live within 100 kilometers of these than the number of people living in Europe.¹ Because of the Earth’s plate tectonics, 75% of active volcanoes are located in a string around the edge of the Pacific Ocean called the Ring of Fire

Volcanoes and eruptions along the Ring of Fire (December 2018)

Volcanoes are represented as dots; plate boundaries are displayed as lines. Brighter dots represent volcanic eruptions that were ongoing in December 2018. Data: Stanford Earthworks, Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program, USGS

On average, 57 volcanoes are erupting in any given year, including 34 new eruptions.¹ Although volcanic eruptions are difficult to predict accurately, maintaining a network of scientific equipment around a volcano and continually analyzing its volcanic unrest (such as earthquakes, ground deformation, and gas release) can help issue forecasts and early warnings.

Credit: University of Bristol, INSIVUMEH, World Bank

By 2018, only two seismic stations were installed to monitor El Fuego, of which one did not transmit data.³

Of the 452 volcanoes along the Ring of Fire, 34 are in Guatemala.⁴ Its densely populated capital Guatemala City is flanked by four volcanoes, including El Fuego, which is one of the most active in Central America. In fact, 95% of Guatemala’s population lives within 100 kilometers of an active volcano, the highest such ratio in the world.⁵

Over 7 million people live within 100 km of El Fuego⁶

Approximate point-to-point distances are displayed. City populations are displayed as bars. Population numbers are based on 2018 estimates from Instituto Nacional de Estadística. Data: Organismo Judicial Republica de Guatemala, Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program, Google Maps, Mapbox, OpenStreetMap

Fertile volcanic soils, water resources, tourism potential, and geothermal energy sources around volcanoes in Guatemala offer livelihood opportunities for the poor and investment opportunities for the private sector. Despite the risks, settlements and infrastructure can be really close to active volcanoes. By 2018, over 54,000 people had moved in within 10 kilometers of El Fuego.⁶

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

In Guatemala, about one in four people live in extreme poverty and almost one in two children suffer from chronic malnutrition. During 1975–2018, the losses caused by disasters totaled US$9,788 million.⁷

It’s estimated that nearly half the population of several municipalities in El Fuego’s vicinity are internal migrants, displaced by poverty or by political violence.⁸ With a lack of risk-informed land use, settlements in Guatemala’s volcanic hazard zones can grow further. While the private sector investors in such zones can consider insurance, the poor remain the most vulnerable.

Number of people affected by volcanic eruptions in Guatemala since 198⁷⁹

In January 2018, as El Fuego puffed eight kilometers away, people in the village of San Miguel Los Lotes worked — without taking much notice — in the surrounding plantations of coffee, fruits, corn, and other crops. Some were employed at the nearby La Reunión Golf Resort. Guests here played about 7,000 rounds each year, enjoying El Fuego’s views and intermittent rumbles.¹⁰

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

“No volcano decides where you are going to locate. It’s the society that assumes risk, often without having an option.”

Allan Lavell, Senior Disaster Risk Management Researcher, Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO)³

As February began, El Fuego spewed ash plumes reaching 6,500 meters high.¹¹ Lava flows also emerged and spread over a kilometer away. The National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction (CONRED) safely evacuated 2,880.⁸ Soon, people returned to their normal lives.

Since 1900, El Fuego has had 21 volcanic eruptions⁶

A dense ash plume drifts from the February 1, 2018, eruption of El Fuego. Barranca refers to a deep gully with steep sides. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

A person’s lifetime is a blip in the geologic time scale that a volcano should be perceived in. El Fuego’s approximate age is 8,500 years.⁸ An active volcano like it may not have a major eruption for decades or even centuries, which can make nearby communities skeptical of the level of hazard it presents.

Besides ash and lava, the most lethal hazard from a volcanic eruption is a pyroclastic flow: an extremely hot, fast-moving cloud of ash, rocks, and gases, which can travel for distances up to 20 kilometers from the volcano.

