Despite improvements, Colombian government efforts continue to fall short in preventing another disastrous rainy season, says humanitarian organization Refugees International (RI).
The biggest challenge facing Colombia “is implementing humanitarian relief at the local level,” RI’s Alice Thomas told Colombia Reports.
The government’s preparedness for the upcoming rainy season has drastically improved compared to last year, when there was a lack of coordination between federal and local governments observed by Thomas after two visits to Colombia in 2011 and 2012. Newly-elected local leaders didn’t have the time or experience to deal with the disaster on such a massive scale, causing widescale delays in administering aid.
“It was mind-boggling to me how long it took to get what’s supposed to be called emergency humanitarian relief. I mean it took months to get food relief to people,” Thomas said.
Thomas attributes the setbacks to “contractual delays, bureaucratic obstacles, corruption, poor coordination” and a “lack of government access to large areas of the country.”
With the worst flooding in nearly 50 years, 93% of municipalities in the country were hit by heavy rains in 2010, leaving over 3.2 million people affected. The Colombian government was forced to confront their dire emergency preparedness situation after an estimated 440,000 homes were destroyed by floods and landslides in 2011. Thousands of Colombians, a disproportionate amount of them coming from marginalized communities, remain in temporary shelters.
Santos, elected in August 2010, tackled the emergency situation early in his administration by establishing a campaign to raise flood aid that was administered by a joint public and private initiative called Colombia Humanitaria. Despite a budget of over $80 million, the campaign was hamstrung by problems.
The Colombia Humanitaria initiative has since ended and the government implemented the second phase of its plan, which involves rehabilitation and reconstruction measures administered by the Adaptation Fund, which finances projects to assist developing countries deal with climate change.
RI returned to Colombia in February 2012 and observed major improvements in certain areas. Displaced people reported continued repairs to damanged buildings and regular shipments of food and aid. Children had returned to school in heavily affected regions, after they had stopped being used as shelters.
Humanitarian concerns continue, as many people remain displaced from their homes during the rainy season. There were instances of people being displaced three or four times before being provided with adequate shelter. Water sanitation remains a major issue especially in regions such as northern Colombia’s Atlantico department, where shelter latrines weren’t in working condition before the flooding and have remained in the same state. Construction of adequate shelters in the state of Atlantico is likely to take up to a year, forcing displaced people to stay temporary shelters designed to be used for three to six months.
Impoverished regions have been heavily affected, and many farmers have lost their livelihood thanks to ruined crops. Concerns were raised by government officials over how to implement a plan to allow farmers to become self-sufficient and dependent on aid.
The real long-term test for the national goverment will be relocating thousands of displaced people affected by flooding as well as the continued armed conflict. There needs to be a concerted effort to include affected communities in all phases of the relocation plans “from the choice of the site to the design and construction of suitable and culturally-appropriate housing,” says Thomas.
Most importantly, efforts need to be made to bolster efficiency and organization at the local government level to ensure that timely and effective support is delivered to disaster victims. The national government is working in concert with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to establish a state presence in 51 municipalities that were previously under the control of illegal armed groups. The program will strive to empower local governments and help newly elected officials to draft emergency management plans for their communities.