Colombia has had more than 20,700 floods in 50 years
Eight days ago in Supia, a town northwest of Caldas, heavy rains caused the Rapao stream and the river that shares the same name as the municipality to overflow. Flooding in the urban area affected almost 3,000 families and more than 1,000 homes, injured 26 people and left one person dead, according to figures provided by City Hall. In the middle of the week, in Plato (Magdalena), the community warned of the risk of flooding they are in, although they have a jarillón that tries to hold back the waters of the Magdalena.
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Like Supía and Plato, in Colombia 131 municipalities and 10 departments have already declared a public disaster due to emergencies caused by the rainfall, and according to Javier Pava, director of the National Disaster Risk Management Unit (UNGRD), it could triple in next weeks due to the second rainy season which will start in the middle of this month and which will be heavily influenced by the La Niña phenomenon. This, explained by Ideam, will lead to reported rainfall in several regions of the country up to 30% above the norm.
Despite the fact that the country has a risk management system and tools and instruments that allow it to estimate with some accuracy where and how much it will rain, floods have become part of the daily panorama. In fact, according to data from the UNGRD, over the past 50 years of all “natural” disasters, more than 30% were floods, the event that occurred most frequently in Colombia. In the last 50 years, there have been 20,722. Why, with all this detailed information and so much experience, do we still see floods almost every day?
To answer this complex question, Sandra Vilardi, PhD in ecology and deputy minister of the environment, says that historical, social and natural processes must be taken into account. To answer, we go back to the time of the Colony. “When the Spaniards arrived, coming from a dry land, they found a country full of swamps, marshes, and rivers. That’s why they settled in the Andean area, because it’s more convenient for them. Since then, as we have developed from the Andean region, there has been a contempt for water and for water territories that continues to this day and that goes beyond Colombian law.”
Sylvia López, PhD in biology and expert on aquatic ecosystems, highlights another legacy from those colonial times: “We started to adopt European models, the canalization of rivers, the construction of piers, the drying or draining of wetlands, among others, were imported.
Both agree that these works wanted to control water in a country where it is difficult to do so. According to the Humboldt Institute, almost 31 million hectares, that is, 26% of the territory, are wetlands “that can be flooded periodically or permanently,” López recalls. “Flooding pulses” is how they know this process from a technical point of view. As this biologist says, we live in amphibious territories that “oscillate between a water phase and another terrestrial or dry one”.
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In addition to trying to control water, Colombia has a serious problem: the “disruption of the territory”, which for Vilardi is nothing more than an invasion of water spaces. Due to various social phenomena, such as armed conflicts, displacement or poverty, millions of Colombians have reached the outskirts of cities, building their houses with fragile materials on unstable land or along the banks of rivers. To some extent, this construction process, added to other phenomena, has led to the deforestation of areas that are important for river basins.
The bad news is that illegal logging has skyrocketed in Colombia. In the last two decades, Minambiente revealed this week that we have lost 3 million hectares, the same area as the department of Santander or Belgium. This is very serious when it comes to pools because, as Lopez explains, a healthy pool is vital to flood prevention. “The amount of water that reaches a river depends not only on rainfall, but also on the condition of the basin. Its area, for example, determines the amount of water it can drain, while its quality, that is, how much vegetation it has or how deforested it is, determines the rate at which it will arrive.”
In other words, a mountain full of trees has a greater capacity to filter rainwater, while a deforested one loses this capacity. This causes much of the rainwater to reach rivers more quickly, causing their levels to rise more quickly. Deforestation also exposes the soil to erosion processes, which explains why landslides are more frequent in these periods.
But deforestation is not the only factor to consider when talking about this phenomenon, warns Gloria Ruiz, mass movement threat assessment coordinator for the Colombian Geological Survey (SGC). For it, it is necessary to go back to a much older process than the Colony: the formation of the Andes mountain range in the country. “Our mountain range in the Andes is still forming, the mountains are still forming, and they’re very young materials that have little resistance,” Ruiz explains.
