Two million Colombians caught up in devastating floods

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 15 December 2010 17:42 GMT
Torrential rains kill nearly 260 people, drive hundreds of thousands from homes and in total disrupt lives of almost 2 million

MOSQUERA, Colombia (AlertNet) - The stench from the flood waters submerging the fields that have turned into lakes in this farming town outside the capital Bogota is palpable. Sodden sandbanks line the pavements and local residents can be seen wading neck-deep.

Such scenes of devastation are repeated across Colombia as the Andean nation grapples with its heaviest rainy season in more than three decades.

Torrential rains, which have battered the country since the middle of this year, have killed nearly 260 people, driven hundreds of thousands from their homes and in total disrupted the lives of nearly 2 million, according to government figures. Crops and livestock have also been damaged. Last week the government declared a state of national emergency for 30 days.   

So far, U.N. agencies have raised nearly $6 million to provide emergency aid for the affected people. But much more money is needed to deal with the disaster.

“Getting close to $20 million would be a more realistic figure,” Maria Jose Torres, the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs in Bogota, told AlertNet.

“Colombia is now competing with Haiti and Pakistan, so it’s not easy to mobilise funds,” she added, referring to aid needed in the two countries hit by an earthquake and floods respectively.

In addition, delivering aid to some parts of Colombia is fraught with difficulties because of the presence of guerilla groups in their strongholds in the south and border regions.  

HUNGER AND DISEASE

Colombia’s government says the country is not facing food shortages yet. But the reality is quite different for the many subsistence farmers who, according to aid agencies, have lost all their crops.

Hunger is also a real risk for up to 500,000 children, says charity Save the Children.

The extremely wet conditions are already fuelling the spread of diseases. Officials say respiratory and skin infections are on the rise. Waterborne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever pose another threat.

Action Against Hunger, an aid group working in the northern Cordoba province, says cases of diarrhoea among children under five years have increased fivefold since the heavy rains began. It also warns of dwindling supplies of clean water in some areas.

Moreover, since the rains started, snakes washed up by flood waters have bitten nearly 4,000 people, killing 27, according to the government.

Dozens of towns and villages, particularly along Colombia’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts, have been submerged by muddy waters for weeks, passable only by boat and canoe. Others have become ghost towns as severe flooding has forced their residents to flee.

In the worst disaster caused by the heavy rains so far, a landslide earlier this month killed 62 people, including children, in the northwestern town of Bello. While funerals continue, rescue teams are searching for the bodies of the 28 missing.

Across Colombia, hundreds of others, many poor families living in shacks perched precariously on the edge of hill-top slums, are at risk from land- and mudslides.

In Soacha, a poor suburb on the outskirts of Bogota, local authorities say most of the 630 homes at risk from being buried by landslides have been evacuated. But some local residents are refusing to move because they say they have nowhere to go.

Along parts of Colombia’s Atlantic coast, local authorities say it could take up to a year for flood waters to recede, with more rain forecast until April.

For facts and figures on the damage from the floods, see our factbox.

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