Friday, May 11, 2012

Colombia underwater

This year, as every year I've been living here in Colombia, the rainy season has brought lots of rain.  And as has happened every year, there are lots of news reports about all the damages wrought by the heavy rain.  Low-lying places flood, rivers break out of their banks, houses get swept away, roads and bridges fall apart or are covered by mudslides.  And there are lots of sad people who need help from the government.

I don't know if rains in the four years I've lived here have been that much heavier than they always have been in Colombia.  In 2011 we were in a La Nina cycle, which makes for stronger rains.  Here is an article describing the functioning of the El Nino and La Nina cycles in the Pacific.  This other article claims that the rains of 2011 weren't that much worse than the annual average, and that in fact the La Nina phenomenon of 1988/1989 was much stronger than that of 2011.  It seems that climate change is indeed producing more irregular, erratic rain patterns (drought alternating with floods), and these rain patterns are at the root of the problems I've described above.

At the same time though, I have seen very clearly that people are also acting more stupidly in how they deal with rain, weather, and the environment in general.  The hippest, fastest-growing neighborhoods in my town are those that no one has ever lived in from Muisca times to the present, because they flood every year.  They are lowlying wetlands that are best used for seasonal cattle grazing, if not as untouched natural habitat.  But despite laws prohibiting converting wetlands to constructed area, and against the common sense that should tell people that it's not wise to live in a swamp next to a river full of the town's fecal matter, these wetlands are steadily being built on.  From what I have read, it seems that the same thing is happening throughout Colombia.

So my take on the annual declaration of "disaster" is that it has less to do with unprecedented weather events (though the climate is clearly changing in our area) and more to do with stupid people building and buying in floodable wetlands or other precarious areas, and corrupt or stupid officials allowing this to go on.  One or two years ago (in that year's version of the annual weather panic-fest) a commentator in Razon Publica made more or less the same point--that when houses are built in places they shouldn't be, any weather damage they incur is the fault in part of the unscrupulous developers who build and promote the dwellings, in part the fault of the unthinking, short-sighted buyers who don't use their common sense when choosing where to live, and in part the fault of the environmental and municipal authorities that circumvent or ignore the sensible regulations that prohibit building in such areas.  And it falls to the taxpayers and the good charitable hearts to finance the repairs and reparations that are paid by the government and NGOs to people affected by stupid choices (their own and those of others).

Here is another article that says a similar thing though in more diplomatic, progressive language; people are made vulnerable to climate disaster by the economic and political system, and there is a low capacity for the type of good governance that would normally allow responsible decision-making at the official level.  The author also makes some concrete suggestions about how to give risk prevention and management an important place again in the national conversation, as well as undertaking an ecological rehabilitation of the whole country.  This next article outlines the history of irresponsible urban development in the Savanna of Bogota, and makes a strong case that almost all the recent "disasters" are entirely due to bad choices since the time of the Spanish Conquest.  This contribution from Oxfam analyzes the Colombian government response to the 2010 rain disasters from the perspective of victims' vulnerability.

In the lower Cauca, San Jorge, and Sinu rivers on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the ecosystem has always experienced flooding for some 8 months of the year.  The ancient Zenu people managed this phenomenon by building raised earthen platforms across thousands of hectares in order to cultivate above the water level.  This tapestry-like landscape of parallel and intersecting mounds is one of the largest, most visible human interventions in American prehistory.  In the dry season the Zenu also farmed the low channels between platforms, and in the wet season these channels served for transport and fishing.  Thus they turned annual flooding from a problem into a multi-faceted asset.  The area's modern inhabitants have not kept up this system, and are repeatedly assailed by floods that destroy their ill-advised housing.  Now there are hydroelectric dams upstream that supposedly should eliminate flooding, but this totally messes up the natural cycle of the ecosystem, and I believe there have been a few massive, uncontrollable floods (as opposed to the prior, predictable yearly flooding) due to dam failures.  So this is a large-scale, older, rural example of the same type of folly that we've seen recently in the towns of my region, Boyaca.

In our town there is a whole culture that has sprung up around this philosophy of irresponsible, flashy new construction in the mucky, shitty wetlands.  Our only modern mall is built in the floodable wetlands, and there are constantly promotional stands in the mall advertising this or that new housing development, likewise built in the wetlands.  These new developments tend to be surrounded by floodable cow pastures, so there is no outside cultural life or neighborhood dynamic to speak of.  To get anywhere or do anything, residents are totally reliant on their cars.  Hence our town in Boyaca is reproducing the stupid choices that have been made in too many towns in the US.

There are even high-rises being built on the outskirts of a town that's like an hour away, Jenesano.  This town has won tourism awards for its lovely, quaint, colonial architecture, but the stupid developers are building ugly new highrises on the banks of the (floodable) river outside of the town.  They're even putting in an artificial beach on the riverbank, though the water is pretty cold (the town is at about 7000 feet altitude!).  There's another housing development near Jenesano that recreates a poor-taste vision of an entire Mediterranean town, with its own cobblestone square and everything painted in white.  Instead of taking advantage of Jenesano's existing architecture and culture, these builders have distanced themselves physically and conceptually from what the town really is, to make a fake, tacky fantasy world.  I imagine those who buy apartments there will either live there full-time and commute hours to whatever bigger city they work in, or just use their places on the weekends.  In any case, since the construction is nowhere near the actual town center of Jenesano, the influx of new people will likely bring little benefit to local businesses, all the while messing up traffic and jacking up land values and hence taxes for everyone else.  So in this case we're looking at environmental degradation, degradation of the town's architectural and cultural heritage, increased traffic, higher taxes for local peasants, and the creation of a dependency on polluting cars just to get around.

