Colombia’s southern city of Mocoa was warned nine months ago about the potential threat of avalanches in its disaster-struck areas, but took no action, reported Semana magazine.
Mocoa, along with several other Amazonian municipalities were informed of “inadequate settlements” in areas close potentially dangerous rivers of mountainsides, claimed Luis Mejia, director of the Corpoamazonia, the regional environmental authority.
The director of the environmental authority said that following the early warning, Mocoa failed to make provision in its Plan of Territorial Order (POT) to prevent the disaster.
“A workshop was held with the Colombian Geological Service where they mentioned and warned about inadequate settlements in certain areas,” said Mejia adding that “it is a subject of inappropriate use of the soil that aggravates these type of events. Nine months ago, studies revealed that something like this could happen.”
The disaster struck in the early hours of Saturday morning when Mocoa, Mulato and the Sancoyaco rivers overflowed after heavy rain causing a mudslide that devastated a large part of the city of 45,000.
Environmental expert Mejia pointed to human error indicating that Saturday’s landslide was as a result of construction in around the river beds, such heavy rainfall coupled with their increasingly limited capacity for eviction led to devastating effects.
On Saturday afternoon we overflew the slopes of the main channels of the rivers Taruca, Conejo, Sangoyaco, Mulato and Mocoa, where we could determine that the inadequate use of the soil in these zones activated ancient landslides and generated new ones. There was a phenomenon with similar characteristics to another that occurred 50 years ago in this same area before it was populated.”
Corpoamazonia director Luis Mejia
Additionally, Mejia warned that the current situation with the rivers in the area continues to be precarious with further rains threatening the possibility of the a repetition of the avalanche that caused Saturday’s disaster.
“The rivers are still looking for their base level and that will take a considerable time,” Mejia said.
Luz Mantilla, director of the Amazon Institute of Scientific Research (Sinchi) also expressed concern for the future of the city as the rivers return to their natural course.
“There is a very critical issue here and the rivers have memories. Normally they try to return to their channel and that is something I think happened with some areas of the city of Mocoa, especially with the San Miguel neighborhood that is located in a riverbed area,” she told Semana.
In addition to poor urban planning regarding construction close to the rivers, Mantilla also pointed the finger to deforestation in the area citing it as a crucial factor highlighting that Putumayo has the fifth highest deforestation rate in the country. Some 9,000 hectares having been deforested since 2015, Mantilla said.
“We have deforested the rounds of water and the surrounding human settlements. It is urgent to restore these areas,” said Mantilla.
Mejia called on communities to improve their relationship with their territory to ensure a repetition of the Mocoa disaster is prevented in other risk areas.
“I hope that if something comes from this tragedy, where also we lost several colleagues, it is the conscience to return to the territorial order of the area and to see natural resources as elements to be respected and cared for” said Mejia.
In response to the tragedy, more than 180 of Colombia’s approximately 1,000 municipalities are either on orange or red alert for avalanches according to Colombia’s meteorological institute IDEAM.
IDEAM said on Sunday that the regions at the highest risk of natural disasters as a consequence of the excessive rains are located in Colombia’s Andean regions in the southwest and center of the country.
If April, commonly one of the rainiest months of the year, continues to register excessive rainfall, the IDEAM director also fears floods or mudslides occur along the country’s biggest river, the Magdalena, which caused major floods in its northern delta in 2010, the last time “La Niña” hit Colombia.
The meteorological authority has been warning about “La Niña” since July last year. The weather phenomenon should be gone by the time Colombia awaits its second rainy season in September.