April 5, 2017
Between Friday night, March 31, and Saturday morning, April 1, torrential rains caused three rivers near the capital city of Mocoa, in the southwestern department of Putumayo, to overflow their beds. The flash floods, coinciding with Colombia’s traditional rainy season, caused an avalanche of water, mud, trees, stones, and waste to crash into Mocoa, wiping out one entire neighborhood and devastating 16 others. Deforestation may have aggravated the situation. Mortality rates have surpassed 300 people, with almost as many injured (including 70 people who were hospitalized), and hundreds of other people missing.
The headlines are heart-breaking, all the more so because the tragedy had been predicted by environmentalists for some time. On Monday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos declared a state of economic and social emergency in Mocoa. That official status allowed resources to be immediately shifted to address the crisis, and search and rescue operations were deployed.
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas, point person for the emergency, is directing relief operations for the government. Mercy Corps, which has members in Mocoa, is monitoring the situation and has attested to the need for food, potable water, blankets, and basic hygiene essentials such as soap and toothbrushes, as well as psychosocial support. Leaders from around the world–including U.S. President Donald Trump and UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierres–have called President Santos to express their solidarity with Mocoa and to offer their support. Within Colombia, solidarity networks are generating mechanisms to assist, and calls for donations and volunteers in a range of specializations are going out. Reconstruction plans are already underway, and seek to leave the impoverished region of Mocoa with new housing, an aqueduct, hospital, and an energy plan.
For those within Colombia who wish to donate, see options here. For those outside of Colombia, Mercy Corps, UNICEF, Colombian Red Cross, and Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) are among those accepting and channeling donations to Mocoa. The Colombian Embassy has also set up a bank-based process for contributors.
Natural Disasters and Peace Processes
The floods have come at a critical point in the Colombian peace process, as embattled legislation is finally getting off the ground to facilitate the translation of the peace agreements into practice, and as FARC troops prepare to leave behind their weapons and the vestiges of war. President Santos, whose popularity dipped below the 20% mark last month, now has the opportunity to demonstrate his administration’s responsiveness to this oft-forgotten “other Colombia,” and simultaneously to assist one of regions hardest hit by conflict violence. The administration would do well to investigate the contributing causes, and to take measures now to anticipate and prevent similar tragedies in the many other “Mocoas” that are susceptible to winter rains, have undergone deforestation, or show themselves to be otherwise at risk.
Natural disasters, and a government’s response to them, can either exacerbate or relieve conflict. The discovery that President Anastasio Somoza and his cronies had pilfered international aid sent to Nicaragua following the 1972 earthquake in Managua fueled the Revolution that brought the downfall of Somoza. On the other hand, across the globe in Indonesia, a tsunami in late 2004 kickstarted a peace process between Aceh insurgents and the Indonesian government, who jointly responded to the overwhelming disaster, leading the parties to talks that ended a three-decades old war.
In Colombia, Mocoa may prove a symbol around which highly polarized political forces can find common ground. The FARC’s immediate offer of assistance to the government in its reconstruction efforts is a positive gesture and a sign that Colombia is moving toward a new era. In today’s highly contested pre-electoral environment in Bogota, the divides between political parties appear to be deeper than were the divides between the parties around the peace tables in Havana. Perhaps conversations about how to come together to support Mocoa could help to build the dialogues needed to underpin a broader and more sustainable coalition for peace. It’s worth a try…