Floods in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador: natural disasters or state incompetence?

Floods in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador: natural disasters or state incompetence?

A barefoot girl searching for her missing relatives in the San Miguel neighbourhood, two days after the Mocoa landslide in southern Colombia.

(José Fajardo)

On the night of 31 March 2017, within the space of just three hours, Mocoa received 129.3 mm of rainfall, an amount that usually falls over 10 days in the Amazonia region of southern Colombia. The northern coast of Peru received overwhelming amounts of rainfall between December 2016 and May 2017, as a result of El Niño. In the province of El Oro, in Ecuador, the rains on the southern coast reached the highest levels on record, due to the rise in the water temperature in the Pacific Ocean.

The governments from these three countries in the Andean region of Latin America responded without delay. TV cameras rushed to the scene of the disasters and the international community lent its support. For weeks on end, the social media hashtags in support of the victims drew more attention than corruption, violence and even football: #TodosConMocoa, #FuerzaPerú, #LluviaEnQuito.

That the disasters were unavoidable was not called into question. However, one of these three countries managed to limit the scale of the human and material losses. How did it do it?

The declarations made in August 2015 by Rafael Correa, the leader of Ecuador at the time, are telling. He was already aware of the risk of flooding: “There will always be costs, but they can be kept to a minimum. Everything is in place: support systems, shelters, multi-purpose flood control systems, canals and clean-up systems. Meanwhile, his counterparts in Colombia and Peru, Juan Manuel Santos and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, have insisted that such phenomena cannot be anticipated. The results of these two different approaches are clear.

A before and an after

The earthquake of 16 April 2016 that shook the province of Manabí, on the north-west coast of Ecuador, was a fundamental precedent for the change to the country’s environmental risk prevention policies. Bernardo Ortiz, of Ecociencia, an Ecuadorian scientific foundation specialising in the defence of biodiversity, explains why: “It was an extremely brutal tragedy that marked a before and an after,” he says.

He points out that since then, every municipality in the country is under an obligation to conduct a risk analysis for natural disasters. The country has become an example to follow in the region, with its good practices in prevention, warning systems, effective response and evacuation. “Good progress has been made over the past year and considerable investment has been made into infrastructure such as dykes and walls,” he underlines.

Why have its neighbours not done the same? The geography of the two countries (located between mountain ranges, with heavy tropical rainfall) has given rise to numerous disasters, some of them very recent, in which lives were lost: a landslide caused by rains similar to those seen in Mocoa killed scores of people in town of Salgar, in northwest Colombia, in 2015, and the 2007 earthquake in Peru had a devastating impact on the Pisco and Chincha regions, ravaging the country’s central coast.

President Kuczynski, who recently admitted that rampant corruption meant he could not declare a state of emergency to deal with the destruction caused by the rains, praised Ecuador’s preparedness in terms of disaster management, but does not see the need to follow its example, at least for now.

“This morning, I was looking at what has been done in Ecuador. Of course, it’s a country where it rains all year round, not like here. But I think they are good examples that should be followed,” he said.

The pain caused by the loss of a loved one or the desperation felt by a person whose home is destroyed cannot be expressed in numbers. But in this case, the figures are so devastating that responsibility cannot be left unattributed.

The Colombian government has confirmed that 332 people were killed and 7600 families were affected by the landslide in Mocoa. In Peru, 147 people were killed and over half a million were severely affected by the rains at the end of May. In Ecuador, 40 people died under the same circumstances, according to the latest figures.

According to Diego Rubio, who works as water resources consultant for the Colombian government, Mocoa was the victim of “three bad decisions made in the past”: deficient urban planning (uncontrolled housing built on mountainsides and next to streams and river basins), deforestation (soil erosion creates instability) and the failure to introduce early warning systems.

If the causes are known and the areas at risk are identifiable, why is nothing being done? This is the question Roddy Mari Bermejo put to Equal Times, two days after the Mocoa landslide. This woman, who had been living within metres of the Sangoyaco River that runs through the city, lost her home in the disaster. “I filed a complaint with Corpoamazonia [the public body in charge of the environment in the region] over two months ago: we already knew that living here was a danger. Who is going to pay for all this?” she wept.

The unrestrained growth of Peruvian cities is coupled with the inefficiency of an incompetent state, denounces Jack Lo, a journalist specialising in environmental affairs. He also points to the corruption, the funds that go missing and the insurmountable bureaucracy that delays everything. “This year, the problem has become the subject of a nationwide debate for the first time. Lima, the capital, was left without water for several days during the rains. This led the public to ask itself questions.”

Where did the promises go?

Months after the Mocoa landslide and there are still families sleeping amidst the rubble and on the roadsides,” denounces Álvaro Cruz, vice president of OZIP, the indigenous organisation that has provided some 600 people with assistance. “We are very unhappy with the government. There have even been protest marches. The president says that everything is back to normal, but that’s a lie.”

“We are going to build a better Mocoa,” Santos promised shortly after the landslide. These words have so far brought nothing but anger and pain to Edwin Ñáñez. He lost his wife and two children in the disaster. The forensic medicine department handed over the remains of two bodies to him on 2 April. A month later, they forced him to give one of them back: DNA tests had revealed that they belonged to another family.

“They got the documents mixed up. I’m still looking for my daughter. She is only four years old. I don’t know if she is dead or alive. This has caused me a great deal of mental suffering and I haven’t even been offered psychological support,” he told Equal Times, at the beginning of June.

No one is taking responsibility for poor management, as yet. Diego Rubio explains that in Colombia, according to Law 1523 of 2012, the municipal authorities are ultimately responsible for these tragedies as they are in charge of approving the use of public land, not the government. The Public Prosecutor’s Office is conducting an investigation into whether the Mocoa authorities could have done more to prevent the tragedy.

“In Peru, people have lost faith in politicians and that includes me: I won’t believe them, not until concrete action is taken, because all they have done so far is to demonstrate their incompetence,” argues Lo.

In Ecuador, there are fears that the new government led by Lenín Moreno may cut disaster management funding. “It wasn’t all positive with Rafael Correa,” says journalist Daniela Aguilar, who has published a study on the progress made in terms of environmental protection over the last decade, in which she also denounces the rise of mining and oil companies.

The three countries are already talking about the reconstruction costs (the Peruvian president has set the figure at US$9 billion for works conducted over a period of around five years), and they are welcoming international donations. But the victims are calling for concrete action: “We are experiencing a moment of fleeting calm, in the hopes that someone will give us our homes back. We want to go back to our lives,” concludes Ñáñez.

This article has been translated from Spanish.