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The Mocoa massacre in Colombia, a tragedy foretold

When deforestation, climate change and extreme rainfall are coupled with a lack of human preparedness, catastrophe becomes inevitable. English

On the evening of April 1st, torrential rain began to pour from the sky in the Colombian city of Mocoa. In only a few hours 129mm of water would fall, swelling the nearby Mocoa, Mulato and Sangoyaco rivers. The expanding mass of water burst through the banks, sending a sea of mud, debris and water rushing through the city of Mocoa. Seventeen neighbourhoods were submerged, and the neighbourhood of San Miguel was swept away entirely.

As families slept, the torrent smashed into houses and their inhabitants. 283 people, including at least 43 children, were killed. Hundreds more were injured. The number of dead continues to rise.

“The rivers have memory” — Luz Marina Mantilla

The Origin of Fury

It will take months and intensive research efforts to better trace the genesis of the catastrophe, but for now this much is clear: 

There is little “natural” about the Mocoa disaster — it was a human disaster, engendered by a concoction of poor urban planning, poverty, inadequate land use around water basins, and failed risk management.

But to understand what happened we need to understand the natural stage on which it took place.

The city of Mocoa, capital of the Putumayo department, sits in one of Colombia’s most flood-prone regions. The word Putumayo stems from the Quechua word for river (mayu). Surrounded by rivers, the Putumayo is a mountainous area of significant geological instability, laden with precipices and ravines.

The city of Mocoa, situated in a steep valley and adjacent to three major rivers, was inherently vulnerable to such events.

But other factors heightened that vulnerability. Over the last decades deforestation has been extensive across the resource-rich region, with Putumayo home to some of Colombia’s highest rates of forest loss. That deforestation has been caused by the expansion of livestock breeding, coca plantations, mining, and logging.

Why is deforestation important? Deforestation is not just the removal of trees. It is the destruction of ecosystems that manage and stabilise water cycles. Forests are storehouses of water, and when they are stripped, rainwater can flow unimpeded. In an aerial survey conducted on the day of the disaster, environmental authorities detected the significant displacement of forest areas that had previously helped manage water flow.

San Miguel and San Antonio. Photo Credit: Corpoamazonia. All rights reserved.Trees are also crucial because their roots firm up land. Deforestation thus helps erode mountains, which in turn leads to sedimentation, the process through which rivers accumulate sediment and biomass. When the torrential rains of April 1st struck, Putumayo’s rivers were transporting large amounts of residue.

What other factors were at play in the Mocoa mudslide? The fingerprints of climate change can also be seen when looking at the torrential rain that lashed Putumayo that fateful night. Precipitation patterns — their frequency, intensity and volume — are all shaped and sharpened by climate change.

The average of rain for one month in Mocoa is around 270mm. On the night of the tragedy, 129mm fell in a period of hours, adding weight to lands and rivers that had already received surplus amounts of water that month. During March, the Mocoa region received about 50 percent more precipitation than usual.

"Why were people living in high-risk areas?

Such atypical rain patterns are becoming increasingly common. While further study is necessary, we know that the Pacific waters off the coast of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru have been abnormally warm of late. Over the last month, sea surface temperatures in the region have fluctuated around four degrees Celsius above average. These warm waters increase the rate of evaporation, leading to greater moisture in coastal atmospheres, which in turns leads to greater precipitation. The most recent floods in Peru, which killed dozens and rendered hundreds of thousands homeless, was partly caused by this surge in sea temperatures.

We should however be careful in our ascription of blame to climate change . Across history, human beings have readily turned to abstractions to explain the unbearable ferocity of disasters: “the fury of nature”, “the wrath of the gods”. To turn to swift analyses and simply blame climate change risks replicating this turn to the heavens, and distracting attention away from state neglect.

That’s because climate change doesn’t answer the key question: why were people living in high-risk areas?

The most overt cause is absent and negligent urban planning, as housing construction was permitted within metres of river areas. Here is where is the tragedy was foretold. The risks of flooding affecting buildings near the riverbanks were widely known before the disaster.

In the 1950s, the Taruca stream had overflown, taking the lives of two people. In 2013, two students at the Technical Institute of Putumayo simulated the overflow of the Taruca stream — their results predicted what unfolded Saturday night. Studies in 2016 by sustainable development organization Corpoamazonía warned of flooding risks in Mocoa, recommending that 10,000 people needed to be relocated since the risk they faced could not be mitigated. Previous territorial ordinances conducted years before the disaster had also mapped out the flooding risks facing neighbourhoods on the banks of rivers.

