Red Cross relocates Colombian village swallowed by sea
Publisher: Reuters AlertNet
Story date: 20/11/2011
Language: English

The latest climate change report predicting an increase in extreme weather-related disasters is a further alarm call for the world to step up preparation for future emergencies, the Red Cross is warning.

The summary of the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX), released on Friday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), points to increasing volatility and frequency of extreme weather and a growing risk for people across the globe.

"The findings of this report certainly tally with what the Red Cross Movement is seeing, which is a rise in the number of weather-related emergencies around the world," said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and coordinating lead author of the IPCC SREX report.

"We are committed to responding to disasters whenever and wherever they happen, but we have to recognise that if the number of disasters continues to increase, the current model we have for responding to them is simply impossible to sustain.

"It is more effective and efficient, in terms of both money and human lives, to try to anticipate disasters, and build resilience and preparedness before they happen."


Colombia, a modern climate "lab", faces a dizzying array of extreme-weather impacts (not to mention seismic risk): drought alternating with flooding; the spread of malaria and dengue fever as the wet, warm mosquito-zone expands; more destructive storms; and – in some locations – super-fast coastal erosion.

After what was described as the most intense rainy season in the country's recorded history affected almost all Colombia's 32 provinces in 2010–11, nearly three quarters of a million people were directly affected in a flood disaster that a member of the government called "unimaginable".

"More than four million people in Colombia have been affected by floods or landslides over the past two years," says Walter Cotte, the secretary general of the Colombian Red Cross and one of the most experienced disaster managers in the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

"It's cumulative," he adds. "Now something like 10 percent of our entire population is directly involved, and these people need a lot of support from us. Not only on the emergency side but also how to manage early-warning systems, and deal with evacuations."

One location in Colombia where they hope Red Cross early-warning systems and drills are already saving lives is the town of Villanueva, at the foot of the towering Sierre de Perija in La Guajira province. Villanueva (population 20,000) is acutely vulnerable to flash floods that come crashing down from the mountains above – until recently quite without warning.

Now a Red Cross river-level gauge, installed a short distance upstream, triggers powerful sirens that gives people in the town below about 10 minutes' warning of approaching flash-floods. They have gone off five times since installation three years ago. There may be no other warning of the potentially lethal floods – there can be torrential rain in the mountains while skies are completely clear above the valley below.

La Guajira also includes the small peninsula that juts out into the Caribbean – the most northern extreme of continental Latin America. The vulnerable-looking geography of the department somehow makes it seem less surprising that this part of Colombia's Caribbean coast should suffer dramatically high levels of coastal erosion that strikes at both the strong and the weak alike. Every year, the Chevron Company, whose processing plant is on the shore, has to replace a line of huge sandbags, which are now the only thing keeping the waves at bay.

The Red Cross, meanwhile, has supervised the total reconstruction of the indigenous Wayuu village of San Tropel, 30 kilometres north of the department capital, Riohacha, after the original settlement was swallowed by the sea, which has been advancing at a rate of some 20 metres a year.

The early warning systems in Villanueva and San Tropel are elements of the climate-oriented network of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) work undertaken in Colombia as part of the 2007-11 Netherlands Red Cross-supported "Pledge Project".

The rebuilding of San Tropel, completed using traditional materials and methods in September 2010, was intended to specifically address the changing climate risks this village will continue to face, and as such is the first settlement of its kind in Colombia.

For more information, visit the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre website.

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