Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Experts Blame Severe Flooding on Climate Change

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 30 2003 (IPS) - Nine dead, several missing and 50,000 evacuated is the toll so far from the worst flooding in the history of the province of Santa Fe in northeastern Argentina, which experts blame on global warming.

”In just half an hour water from the river started flowing into our house and covered everything,” Edgardo Berdasquera, who was evacuated from his rooftop, told IPS by phone from a refuge in the city of Santa Fe. ”We had to climb up on the roof and wait all night in the pouring rain to be rescued.”

The heavy storms that have hit the province in the past few days led to an unprecedented swelling of the Salado river, which in the space of just a few hours flooded more than half of the neighbourhoods of Santa Fe. The historic centre of the provincial capital, a city of 350,000, is also under water.

A total of 50,000 people had been evacuated by early Wednesday. But the number of local residents fleeing by their own means or rescued by local authorities and relief organisations like the Red Cross has continued to grow along with the water level, and more rain is forecast.

Over the past few months, the Salado river basin has received the heaviest rains in written memory. According to official statistics, 1,400 mms of rainfall have fallen on the area so far this year, after 1,200 mms fell in the second half of 2002. The average is between 100 and 150 mms a year.

Experts attribute the phenomenon to global warming. The unusually intense rainfall and sudden flooding are associated with the rise in the global temperature, Osvaldo Canziani, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in an interview with IPS.

”We have noticed that in the past 30 years, the temperature of the planet has risen substantially as a consequence of emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases, and we know that this causes climatic alterations like floods, drought and hurricanes,” he said.

”In Argentina, in the area of the humid pampas – in the west-central part of the country – the level of rainfall has been rising in the past few years,” and there has been a series of floods in rural areas of that region, Canziani pointed out.

The Salado river enters Santa Fe from the neighbouring province of Santiago del Estero to the west, and runs across the plains in a southeasterly direction until flowing into the Parana river.

The waters of the overflowing river have now reached areas of the city of Santa Fe, located 500 kms northwest of Buenos Aires, that had never before been flooded.

Authorities are studying the possibility of diverting towards the Parana river part of the sheer mass of water that has covered entire neighbourhoods of Santa Fe.

On Wednesday, canoes and rowboats, making their way through canals that just hours before were streets and avenues, had to be careful to avoid treetops as well as power and telephone lines as they rescued local residents huddling on their rooftops.

Berdasquera, whose home is located three kms from the Salado river in the Santa Fe neighbourhood of Centenario, was calm – although worried about his neighbours – as he gazed at images of his flooded city on the television set in the evacuation centre.

”A radio commentator said at noon Monday that there was no danger. But that night, a neighbour warned us that the water was almost up to our house,” said Berdasquera, who works in an Arab restaurant in downtown Santa Fe.

”We looked out, saw the street covered with water, and in just half an hour we had three metres of water in our house. I had to climb up on the roof with my wife and my 56-year-old mother. We waited there in the pouring rain, without food or light, and in our soaked clothing, until a neighbour came with a canoe at seven in the morning and rescued us.”

Berdasquera’s solid, well-built two-bedroom home was fully equipped with a refrigerator, television and all the amenities of a middle-class lifestyle. ”We lost everything and now we have to start over again from zero,” he sighed.

Berdasquera’s family and around 200 other evacuated residents are staying at the Lasalle high school, which is located in a more elevated part of the city of Santa Fe not yet touched by the water.

The principal, Pascual Alarcón, told IPS that his school had offered to take in 100 people, but that the flow of evacuees had not let up.

”We already took in patients from the Cuyén hospital, which had to be evacuated…We are setting up emergency groups with parents from the school who are nurses or doctors, to attend the patients, but we need medicine, diapers, food, mattresses…everything was lost,” said Alarcón.

Another woman staying at the school, Nélida Tolosa, 72, said that at noon on Tueday she was saddened to see that people in nearby neighbourhoods had been forced by the flooding to leave their homes. But just a few hours later, she found herself in the same situation, with her daughter and her 97-year-old mother.

They were unable to take any of their belongings with them when they were evacuated.

”They took us to the centre of the city, but there was no electricity and no transportation,” said Tolosa. ”We were in the street for a while, then we went to a club, and from there we went to the home of a friend until the water reached her house too.

”Then we had to come here with just the clothes on our backs,” said Tolosa. ”I have never seen anything like this in my whole life!”

Because the capital of Santa Fe is located in a low-lying area, it literally filled up with water, which has covered the central square and reached the seat of the provincial government.

Santa Fe Governor Carlos Reutemann, a former race car driver, declared a state of emergency in the province, and requested aid from the national government, which promised to send food rations for 40,000 people as well as seven million pesos (145,000 dollars).

”This is a national catastrophe,” caretaker President Eduardo Duhalde said Wednesday before declaring a state of emergency himself.

Reutemann also asked the World Bank for aid to rebuild infrastructure in the province.

”Thirty-three percent of the province has been flooded, and much infrastructure has been destroyed. The water level is three metres high in the hospital that attends children with serious health problems. We evacuated the children, but the cat-scan equipment, computers, everything had to be left behind.”

The governor said 2,000 people were rescued from their rooftops Tuesday night, with the help of local residents who guided army and Red Cross personnel through the streams and rivers that had previously been roads.

”We know there are still more people out there, but some of them don’t want to leave” their homes, due to fear of losing their belongings in the flooding or, once the waters recede, to looters, Reutemann added.

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