Colombia: Water, Water Everywhere

By Alice Thomas

Unprecedented rain that has hammered Colombia over the past year has affected three million people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. In March, I spent three weeks traveling across the Caribbean region visiting families displaced by the floods. The alarming conditions I encountered more than three months since President Santos declared a state of emergency are described in a report released today by Refugees International entitled, “Surviving Alone: Improving Assistance to Colombia’s Flood Victims.”

In the town of Manatí in Atlántico Department I was greeted by the Iraida, an Afro-Colombian mother of four who leads a local women’s organization. “Today we don’t have a glass of water to drink,” Iraida tells me. “The water truck has not come to distribute water. It comes every eight days.” She explains that water rations are not sufficient to allow her to bathe her baby and provide enough water for the other four members of her family.

Watch a personal account from Iraida and her husband.

She leads me down the main street where the high water mark is still visible on the buildings, past city hall and around a corner where we are confronted by the water. Three months since the breach of the Dique Canal in December and half of the town is still underwater, and is likely to remain so for months to come. We get into wooden boats and silently paddle out into the green, stagnant waters. Street by street the water grows deeper, until all that is visible are rooftops and tree branches. Remnants of people’s lives – a mattress, a suitcase – loom just below the surface.

Iraida points to her house, which is submerged except for the tops of the windows and roof. “We had a store, a business. We took out a loan and now we are unable to pay the bank. We need food, water, clothes – yes, even clothes because we have lost everything.”

Tragically, her story was similar to dozens of others I heard in Atlántico, Córdoba, Bolívar, Sucre and Magdelana Departments. Flood victims received some basic aid during the height of the floods in December; many had been encouraged by news that the government had launched a multi-media campaign to raise flood aid. But more than three months later, what little assistance they had received was tapering off leaving them to survive on their own. As described in the report, an uncoordinated, bureaucratic process set up by the Colombian government to distribute millions of dollars in flood relief was severely hindering the provision of emergency humanitarian assistance. According to a recent report by the Colombian General Accountability Office, only half of the flood aid has been distributed to date.

At the center of town, displaced families have constructed make-shift shelters in a small open-air stadium. Using plastic sheeting and wood, each family has neatly marked off areas for sleeping and cooking. As we walk by, a man sitting within his family along side of his make-shift shelter shouts out to me, “I don’t want charity; I just want my house back!” Iraida introduces a friend who shows us inside her little section where she has neatly stored the few pieces of furniture, pots and other belongings she was able to salvage from her flooded home. I am moved by her efforts to construct a semblance of dignity in all the chaos and ruin, and reminded of similar instances of extraordinary human resilience I have witnessed not only in Colombia, but in the wake of the Pakistan floods as well.

In 2010 alone, 300 million people across the globe were affected by natural disasters, the majority of which were climate-related, including 182 floods that affected 180 million people – almost double the annual average for the last decade.

As I write this blog two months after visiting Manatí, persistent rains and ongoing flooding in Colombia continue to displace hundreds of thousands of people, and record-breaking flooding along areas of the Mississippi River inundate vast swaths of land in the southeast United States. In all the debate over whether the increase in the frequency and force of climate-related disasters is a portent of things to come or evidence that climate change already is occurring, I am left wondering whether policy makers, in their quest for scientific certainty, have missed the point. Not surprisingly, in Colombia, as was the case with the floods in Pakistan as well, it was the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society that received the least amount of aid, and who are most likely to remain displaced over the long-term.

I am left questioning the wisdom of continuing to view today’s extreme events as unforeseen occurrences for which no one is responsible, as acts of God or nature, as risks that cannot be managed. It is starkly evident that neither national governments nor the humanitarian community is prepared to respond to the increasing pressure that climate variability is bringing to bear not only on some of the world’s poorest and most crisis-prone countries but also on a humanitarian system that is already over-stressed and woefully underfunded. The discussion must therefore focus on prevention, protection, and the underlying factors that render people vulnerable to begin with like poverty, weak social protection networks, lack of preparedness and the weak capacity of local governments to respond quickly and in an accountable manner.