The only upside I see in all this is that as our town expands on the wetlands, and as year after year we see photos and video of these new neighborhoods flooded in human excrement from the nearby river, my own architectural projects might be favored.  Aside from the house we've been rehabbing for ourselves, we have tentative plans to build another residence on the backside of the lot.  It is right in the center of town, near lovely parks and the vibrant central plaza, and the neighborhood is full of intact architecture that's over a hundred years old.  If we get serious about this project and other potential rehabs of old places, we could use the flooding to our advantage, stressing to potential buyers the benefits of living in the vibrant older neighborhoods up on the city's main hill, where intelligent people since before the Conquest have always chosen to live to avoid flooding and other problems.  I can guarantee them that there will never be any flooding or human excrement flowing in the streets of our neighborhood.

Another positive thing I have to say for the new construction in our town and in most Colombian towns is that it's high density.  Whereas in the US greenfields are usually converted to drab stains of one-rise buildings and acres of parking lots, in our town the new developments are mainly highrises.  Even the older, single-family dwellings built in these wetlands tend to be connected townhouses.  This means that instead of destroying five acres of wetland to house a given number of people, maybe you destroy only one acre.  And there is the potential that in the future, as more lots give way to high- and mid-rises, there can someday result a cohesive, living neighborhood instead of faceless, characterless, people-less suburban wastelands.

This pattern stands in contrast to another town north of Bogota called Chia.  Chia is one of the most awful places I've ever been.  Some decades ago it became known as the hot place for uppity people from Bogota to move to, in the typical pattern of a US suburb.  But there has been no planning whatsoever to its settlement, not even the paltry practices common in US suburbs.  As a result, many houses are hooked up to septic systems instead of centralized sewers, the roads are made of the bumpy gravel and dirt they were back when the area was rural, and there is no organized management of the annual flooding (this area is also in a wetland).  There are only a few highways running through the whole town, with no side roads coming off them.  So there are always horrendous traffic jams, since everything is totally car-dependent and there are no alternate routes to get anywhere.  And I'd say about 2/3 of the lots in the area are still undeveloped pastures, most with cheerful signs about imminent construction projects.  What will the place be like when there are three times as many people, with no side roads or sewage treatment?  And these people are supposedly the most educated creme de la creme of Colombian society!  The one thing positive I can say about Chia is that there are lots of bike lanes.  So maybe once they reach critical mass in car traffic, all the new arrivals will just ride their bikes. Here is an article analyzing the model of urbanization that has prevailed in the wetlands of the Bogota Savanna, which includes Chia.

Anyway, because this blog is ostensibly dedicated to agrarian ideas and not only agrarian complaints and harrumphing, here are the measures I would implement in my town and in any other to mitigate damage from the heavy rains that, whether "normal" or not, seem to be arriving every year.  First would be responsible dredging of our rivers.  Last year after the heavy rains our town implemented a major dredging project, but instead of just deepening the rivers, they also stripped all the grass and trees from the banks.  This has led to riverbank erosion, which ultimately fills in the riverbed again and increases flooding.  So the dredging I'd propose would consist in dredging just the river bottom, coupled with piling rocks in strategic places to slow down rushing water.  Another component that I think is necessary is reforestation upstream in the watershed.  I have to imagine that part of the reason rivers rise more these days after heavy rains is that there's less native vegetation on the hillsides to slow down water, improve soil infiltration, and thus portion out the river flow over a matter of days and not hours.  Throughout the department of Boyaca there has been a constant trend over the past century of replacing native brushland and forests with crop fields and pastures.  A third component that is necessary is to recuperate the wetlands, in our town and all along Boyaca's major rivers.  Instead of filling them in, we should preserve them and even reconvert non-native pastures back to the wetland vegetation they originally sported.  If we have functional wetlands to buffer river overflows, there won't be so much flooding in other places.  The fourth idea I have is a system of deep tunnels, as Chicago has to control river overflows and general water excesses.  In the case of Boyaca, most towns wouldn't need to drill to deep bedrock, but rather just punch big reservoirs into the hillsides every so often to collect gutter rainwater.  Like the wetlands, this would buffer and slow down the big water releases that lead to flooding.  Lastly, I recommend a more household-scale version of this.  In my new house we've got a system whereby we can store up to 8 cubic meters (8000 liters or about 2000 gallons) of rainwater in our tanks, then use them for our household needs like showering, toilet flushing, etc.  Obviously if a rain hits when the tanks are already pretty full, we won't divert much of the rainwater from the city's sewage system, but if every house had a few thousand liters' worth of rainwater storage capacity, we could again slow down the massive runoff and sewer charging that happens under heavy rains.  Likewise, by using rainwater instead of city water for most of our household needs, we're not adding yet more water to the city drainage system and the watershed in general.

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