Credit: VolFilm, GFDRR

It was a pyroclastic flow from Mount Vesuvius that devastated the Roman town of Pompeii in AD 79.¹

In the early hours of June 3, 2018, El Fuego began an explosive eruption — the strongest in four decades.¹² Such was the eruption’s force that roofs shook in houses 20 kilometers away.⁸

Soon, the National Institute for Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology, and Hydrology (INSIVUMEH) posted warnings about the above normal eruption. CONRED also monitored the developing situation.

Distances traveled by the ash clouds spewed from El Fuego since 2017 ¹²

By afternoon, the bellowing ash plume reached 10 kilometers high and ash was falling in Antigua Guatemala, a UNESCO world heritage site and tourism hot spot, 25 kilometers away.⁸

Given the escalating threat, CONRED personnel raced to warn communities along the volcano, including San Miguel Los Lotes, to evacuate. In nearby Escuintla, fleeing vehicles caused traffic jams. As the ash fall spread, the La Aurora International Airport, near Guatemala City, suspended operations.⁸

Pyroclastic flow from El Fuego on June 3, 2018

Data: Copernicus EMS, OpenStreetMap, Mapbox, World Bank

In late afternoon, an enormous pyroclastic flow, with temperatures reaching 700°C, raced down the Las Lajas barranca at 100+ kilometers per hour toward the La Reunión Golf Resort and San Miguel Los Lotes.¹² In the living memory of their residents, no pyroclastic flow had ever reached their communities — an assumption that proved fatal.

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

“Every day you could hear rumblings in the kitchen plates by the volcano…we were used to it.”

Testimony of a survivor from San Miguel Los Lotes⁸

As a precaution, the La Reunión Golf Resort had been evacuated. Some local workers headed back to San Miguel Los Lotes. Many others, including women at home on Sunday, also remained in the village. Further away, people ventured to capture the pyroclastic flow on their phones.

San Miguel Los Lotes was devastated by the pyroclastic flow

Satellite images of San Miguel Los Lotes from February 5, 2018, and June 6, 2018. Credit: Digital Globe

The pyroclastic flow buried San Miguel Los Lotes under 10 feet of ash and rocks. Down the road, the village of El Rodeo was severely affected by ash fall. The official number of casualties was 178, and 250 were reported missing. Of these, 172 causalities were in Escuintla, particularly in San Miguel Los Lotes.¹³

The La Reunión Golf Resort was partially destroyed but had no causalities. With the rains in June, fast-moving mudslides of volcanic debris — called lahars — created further hazards for the rescue efforts in the following days.

Major causalities due to volcanic eruptions in Guatemala since 190⁰⁹

As the response efforts picked up, over 4,000 people were sheltered in 17 relief camps; about half of them were children. It’s estimated that 90% of the affected people worked in the agricultural sector, and the destruction of crops and agricultural soils impacted livelihoods of 22,000 families.⁸

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

The June 3, 2018, eruption affected over 1.7 million people, damaged 1,200 houses, and incurred damages of US$219 million — about 0.3% of Guatemala’s GDP in 2017.⁸

At the request of the Government of Guatemala, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and the World Bank conducted a Rapid Post Disaster Damage Estimation for the June 3, 2018, eruption.

Credit: GFDRR

The team also developed the following reports to support the long-term response and recovery effort:

Learning from El Fuego’s June 3, 2018, eruption

Rescue teams dig through the destruction left by the June 3, 2018, eruption. © Joaquin Toro / World Bank

To develop a road map to strengthen volcanic disaster risk management in Guatemala, an International Workshop on Lessons Learned from the “El Fuego” Volcano was held at Guatemala City during October 17–19, 2018.

The workshop was organized through a joint effort of the Ministry of Public Finance, the Executive Secretariat of the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction, the Secretariat of Planning and Programming of the Presidency, INSIVUMEH, GFDRR, and the World Bank.

