Winter has come to Colombia — and that means rain, rain, and more rain. As of this week, 28 out of the 33 of the country’s departments are on high alert due to flooding caused by unending downpours and overflowing river basins. Hundreds of people have died or been critically injured, tens of thousands have lost their homes, and crop yields are being catastrophically affected.
Colombia’s two largest rivers — Río Magdalena and Río Cauca — have both risen to historically high levels. Big cities and small towns alike have experienced sudden, devastating flooding. Early in the morning of May 8, for example, the inhabitants of the small city of San José Uré in the department of Córdoba woke up to find their streets running with brown water, the result of landslides in the surrounding hills. With no warning, many of the city’s residents were left without a home or access to food and clean water. The regional and national governments mobilized quickly to provide assistance, but as more and more townships have become affected, emergency services have become harder to provide.
In the department of Antioquía, one of the hardest hit, 40,000 people are currently homeless and dependent on government assistance. In the city of Cali, the country’s third largest, thousands of people with residences close to Río Cauca were preventively evacuated last week. Since then, the river has continued to rise, affecting many of the city’s neighborhoods. Even in the capital of Bogota, the rains caused disruptions in ground and air transport and forced some schools and businesses to close.
The impact of the flooding has been felt across the agricultural sector, especially cocoa, beans, corn, plantain, and sugarcane crops. Government officials estimate that up to 90% of land cultivated with sugarcane has been affected by rain and river water, slowing down to a crawl the production of sugar and bioethanol. This will have lasting effects on the national economy as a whole, but especially on the agricultural workers and their families.
The rains are beginning to cause some social unrest as well. In the Buenaventura area, civic protest were organized over the past several days to protest the lack of drinking water in many towns (itself the result of flooding). Last Friday, hundreds of protesters turned violent, setting fires to block roads and looting area businesses. Reports of injuries have poured in as police forces have responded forcefully to the unrest.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, the recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, denounced the violence, and has been vocal in pushing his countrymen to take long-term measures to avoid property damage and loss of life. The question is whether this type of weather patterns will become the new normal for Colombia.
Global climate change, as is well known by now, has increased the probability of extreme weather events, as well as intensified the effects of periodic climactic patterns such as the El Niño ocean current. President Santos is among the most vocal leaders in Latin America arguing for strong steps to combat the effects of global warming.
In addition, human activity in and around the river basins has significantly exacerbated the problem. Besides the Magdalena and Cauca, extended sections of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers also cross Colombia, where they’re seeing their water levels rise to flood cities and fields.
As in many other regions of the world, flooding has been made more likely by widespread deforestation to clear way for human settlements and agriculture. Trees naturally absorb great quantities of moisture; likewise, their presence prevents soil erosion, while their absence speeds it up.
Pollution, from chemicals and trash, becomes all the more visible when the waters rise and spill out of reservoirs. Unsurprisingly, the people most affected by contaminated water are those whose homes are also at higher risk of flooding.
Colombia is dealing with a complex political moment, as it tries to finally end the civil conflict that has plagued it for over half a century. The economy, already sputtering in the early 2010s, has hit an even tougher stretch over the last couple of years. Displaced people, drowned crops, and social instability will only complicate finding the way out of these thorny situations. The rains will eventually stop, but the devastation will remain.
Crossing the Magdalena River to safety during historic flooding. Photo by David~, Via Flickr.