President Santos was set to convene an emergency cabinet meeting on Thursday to address a severe drought already affecting over 110 municipalities in Colombia.
With the additional concern presented by the pending arrival of El Niño, a weather phenomenon characterized by intense heat, extreme weather, and dry spells, Santos will meet with advisers to discuss the effects of the climate change in the country and come up with a plan to combat what is expected to be an even more severe drought in the coming months, according to a statement released by his office.
Santos’ announcement came on Tuesday, when the presented visited the town of Santa Fe, located in the central state of Antioquia, one of the areas currently suffering from the drought, which is expected to get worse should El Niño arrive this fall, as experts have predicted.
At least 16 members of the president’s cabinet are preparing emergency measures that will attempt to minimize the catastrophic effects of drought in the country, which has at least 20 states on red alert for forest fires, according to Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper.
The government will put $108 million into assisting and recuperating the zones hit hardest by drought, Santos announced Tuesday, though the President’s Office declined to explain to Colombia Reports how the money will be allocated.
“It is the responsibility of the government to try to mitigate the effects of this climate change phenomenon that, unfortunately for Colombia, has hit us very hard,” Santos said Tuesday.
The meeting will take place in Atlantico, one of the many northern Caribbean states experiencing the worst of the dry spell.
Previous call for action against severe drought
Colombia’s drought problem encompasses more than 171 municipalities, and has put several states on high alerts for problems such as forest fires, death of livestock, destruction of agriculture, and lack of portable water in various regions.
The problems will only be exacerbated with the arrival of El Niño, which experts determined will most likely begin this summer and develop from October to November.
Colombia’s Ombudsman Office, a national public advocate agency that advocates for and protects civil and human rights, announced Tuesday that it had called for action from the government to address the catastrophic drought crisis that began to take effect in the beginning of July.
According to information from the ombudsman, there are 117 municipalities facing acute water shortages, along with 20 states on red alert for forest fires.
“The organization demanded an effective intervention by the government, the municipalities and the companies providing to cities with water shortages such as Santa Marta and Yopal, where service failures have led to frequent protest by citizens,” read a statement released by the office.
Research indicates that El Niño will bring heavy droughts, which could last as long as eight months, to states including as La Guaijira, Magdalena, Atlantico, Santander, Huila, Cundinamarca and even some of the Pacific Coast, the statement reported.
Owing to this, “the adoption of appropriate and effective measures to prevent waste, ensuring rational use resources and ensuring the right of access of water service to the community” will be a necessary part of the government’s discussion with his cabinet ministers on Tuesday.
Majority of people in Santa Marta without water, other communities suffer
Figures from the Ombudsman’s Office show that, since August last year, 60% of residents of Santa Marta, located in the northern state of Magdalena, have gone without adequate access to water.
The state’s Vice-Minister of Water Natalia Trujillo confirmed that plans were moving forward with a study to implement a desalination plant for seawater in the town of Taganga, located on Colombia’s northern coast, just outside of Santa Marta, El Tiempo reported. It is not clear how soon such a project could bring relief to the region.
In the nearby state of La Guajira, over 15,000 cattle have reportedly died, with 24,000 acres of land rendered useless as a consequence of the drought.
In response, the Minister of Living has put forward a sum of $92 million to construct a series of wells that can be converted into a new water supply for the region, El Tiempo reported.
“None of this should be a surprise”: Climate change expert
“There have been very good indications that this was coming,” said Dr. Andy Jarvis, a climate change expert and director of the Decision and Policy Analysis Program at Cali‘s International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in an interview with Colombia Reports.
“It’s a natural kind of change,” Jarvis continued. “El Niño is something that the country has been having to deal with for decades, but certainly what’s happening now on the Caribbean coast is just the start of what will be a lot of issues and a lot of problems over the coming months, up into the end of the year.”
Jarvis, who has worked with the national Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) to provide forecasts for how the country will be affected by El Niño in the coming months, says that the government needs to focus more on the complicated organization of a preventative instead of simply reactive crisis management system.
“I think there’s a lot more that can be done to have a better prediction and move the country away from being reactive and being centered on crisis response,” Jarvis said. “The trouble is, what this requires is massive amounts of cooperation from the central government down to the regional governments and the local institutions. And that’s never an easy thing.”
“So it’s a tough thing to deal with, but we have the preventative tools now to deal with these kind of events,” Jarvis added.
While El Niño is a recurring phenomenon and not necessarily a result of climate change, Jarvis believes it is a good sign of what is coming in the future, as climate change does indeed come to affect the country.
“What’s happening now is a reminder of how climate can wreak havoc, and in the future we do expect more frequent events like El Niño and La Nina,” she said.
“The problem is not going away in December. This problem will continue over the next few years.”
- Santos anuncia consejo de ministros para enfrentar sequías (El Tiempo)
- Gobierno espera enfrentar sequía con paquete de $ 200 mil millones (El Tiempo)
- Presidente Santos anuncia Consejo de Ministros para mitigar efectos del Fenómeno del Niño (Government Press Release)
- Hace mes y medio la Defensoría advirtió sobre la crisis de agua y su preocupación por el Fenómeno del Niño (Defenders of the People)
- Interview with Dr. Andrew Jarvis (Colombia Reports)