There is another factor in the equation that cannot go unnoticed. Javier Pava, the new director of the UNGRD, an organization created in the winter season of 2010-2011, is frank in admitting this: “When we have many simultaneous events, it is difficult for the country because its system is very unitary, very centralized. It was highly institutionalized, there was no appropriation by the communities.
How to avoid future floods?
A great example of understanding this series of mistakes that have been made in the past can be found in the La Mojana sub-region, which completed one year under water on August 27. The origin of the state of emergency in the 12 municipalities that make up this region occurred during heavy rains that caused the levels of the Cauca River to rise. This led to the breaking of the water on one of the dikes located on one of the banks of the Cauca River. After almost 13 months, the sinkhole in the Carra de Gato sector is more than two kilometers wide, more than 70,000 people have been affected and nearly 21,000 hectares have been flooded, destroying crops and forcing residents to evacuate their livestock.
The main front to deal with this crisis was the repair of the dam. In fact, former President Duque assured that the work should be ready by November last year. However, with just over a month and a half to a year from that deadline, the new director of the UNGRD has assured that the works at Cara de Gato will be stopped. The reasons that led to this decision, Pava explained, are that about 80% of the works are still missing, there are no guarantees of achieving closure, but there is a high risk that resources will be lost and that with the new rainy season, the work is useless.
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Examples like this, which abound in the country, serve to reveal the first change Colombia needs to make when dealing with flooding, Vilardi says. “We need to reassess the approach from which flooding has historically been approached. The scientific school that marks the course of civil and hydraulic engineers is the Dutch school. This is from the last century, from water control to give a sense of security”.
What he means is that “the state has invested billions upon billions of pesos in jarillón style, canals and dikes. Now we see that they are ineffective. Climate change was never thought to come this way, so it was never thought of how it would affect us. These works no longer suit this planet in crisis.”
So what could be the first step? Renaturalize the river bed, bet on “green” works or those that use nature for certain purposes, says the deputy minister of the environment. Isidro Álvarez, co-founder of the Pata de Agua Foundation, member of the La Mojana Development and Peace Program and resident of the region, agrees. “The solution must be to adapt the houses to the territory. Starting with what the natives of Zenus used to do in their area, which was to make the hills, make mounds and put the houses there. We can bet on this process added to the exercise of restoring the rivers, pipes and swamps”.
However, this will not be enough. UNGRD’s Pava also admits that there was a “critical error” by this entity in previous years, which consisted of “focusing the response on infrastructure”. For this reason, he assures that under his leadership there will be a transformation that will be aimed at serving the people first and foremost. In this relocation, one of the main approaches, he explains, will be to identify families who year after year repeat the tragedy in order to be relocated.
But it won’t be an easy road, warns Alvarez of La Mojana. That’s not new either, he says. “The issue of relocation is not an issue that Petro is raising today. This is a situation I have been hearing about since 2002. In fact, there have been internal displacements of the territory that take a community or town that is close to a swamp to a higher sector of La Mohana. When people talk about moving, they don’t really mean it, because technically it means moving cities. This takes them out of territory where they have roots and where there is a spiritual connection to their land.
At this stage, Pava also admits that mistakes have been made in the past and that this process is not just about handing over houses, but also “creating conditions for families to have work opportunities and space to develop . “
Will these changes be enough to deal with flooding? Both Vilardi and Lopez agree that none of this will be possible if these new approaches are not affected by a cultural shift. In essence, it is about overcoming the strong legacy left by the Colony of disdain for aquatic territories and “reconciling,” as biologists explain, with the amphibious Columbia. This reconciliation, they conclude, also goes through the recognition that since before the Colony there have been indigenous peoples and communities who lived around water in that 30% of the territory which is a wetland. Like the Zenús, who, as Alvarez of La Mojana pointed out, knew how to organize and build their homes in one of the largest wetland complexes in the country.