Credit: GFDRR

“While we cannot avoid new eruptions, we can contribute to reduce losses through preventive and corrective actions, framed in sustainable and resilient development policies.“

Homa-Zahra Fotouhi, Resident Representative of the World Bank in Guatemala

Over 220 experts from Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States shared their experiences and recommendations at the workshop.³

The Road Map to Strengthen Disaster Risk Management in Guatemala was developed in the workshop, which includes six strategic actions to demarcate the public investment priorities for the country’s volcanic hazard zones:

1. Improving land use planning

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

Land use planning in the volcanic hazard zones of Guatemala is a critical and cost-effective measure to reduce loss of life and property, both for currently occupied areas and for areas that may get occupied in the future.

In Guatemala, relocation from hazard zones is a municipal responsibility while land use maps are created at the national level, which do not have as much detail. To support municipalities, the following were recommended:

  • Developing high-resolution hazard, risk, and vulnerability maps (1:25,000 scale) to assess the risk to individual settlements and properties³
  • Creating detailed land use / land cover maps for the volcanic hazard zones
  • Clearly defining land use categories and guidelines for hazard zones

2. Strengthening volcano monitoring capacity

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

In the June 3, 2018 eruption, the two seismic stations operated by INSIVUMEH to monitor El Fuego were destroyed.⁸ Furthermore, at that time only four temporary volcanologists were available to monitor all the volcanoes in Guatemala, which is fewer than one expert per volcano.

To effectively monitor volcanoes in Guatemala, the workshop recommended strengthening INSIVUMEH through:

  • Conducting a strategic institutional analysis
  • Designing a volcano monitoring network that includes seismic stations, infrared cameras, GPS receivers, spectrometers, and other equipment
  • Developing further professional capacity to monitor volcanoes and to conduct hazard assessments
  • Developing protocols to issue volcanic activity reports

3. Ensuring institutional coordination during disasters

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

To effectively manage future volcanic disasters, the workshop recommended a decentralized coordination system that cuts across institutions and sectors involved in disaster risk management in Guatemala. This will require:

  • Modernizing the legal framework for disaster risk management
  • Developing a regulatory framework that specifies the roles and responsibilities for public, private, and community stakeholders
  • Reviewing the inter-institutional action plans and protocols, taking into account Guatemala’s realities
  • Strengthening the coordination processes for emergency operations

4. Improving warning systems and response protocols

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

The workshop recommended improving Guatemala’s disaster warning systems and developing clear protocols for disaster response.

This would involve working on:

  • Providing unambiguous warnings based on reliable sources of information
  • Implementing clear protocols for disaster response for the government and for the community, and the connections between these protocols
  • Developing community capacity to follow disaster response protocols
  • Training communities to act autonomously in case the formal system fails

5. Strengthening public finances for disaster response

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

It was recommended that Guatemala should ensure availability of sufficient contingent resources for disaster response, based on well-defined risk scenarios. Furthermore, transparency in public spending and the use of international humanitarian aid for disaster response was suggested.

6. Engaging communities in volcanic hazard zones

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

To positively impact communities in volcanic hazard zones, the workshop suggested that government institutions develop a tailored communication strategy for each community that responds to the community’s specific social and cultural dynamics.

This would involve understanding factors such as the community’s risk perceptions, education levels, means of livelihood, motivations, and other community-specific elements. It was also recommended that the messages delivered should be in simple language, in the channel appropriate for each community’s needs.

Putting lessons from El Fuego to practice

Recovery teams clear the debris after the June 3, 2018, eruption of El Fuego. © Joaquin Toro / World Bank

The Road Map to Strengthen Disaster Risk Management in Guatemala was formally endorsed by CONRED in December 2018. As the road map’s implementation gets underway, GFDRR and the World Bank’s analytical work and assimilation of lessons learnt from the El Fuego eruption is helping inform policy reforms and mobilize financing for disaster resilience.

© Joaquin Toro / World Bank

“The Government of Guatemala has worked to strengthen the country’s capacities for disaster risk management at the national level. With support from the World Bank, we can continue adapting to changes in the face of natural threats and thus reduce the vulnerability of citizens.”

