Colombia experiences the worst rainy season in history, hurting the poorest and most vulnerable people. The heavy rains, high levels of poverty, internal displacement and inadequate infrastructure have converted the floods into a major disaster and humanitarian emergency.
The government reports that 2.1 million people have been affected by the floods, especially in Bolivar, Magdalena, Sucre and Atlantico. Considering that these regions observe some of the highest levels of poverty and internal displacement in the country, it is very likely that many of the people affected by the floods are also victims of internal displacement, extreme poverty and lack of access to adequate basic urban infrastructure and services. In Colombia, 94% of the displaced families are below the poverty line, some 47% are extreme poor and 98% have fled to urban areas, mostly to sub-optimal or illegal slums.
The floods are imposing great economic, social and psychological burdens on millions of Colombians -especially among the poorest and most vulnerable ones. Furthermore, they are stressing the country’s public finances and affecting its economic performance via price increases, goods and labor immobility and agricultural losses. Therefore, President Santos declared a state of social, economic and environmental emergency and launched a humanitarian campaign to address the basic needs of the victims. Santos is deciding about rehabilitation and reconstruction plans estimated at Col$10 billion ($5,230 million).
However, given the endurance of the floods it is likely that the damages and costs will increase along with the number of displaced people (IDPs), which nowadays sum 3.5 million. and their pressures over the government’s social networks. The emergency is blurring the boundaries among the various victims of disaster, conflict and poverty. Moreover, it is adding additional strains to an already challenging and multidisciplinary issue such as the internal displacement.
Will the state and the humanitarian agencies be able to differentiate the various victims? Will they be able to prioritize the limited resources and target aid? Will they be able to protect the disaster-affected populations without entering into discussions about displacement, poverty and infrastructure? Unfortunately, my answer is negative to all questions.
The floods are revealing that the country, as many others, has never been well prepared for a natural disaster of this proportion. Santos recognized that the emergency exceeded the government’s capabilities and financial resources, and has requested support from the international community, which is positively but timidly responding. On the other hand, the emergency may prove that the government’s capabilities to meet the IPDs’ needs were overrated, which is something that will not likely be recognized.
Although Colombia ranks 1st in the list of countries with the highest rates of IDPs according to UNHCR, the national government denies such “judgment” and defends itself by highlighting the preliminary achievements of the social networks created to serve the IDPs and extreme poor (Accion Social/Juntos).
In recent years, Colombia’s international policy has been presumptuous and has claimed recognition by its military and economic achievements. This attitude might improve Colombia’s negotiating position and chances to become a member of international organizations such as the OECD; but it is inhibiting additional international cooperation funds. Nowadays, Colombia is not a priority for any donor due to its high GDP per-capita, economic growth and apparent stability. Moreover, when donors compare Colombia with Haiti the losses seem minor.
Nonetheless, when one sees the emergency under a broader framework that factors poverty and displacement, the issue is concerning. The government must carefully review its self-sufficiency discourse and provide the right signals to the international market in order to attract the missing but required resources.
To address the needs of the victims, avoid a future emergency and foster stability, it is necessary to adopt a long-term and multidisciplinary approach. Massive investments in roads, flood preventing infrastructure, productive land, basic public services and housing in the urban slums are necessary to reduce people’s vulnerability to natural disasters and poverty. Moreover social protection programs are fundamental and should continue. However, sustainable livelihood strategies aimed to build a sufficient and sustainable source of income for the people should be complementary.
In light of the current discussions about recovery and reconstruction initiatives, the national and local governments have a great opportunity to structure projects and investments that are economically inclusive of the vulnerable and have-nots. If financial resources are gathered and labor regulations are eased, the government can use the emergency to boost the major and basic infrastructure goods, provide employment and income generation opportunities for the victims, and prepare the country for future natural hazards. Since the emergency is product of a myriad of interrelated issues, only multidisciplinary solutions will be able to alleviate it.
It is clear that such approach is extremely challenging from a financial and operational perspective; however, it may be incredibly effective for tackling some of the causes and consequences of the major issues discussed herein.
Author Ana Maria Aristizabal is MPA Candidate at Columbia University in New York