Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT DAY: Heavy Rains Expose Venezuela’s Improvidence

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Jun 2 2011 (IPS) - Unseasonable rains falling for months and months in much of Venezuela have taken lives, destroyed homes, damaged crops and affected huge numbers of people. Experts blame the high level of damages on the improvised actions of citizens and the state.

Road in poor suburb of Caracas affected by the rains. Credit: Courtesy of Sucre city government

Road in poor suburb of Caracas affected by the rains. Credit: Courtesy of Sucre city government

“Measures to deal with the effects of the rains should be taken not when it rains, but ahead of time, and be based on awareness among institutions and citizens,” Ángel Rangel, head of Civil Defence in Venezuela from 1999 to 2001, the first three years President Hugo Chávez was in office, told IPS.

Floods and mudslides in late 2010 left a death toll of 30 and 134,000 people homeless in Venezuela. Another 12 people died between March and May 2011 and 10,000 more were affected, mainly in the western states.

Highways and bridges were washed away by swollen rivers in several areas of the north and west of the country. Coastal villages on the Caribbean that depend on tourism were left isolated and flooded for days, and crops and livestock were lost in the Andes mountains and the plains around lake Maracaibo, in the northwest.

Neighbouring Colombia has also been affected, with an accumulated death toll of over 460 from the rainy seasons in late 2010 and early 2011, and over three million people affected in 1,025 municipalities, mainly in the central and northeastern regions.

Several highways were also damaged in Colombia, and crop losses amounted to more than 150 million dollars over an area of 1.2 million hectares.

“Rain is a blessing, because it waters pastures and crops and fills hydroelectric power station reservoirs,” said Rangel, who also teaches environmental engineering at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

“The problem is the vulnerability we create when we build in unstable areas and occupy land without proper planning,” he said, claiming this is Venezuela’s greatest failure of sustainable development as it approaches another World Environment Day, celebrated Sunday Jun. 5.

In Venezuela, “the problem is there are ever more people living in unsuitable areas, so we are increasingly vulnerable to the variability of the rainy and dry seasons,” María Teresa Martelo, head of meteorological engineering at the Central University, told IPS.

The search for solutions to this vulnerability “starts with the fight against poverty,” said Rangel. “The more disasters we suffer, the more poverty we will have, and the more people will be forced to live in vulnerable conditions.”

The expert said “52 percent of the Venezuelan population (of 29 million people) live in self-built houses, sometimes on land crossed by stream beds and prone to landslides, and these houses do not meet technical requirements for location, construction, services and facilities.”

Rangel said “in the case of recent disasters caused by the rains in Venezuela, there was a clear lack of planning and preparation on the part of the government, and this is the next task that must be faced because these phenomena will continue.

“We have seen the government taking over and occupying hotels and ministry offices to shelter flood victims. Why weren’t shelters built in advance, as has so often been recommended?” said Rangel.

He said that in the last 10 years, 82 bridge systems have collapsed in the country, “due to lack of maintenance. If a small flaw is neglected in the dry season, when the rains come they will probably wash away the highway’s or bridge’s asphalt layer, and the next rainstorm will break up the foundations or columns.”

After the rains came, Chávez ordered a census of the population’s housing needs, in a country with an estimated housing deficit of two million units.

He also set up teams mainly made up of the military, to direct recovery operations for highways, housing and crops in several regions, with powers greater than those of the provincial governors.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said May 30 that “IDEAM (the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies) has already announced that the water temperature in the eastern Pacific are back to normal: the La Niña phenomenon is over.” But the Colombian president urged the nation “not to let its guard down,” an exhortation similar to that of Venezuelan experts.

In the northern part of South America, on the shores of the Caribbean sea, the La Niña phenomenon produced heavy rains in late 2010, especially November, which continued during the first few months of 2011 until they overlapped with the traditional rainy season, that is usually from May to October.

Earlier, the opposite phase, El Niño, had produced a fierce drought in 2009-2010 which triggered a hydropower crisis in Venezuela. Added to lack of investment in the sector over years, the energy shortage has still not been overcome.

El Niño and its counterpart, La Niña, are climate phenomena that change the patterns of ocean currents in the intertropical region of the Pacific, resulting in altered sequences and intensities of rainfall and droughts.

“These phenomena alter the natural variability over a long period, for example three or four years with normal rainy and dry seasons, and three or four extremely rainy or dry years,” Martelo said.

Martelo worked for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of experts that was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

“Although climate change cannot be blamed directly for any one event in particular, there is no doubt that our world today has a more variable climate. Climate change is not in the future, it has already begun, and it is irreversible,” she said.

“Nature at Your Service” is the slogan of World Environment Day, which this year is emphasising forests, in harmony with the International Year of Forests. Contemplating the slogan, the experts remarked that the lesson to be learned from the environmental effects suffered by Colombia and Venezuela is that “planning needs to be at the service of nature.”

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