Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Despite Warnings, Floods Catch Province Off Guard

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 6 2003 (IPS) - Scientific researchers, meteorologists, environmentalists and journalists had long warned about the risk of severe flooding in the northwestern Argentine province of Santa Fe.

But authorities turned a deaf ear, the principles of disaster- preparedness were ignored, and the worst natural disaster in the history of the province claimed at least 23 lives.

Nearly half of the city of Santa Fe, population 400,000, was flooded when the Salado river began to overflow its banks on Apr. 28. By Tuesday, around 100,000 evacuees were still living in shelters, and a similar number have been given refuge in the homes of family and friends.

The economic losses – crops, merchandise, homes and infrastructure – are estimated at 300 million dollars.

The provincial government is seeking credit for repairing infrastructure and pressing for the forgiveness of mortgage and tax payments owed by those affected by the disaster. At the same time, it is gearing up for a flood of demands for indemnification and assistance.

Within just a few hours after the river overflowed its banks last week, the water had risen to rooftop level in many neighbourhoods, and turned streets into rivers.

Eight days later, mountains of garbage – mainly broken, twisted furniture and soaked mattresses, books and papers – can be seen on the sidewalks and streets in the few areas of the city were the water has receded enough to make the ground visible. The stench of dead animals and a collapsed sewer system is strong.

Doctors are preparing for an outbreak of diarrhea and respiratory ailments, Dr. Darío Montenegro, assistant director of the Cullén Hospital of Santa Fe, said Tuesday.

Governor Carlos Reutemann and Santa Fe Mayor Marcelo Alvarez said they had not received any warnings about a catastrophe waiting to happen.

But a local university, the Universidad del Litoral (UNL), as well as the National Water Institute and the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA), say that is not true.

Researchers at the UNL Faculty of Engineering and Hydric Sciences say that since 1978, they had been recommending a close monitoring of the water level in the Salado river, as well as the construction of dikes, which began to be built but were never completed.

”I requested meetings with the governor, but he never met with me,” the dean of the university, Mario Barletta, said this week.

Technical experts at INTA pointed out that a network of sensors that measured the water level in the river fell into disuse in 1990 due to a lack of budget funds, while radars purchased for preventive purposes were never installed.

They also said the water was now trapped in the city by the few existing barriers, which were overrun by the floodwater.

The local daily newspaper El Litoral issued a warning on Mar. 20, in an article titled ”The Salado River Threatens Santa Fe Neighbourhoods”. And on Apr. 26, it reported an alert given by helicopter pilots who saw ”an enormous mass of water that was coming towards the city,” respected local environmentalist Jorge Capatto pointed out to IPS.

In 1992, Capatto, with the provincial environmental organisation Fundación Proteger (the Protect Foundation), received the Global 500 prize awarded by the United Nations Environment Programme, for his contribution to conserving the environment.

The earlier El Litoral article cited the warnings of meteorologists meeting in March at the Regional Forum on Climate Prediction, held in Buenos Aires, who forecast higher than normal rainfall and temperatures in Santa Fe as a result of the phenomenon of climate change.

”This is the story of a disaster that had been announced ahead of time,” said Capatto. ”In Santa Fe, we have a chronic problem with water. Floods are becoming more and more frequent, because the city is in a low-lying area, and is located between the Parana and Salado rivers. We already experienced major flooding in 1905, 1983, 1992 and 1998.”

The residents of the provincial capital should have received training in emergency and evacuation procedures, as do people who live in earthquake-prone areas or near nuclear plants, said Capatto. ”We need emergency, early warning and evacuation plans, and should even carry out periodic drills in our schools and neighbourhoods,” he argued.

But no preparedness system had been put into place. Most of the victims, who according to fire fighters number more than 23, drowned inside their homes, because they were unable to get out in time. ”The irresponsability of the authorities in that sense is unspeakable,” said the environmentalist.

Capatto noted that Santa Fe was built in an area at high risk of flooding. He also pointed to the irony of the fact that the population of the city, and the ranks of city officials, include an unusually large number of hydraulic engineers.

But ”what we saw here was enormous negligence, because our authorities do not take warnings about climate change seriously, and ignore the alerts sent out by scientists,” he charged.

Reutemann initially said that aid to the victims of the flooding took priority over any possible sanctions for local officials. But on Tuesday he sacked the provincial director of Hydraulic Works, Carlos Fratti, ”due to the extremely grave effects of the disaster in the city.”

Thousands of evacuees who lost everything are still packed into schools and other buildings serving as shelters. Many of them are sleeping on the bare floor without mattresses, while bathrooms are shared by dozens.

Capatto explained that the problem of overflowing rivers is not only an old one in the province of Santa Fe, but will become a cause of great concern around the entire subregion in the future.

The Rio de la Plata – the world’s biggest estuary, which separates Argentina and Uruguay – with ”all of its rivers, is going to bring tremendous headaches to the people of Argentina in the not-so-distant future,” he predicted.

”The inadequate use of the soil, irrational deforestation, and large-scale monoculture crops like soy beans, added to the water runoff from Brazil, the upper Paraguay river and the plains of Bolivia, have turned this area into the spout of a funnel, and when it rains, the water will come pouring in with increasing speed and in ever greater amounts,” the activist warned.

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