Lesson for Jamaica in Colombian tragedy

Friday, April 07, 2017

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The devastation of Mocoa, a small city in the wet subtropical Amazon region of southern Colombia, by extremely heavy rain holds a potent lesson for Jamaica.

For, in that tragic episode there are many similarities to the culture among Jamaicans of building wherever one chooses, regardless of the dangers.

The report of the Mocoa tragedy published in yesterday’s edition of the Observer told us that Government agencies, land-use experts, and environmental organisations had, for years, warned that Mocoa could face dangerous flooding. "Many who lived in the most vulnerable areas were aware of the warnings, even if they didn’t heed them. And yet the city continued to spread into the floodplains west of downtown," the report stated.

Mocoa, we are told, was vulnerable because of its location, amid a confluence of rivers. According to the report, the danger had grown worse as trees were cut for cattle ranching and other agriculture, removing protection against flooding and landslides. Then came an influx of new residents, many fleeing violence from the Government’s long fight with guerrilla forces.

The disaster unfolded when a month’s worth of rain fell in a single night late last Friday and early Saturday. "Three of the six rivers surrounding Mocoa overflowed their banks,"
The Associated Press reported. "A wall of muddy brown water and tree limbs raced through the streets, destroying homes and carrying away cars and appliances like driftwood."

On Wednesday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reported that at least 293 people, many of them children, were swept away and died; about 340 people were injured and more than 300 were still unaccounted for amid the wreckage.

Ironically, Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture, in a report submitted as far back as 1989, had warned of the likelihood of this natural disaster and had recommended flood-control measures.

The Associated Press also reported that the Corporation for the Sustainable Development in the Southern Amazon, which has an office in Mocoa, had been warning of the danger from as far back as 1995 when the Government built a power station that was knocked out by the flood last weekend. The group also said that similar disasters have occurred over the years in the area, the most significant in 1962.

A Catholic priest in Mocoa said in a radio interview that he was dismissed as "paranoid" when he told local officials three years ago that the Taruca River was spilling over onto people’s land and would soon burst.

One of the most amazing elements of the AP report was a quote by a man who went to live in the city more than 10 years ago with his wife and young son. "It’s the Government’s fault for letting us build homes here," he was reported as saying. "Everyone knew that it was going to flood but nobody did anything."

That is a view held by many people who set up their homes in disaster-prone areas as they never seem to accept responsibility for their irresponsible and risky decisions.

People, though, need to be made to understand that they cannot pass off their irrationality on the State. At the same time, the Jamaican authorities have a duty to ensure that individuals do not disregard the Disaster Risk Management Act.

There are too many informal communities in Jamaica that are at risk of the type of tragedy that befell Mocoa. Let us avoid that city’s experience.




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