Over the last months shop owners and residents of neighbourhoods close to the Sangoyaco river had heard many false alarms related to the overflow of the river. They had voiced concerns to authorities about the need to make contingency plans, but these were met with delay. Adequate planning and risk management could have saved lives and prevented the disaster.

But Mocoa’s unregulated urban expansion and absent planning are also products of Colombia’s civil conflict. Over the last years, 36,000 people displaced by the conflict were received by the municipality of Mocoa. The neighbourhoods of San Miguel, Los Laureles and La Floresta —the three urban zones most afflicted by the flood of mud — grew as families displaced by the violence in Southern Putumayo arrived.

These families, dispossessed of their land, were in little position to afford the adequate planning permission to legally enable construction. Víctor Manuel Espinoza, a councillor and resident of San Miguel explained: “What money will they use to process a [construction] permission? That money is what they’ll use to buy the bricks.” With no access to safe land and limited economic means, the displaced families arriving in Mocoa turned to build their new homes closer to embankments and flood-prone areas in the valley.

Finally, Mocoa was also an institutional failure of the Colombian bodies responsible for disaster prevention. Colombia’s National Office for Disaster Preparedness was designed to foil catastrophe like Mocoa’s. It was established in response to the Armero disaster, a 1985 landslide that claimed the lives of 22,000 people. But the office’s impact has been circumscribed and limited. A November 2015 study by Colombia’s found that over four-fifth of Colombian municipalities had no early-warning system related to natural threats. A similar percentage had communities living in high-risk areas, and only a fifth of municipalities had officials specialising in studying the local impacts of climate change.

“Every time we are better at rescuing the shipwrecked but worse at stopping the shipwrecks.” — Gustavo Wilches Chaux

The Future & Recovering What Cannot Be

 The search for bodies continues and the pressing priority in Mocoa right now is rescue and the recomposition of life.

But the tragedy, as specialists have pointed out, should encourage a long-term transformation on multiple fronts. Mocoa’s urban development must change drastically, with communities resettled into low-risk areas. Land use around water basins has to be tightly and effectively controlled. Deforestation and land depletion, among other drivers of vulnerability, need to be tamed. Finally, we need adaptation to extreme climatic events, adjusting our cities and lands to ensure they are resilient to environmental shocks. As environmental expert Rodrigo Botero warns, “there’s a certainty that we must we aware of: there will be more events of this kind.”

This must be done with great sensitivity to local realities and dynamics. Gustavo Wilches Chaux, a Colombian disaster prevention expert, rightly points out that “the recovery of a community is like a spider and a spider web. The spider is the community and the spider web is where you seek to intervene. The challenge is to strengthen the spider that has stayed alive, but is traumatised, so it can use its full capacity to build a new spider web. But if I just rebuild the spider web and put it over the spider, it probably won’t work. This is a work to recompose the relationships between human beings and their territories.”

Climate violence is always the product of a collision: between acute weather conditions and acute social realities. In Mocoa, absent planning, poverty, deforestation, displacement, and state neglect laid the explosives. Extreme weather lit the fuse.

This clearly lays out our task: preventing climate violence requires defusing the detonator and the load.

So we should ask ourselves two questions: firstly, what ecological infrastructure do we have to nourish and protect our current and future communities? Across the world, natural environments are being eviscerated. Putumayo, reeling from the incalculable loss, has been at the receiving end of dozens of mega-extractive projects.

And secondly: what pervasive injustices, inequalities and deprivations are exacerbating the vulnerability of people to environmental shocks?

Climate change and the rise of extreme climactic variability hands us the opportunity to push for a major global economic transformation to haul down greenhouse gas emissions and guarantee a degree of atmospheric safety. But given the pressing nature of the questions outlined above, this transformation needs to be designed to honour life, improve wellbeing, acknowledge the rights of nature, and build the resilience of our communities to atmospheric shocks.

It takes spectacular tragedies to alert us to the life-preserving importance of environmental protection before our blindness to the importance of the natural world returns. If we are to stand any hope of regularly preventing episodes of climate violence, an awareness around deep ecology will need to be mainstreamed.

At the time of writing, the Cauca and Magdalena rivers are at risk of overflow, and nearly twelve million Colombians are living today at risk of flooding. Unless warnings are heeded and action is taken, Colombia and the most vulnerable states around the world face a reality where the abnormality of extreme weather becomes routine.

About the author

Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik is a writer and activist. He tweets at @bywordlight 


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