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Environment

Why Colombia is Staggering From All That Rain

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The lessons to be learned after reading this story by John Otis in Time magazine couldn't be clearer. Here's the set-up, describing the situation in Colombia:

Amid 11 months of nearly nonstop rain, dykes have burst and rivers have topped their banks, inundating communities, cattle ranches, and croplands in 28 of Colombia's 32 departments. Waterlogged Andean mountainsides have collapsed, burying neighborhoods and blocking highways. More than 1,000 people have been killed, injured or gone missing. In the flooded town of Puerto Boyacá in central Colombia, coffins holding the dead are being floated to the cemetery on boats.

Surely, there's a climate change story here, begging to be told, some of you will ask. There is, but that's not the story Otis is writing about. His objective is to show you how ill prepared Colombia was for this slow-motion disaster in the making, and what's impeding recovery efforts and keeping aid from reaching the afflicted. Otis writes that Colombia's President

has toured some of the worst flooded areas, but the government's response has been marred by bottlenecks and graft. Due to the isolation of flooded villages, the inexperience of local officials and the presence of rebels and drug traffickers, just four of 753 public works projects to repair roads, bridges, homes and schools are underway. Four governors and 26 mayors are being investigated for allegedly mishandling flood assistance. Outraged victims have blocked highways in protest.

Here's additional reasons why climate change is not the main story here:

Yet long before the rains hit, Colombian officials had paved the way for this tragedy. They allowed developers to build housing projects in flood plains and failed to shore up retaining walls and dykes. Poorly designed drainage systems mean even modest rain showers can turn streets into lakes. Meanwhile, efforts to design modern highways that can better withstand heavy rains have hit speed bumps. On Tuesday, Colombia's inspector general suspended Bogotá Mayor Samuel Moreno from his post temporarily amid a widening kickbacks scandal involving road-building contracts. (Moreno denies involvement.)

As for the country's waterways, reengineering has made some even more prone to flooding. "These are natural catastrophes but, essentially, they are man-made," Bruno Moro, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombia, told TIME. A vivid example is the Bogotá River, which runs through the capital and has become an all-purpose dumpster for garbage, sewage and industrial runoff. The waste plus the rerouting of streams into the river have swelled water levels, and massive earthen embankments are now required to keep the river on course. To make matters worse, the dykes sometimes fail.

At the end of his piece, Otis weaves in the climate change angle:

Forecasters predict the rain will peter out by July. But thanks to global warming and climate change, Colombians should get used to extreme weather, says Ricardo Lozano, who heads the government's Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies. He points out that just before the floods, Colombia suffered through a lengthy drought. "It's wrong to think that climate change is a future threat because it is taking place right now," Lozano says. "The world should learn from what's happening in Colombia."

It should, but what would that be? Now, if a certain frothy climate blogger gets hold of this Time story, he'll probably say that the reporter buried the lede and blew the story. You can can take it to the bank. But for my money, what the world "should learn" about what's happening in Colombia pertains to the primacy of climate adaptation and the kinds of institutional and socio/political obstacles that have to be overcome to make places like Colombia more climate resilient.

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