Natural disaster in Colombia
Why Mocoa's mudflow is relevant for environmental justice
By Marie Courtais, 2018-06-14

One year ago, Mocoa, a town in southern Colombia, has been affected by a mudflow caused by excessive unusual rainfall. Mocoa is the regional capital of the Putumayo, province located at the Southern frontier with Ecuador. Situated where the Andean cordillera meets the Amazonian forest, the culture of Mocoa is soaked up indigenous culture and the use of medicinal plants. The parrot is the emblem of the Putumayo region, representing its tropical climate and exotic flora and fauna. At political scale, with the peace treaty of 2016, the region is recently opening on the world, after decades of being retired. This area of the country has a heavy political past due to a strong presence of Colombian guerrilla armed groups (Official Website of Mocoa here). Nowadays, Mocoa's reality is conveyed by another tragic situation.

In the night of 31 March 2017, around 170 mm fell in four (4) hours. This was about 40% of the average monthly precipitation in the Putumayo region. Two rivers finding their birth in heights of the city increased abnormally and breached their banks. Moreover, the mountain where they find their birth is of oceanic composition (rocks, sand, etc.). This so named non-indurated composition makes it up to slide very probable when in presence of big amount of water. The result was a landslide charged of soil, rocks and vegetation caused by the sheer and sudden amount of water. The avalanche (as they call it in Spanish) rapidly grew in magnitude and power, and affected seventeen of forty-eight neighbourhoods. Three (3) of them, the neighbourhoods San Miguel, San Fernando and Los Laureles completely disappeared, resulting in a considerable loss of households and goods: according to the online "Mocoa, Colombia: Humanitarian Situation Report #4" from the UN (accessible here), a census has affected not less than 16,919 people. Human cost has been extensive; reported in the UN document, the disaster induces 316 people killed, 332 injured and 103 missing (UN report, 11 april 2018: 1).

Two (2) days after the disaster, CBS Evening News reports concisely the situation:

However, as Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik, journalist and campaigner covering human rights, ecology and migration issues, assessed: it seems that «There is little "natural" about the Mocoa disaster - it was a human disaster, engendered by a concoction of poor urban planning, poverty, inadequate land use around water basins, and failed risk management.» (article here). It looks like there are many reasons beyond geological factors that made this natural hazard disastrous. To be relevant in terms of environmental justice, what can be memorized from his article is what he called in his title a «tragedy foretold». The analysis of the variety of factors shows that a considerable number of them was obviously contributing to the risky situation.

Voskoboynik acknowledges poor urban planning due to the fact that the Basic Plan of Territorial Planning (PBOT) was not operative or not followed. As seen on a PBOT's map from 2002, zones of risk in Mocoa were already identified. Around sixty years ago, a similar event occurred in this place, but only two persons lost their lives because the area was not populated as it was in 2017.
Poverty assessment refers to the fact that the areas that were most at risk for this mudflow (and the one that had been the most affected) were thus identified as high-risk zone, but have been recently populated by IDPs (Internally Displaced People), victims of the internal Colombian conflict. With low resources and complex political status, these people do not have the possibility to afford a land in safe areas. It has been since eight (8) to ten (10) years that the municipality of Mocoa started to legalize construction in this area. The zone was already subject to a so-called invasion, as the illegal occupation of a land by displaced people was named. Thus, by neglect and permissiveness from the public authorities, neighbourhoods started to grow in this area of high risk, and with little guidance, people have built accommodations in high proximity with the riverbeds, when it was not within areas of the bank; this explains the third point highlighted by Voskoboynik: inadequate land use around water basins. Finally and from a combination of all these reasons, the disaster occurred due to failed risk management: the risk was known but haven't been mitigated properly, by a lack of strict policies, lack of effective communication to the citizens, of capacity training and preparedness.

