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Flooding in Colombia: A hidden emergency


27 Oct 2010 15:18:29 GMT
Reuters and AlertNet are not responsible for the content of this article or for any external internet sites. The views expressed are the author’s alone.
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In the past three months, more than 900,000 people have lost their homes and livelihoods because of flooding in northern Colombia, and the rainy season has only just begun. Niki Barton meets people affected by the floods.

Liliana  Ortiz, her husband and four children lost their family vegetable garden, and many of their animals ran away or drowned when the family moved to shelter on higher ground. Photo: Niki Barton

Liliana Ortiz, her husband and four children lost their family vegetable garden, and many of their animals ran away or drowned when the family moved to shelter on higher ground. Photo: Niki Barton

I step out of the canoe, aiming for a shallow area so the water won’t come over the top of my wellington boot. Then I notice the group of children walking past without boots, without shoes even, the water coming up almost to their waists.This is Lorica, a small community in Monteria, northern Colombia. The village has been flooded for more than two months and people are becoming used to the water level. Wellington boots are too much of a hassle, and besides, it’s 40 degrees – who can wear wellies in 40 degree heat?The water is dangerous. It’s filthy from the mud washed in from the streets and the fields, from the excrement of pigs and chickens living in it, and from the rubbish floating in it. Fortunately there is access to clean water for drinking and washing. After flooding in 2007, Oxfam helped the community to rehabilitate a water pumping station to treat and distribute water to each household. Since then the community has set up a water management committee to keep the station working, collecting a small monthly fee from each family to pay for running costs and maintenance.I meet Liliana. Her house has been flooded and she’s sheltering with her husband and four children at the community’s collective farm. At first they stayed in their house, but as the waters rose she began to worry for her children. They had cuts and scratches which were becoming infected in the dirty water. Her youngest son is three years old and after a week, the water level was higher than his head; Liliana was afraid he would drown, so they left the house. They brought with them what possessions they could carry in a canoe, but their vegetable garden was ruined and most of their animals ran away or drowned.I meet other members of community. They tell me that flooding here is normal, it happens every year. But the nature of the flooding is changing, and it is getting worse. The people here used to be fishermen, but fifteen years ago a large dam was built on the river. Fish could no longer swim upstream to reproduce, and fish stocks plummeted. Most of the fishermen became farmers instead. Where the flood waters used to bring an abundance of fish, they now wash away fields and crops. Instead of a time of plenty, it’s a time of destruction. And not all of the flooding is natural. The company that owns the dam sometimes opens the doors to release water, which causes flooding downstream with no warning.In some cases the need for humanitarian assistance is urgent, and Oxfam is providing 1,000 families with water filters, tanks and hygiene kits, and working with community organisations to repair four water pumping stations.But it’s not all up to Oxfam. The Colombian Government has a responsibility to respond to the devastation caused by the flooding. In September, Oxfam co-ordinated a visit by the Colombian media to see the impact of the flooding, and to investigate the causes. The coverage brought to public attention the extent of the floods’ impact, and the role of the dam in exacerbating “natural” flooding. Local and national government have now recognised the need to address the situation.But it’s not over yet. People are still living in two feet of water and the rainy season doesn’t start in earnest until November. But at least the issue is now on the national agenda, and there’s a chance to work towards disaster prevention measures to reduce the impact of future floods.Where we work: Colombia
More from the Oxfam Press Office at http://www.oxfam.org.uk/news

[ Any views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not of Reuters. ]


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