Víctor Martínez, Minister of Finance, Guatemala¹⁴

Following are the key results from GFDRR and the World Bank’s effort to analyze and learn from El Fuego’s June 3, 2018 eruption:

Policy reforms and rapid disaster financing

The lessons learnt from the El Fuego eruption were used to design the US$200 million Guatemala DRM Development Policy Loan with a Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Option CAT DDO II, which was approved in May 2019.

The World Bank loan will enhance Guatemala’s capacity to quickly mobilize resources in the aftermath of adverse natural events or health related emergencies and to support the modernization of the country’s legal and institutional framework to manage disaster and climate risks.

Disaster management policy reforms will help more than 100 municipalities in Guatemala to include disaster risk reduction in their development plans.

Strengthened legal framework and fiscal resilience

Following the lessons learnt from the El Fuego eruption, a Disaster Risk Financing Strategy was approved in 2018 to strengthen Guatemala’s fiscal resilience and its capacity to respond to disasters risks. In addition, a bill of law to strengthen the legal disaster risk management framework was submitted to the Guatemalan Congress in January 2019.¹⁴

The International Workshop on Lessons Learnt from El Fuego helped the Ministry of Public Finance assess INSIVUMEH’s constraints, and its budget allocation was increased by US$2.6 million.

Effective disaster risk management

To facilitate the implementation of the disaster risk management road map for Guatemala, GFDRR and the World Bank are supporting several prioritized activities, including:

  • Land use planning: Helping the Secretariat for Planning and Programming of the Presidency (SEGEPLAN) lto implement land-use planning guidelines in six municipalities affected by the El Fuego eruption.
  • Response protocols: Supporting CONRED to strengthen inter-institutional coordination for early response and to improve the protocols for managing humanitarian aid in Guatemala.
  • Volcano monitoring: Assisting in a strategic institutional analysis of INSIVUMEH to enhance its institutional capacity.

Specialists from INSIVUMEH, the University of Edinburgh, the University of South Florida, United States Geological Survey, and the Technological University of Michigan are helping develop Volcanic Hazard Maps for Guatemala.

With these initiatives underway and continued support from GFDRR, Guatemala is en route to implement a stronger and and more comprehensive approach to disaster risk management and resilience from natural hazards.


  1. Loughlin, S., Sparks, S., Brown, S., Jenkins, S., & Vye-Brown, C. (Eds.). (2015). Global Volcanic Hazards and Risk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781316276273
  2. Ring of Fire, National Geographic Education Resource Library.
  3. Memorias del Taller Internacional de Lecciones Aprendidas del Volcán de Fuego, GFDRR / World Bank.
  4. General Vulcanology, INSIVUMEH.
  5. Country and regional profiles of volcanic hazard and risk: Mexico and Central America, Global Volcano Model.
  6. Global Volcanism Program, 2013. Fuego (342090) in Volcanoes of the World, v. 4.7.6. Venzke, E (ed.). Smithsonian Institution. Downloaded 04 Mar 2019 (https://volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=342090). https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.VOTW4-2013
  7. Disasters in Guatemala, World Bank.
  8. Evaluación de daños y pérdidas Volcán de Fuego, GFDRR / World Bank.
  9. EM-DAT: The Emergency Events Database — Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) — CRED.
  10. Nick Menta, “After volcano’s devastation, what will become of La Reunión?” Golf Channel, January 19, 2019.
  11. “Fuego Erupts”, NASA Earth Observatory, February 3, 2018.
  12. June 3, 2018, Volcán de Fuego, Guatemala, Eruption. Global Rapid Post Disaster Damage Estimation (GRADE) Report, GFDRR / World Bank.
  13. Forensic Analysis of the Conditions of Disaster Risk in the 2018 Volcano of Fire (Volcán de Fuego) Eruption, World Bank
  14. Strengthening Guatemala’s Capacities to Manage Risk and Cope with the Impact of Catastrophic Events, World Bank, May 27, 2019.

Read more World Bank blogs and stories.



World Bank
World of Opportunity

The World Bank has two ambitious goals: End extreme poverty within a generation and boost shared prosperity.