More than everything, the mudflow was foretold because some institutions explicitly analyzed the previous elements and assessed the risk before it happened; indeed, there were different reports and works that have estimated it could happen with 90% probability.
The first one brought up by Voskoboynik is also cited by a citizen from Mocoa in an interview for the Colombian online newspaper (article here). He explains: «First they were two students of the Putumayo Technical Institute, who graduated in 2013 with a thesis in which they simulated the overflow of the Taruca stream. Their results were a traced image of what happened in the early hours of this Saturday. But nobody paid attention to it.».
Secondly mentioned in both articles, studies have been released in 2016 by a sustainable development organization named Corpoamazonia, in which they warned of flooding risks in Mocoa, recommending that 10,000 people needed to be relocated considering the risk they are facing. This, undoubtedly, has also been ignored.
One last, broadly neglected element in the press is a warning message on Facebook (accessible here) in 2015 by Carlos Alberto Herrera, chief of Civil Defense Operative Office of Putumayo region. Resulting from a study he conducted, he pushed in an alarming way:

«(...) We must keep in mind that the commune of Mocoa was built in a sector surrounded by many water tributaries, what place the majority of the inhabitants of the municipality permanently at risk. This does not mean that we should evacuate, but it does drive us to the obligation to prepare us and review what we would have to face in case of a possible emergency caused by one of these streams or rivers. (...) It is necessary that we all be part of the solution and not of the problem. The mayor and the rescue organism cannot be the only solution: among all the inhabitants of Mocoa we must build the necessary scenarios to mitigate the natural phenomena and those scenarios are built with: capacities training, preparedness, evacuation drills, citizen participation and interest of our governors, so that all of us can mitigate the effects of a possible emergency that can happen today, tomorrow or never be presented. Friend reader, remember that "We'd better prepare us for something that may never happen rather than that something for what we're not prepared occurs"» (full translation here).

Hence, it was known by the public authorities that a great work of mitigation was needed, by building infrastructures, but most of all by informing the people, evacuate them from the high-risk areas and prepare them through training; this is, with no doubt what has missed avoiding the disaster. Nevertheless, it is denied by the municipal authorities, arguing that mitigation has been put in place as it is observable in the fragment of's interview of José Castro Meléndez (article here), mayor of Mocoa:

« It is the first time that a tragedy of this type is known in the region. Did you realize the risks beforehand?
J. C. M.: We always had this prevention. Our municipal Risk Management entities have always expressed this as one of our concerns. We had already made it known to the national and departmental entities. Many mitigation works were done, but anything that would have been done such as walls, which was what was planned, would not have served because the avalanche had an impressive water magnitude. It fell as it had never fallen. It was a storm that overflowed any forecast.»

Thus, all arguments of the mayor are in favor of their presumed work of infrastructure and refer more to the naturalness of the disaster as the uncontrollable matter of fact, which is erroneous.

To come back to the message of the chief of Civil Defense in Putumayo, it makes sense when it is said that the responsibility is not only of the mayor and the rescue organisms even though the affirmations from the mayor in regards of the work of mitigation can let skeptical. It would be too easy to only blame the public authorities for this disaster because people can have their own capacities and work in neighborhoods with the Communal Action Community for example.

There a non-provision of information about the risks to people creating lack of opportunities for them to be prepared.

The risks were explicitly known by the municipality, perhaps also by the citizens. The initiative of the Civil Defense to post the warning message on Facebook was good. When official reports stay in an elitist sphere, social networks are rather democratic and accessible. Nevertheless, we could wonder what kind of population follow the page of the Civil Defense on Facebook. We could also question who has a regular and safe access to ICT devices in term of material, but also in term of skills. So, in the end, to what extent could people emancipate and develop their own preparedness if they don't have access to basic information? How could a exhaustive and democratic information be orchestrated if not through public services? Is the State necessarily concerned when dealing with disaster risks management and citizens' safety?
In terms of environmental justice with respect to cases of disaster like the one in Mocoa, it seems really difficult to exclude the government from its responsibility to it.

Image: © AFP