• 13 June 2014

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    Category : Opinion

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    The challenge of natural phenomena in Colombia

    The World Bank (WB) asserts that in the last decade floods and landslides in Colombia have affected more people and homes than in the previous 30 years. The Andean nation is increasingly vulnerable to natural phenomena. A challenge that has not gone unnoticed by the Colombian government and which Spain is helping to confront.

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    Puerto Inirida (El Guainía, Colombia). FOTO: EUROsociAL

    One of the latest natural phenomena that has most affected Colombia was the 2010-2011 “La Niña” event. Its influence on wind patterns caused heavy and intense rains that exceeded habitual rainfall by 200%. These rains caused the destruction of 8,000 homes, damage to more than 400,000 and affected more than three and a half million people.

    These costs are the consequence of country’s vulnerability to natural phenomena, which is growing according to the World Bank. This is due to both the intensity of these phenomena and the habits of the population. “There continues to be a lack of culture with regard to the country’s weather and climate, indicated Christian Eucastegui, engineer and head of the forecasting office of the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM).

    “The population settles in areas that are vulnerable and critical in terms of the occurrence of hydrometeorological events. Many settlements are on the banks of rivers, zones that have historically suffered flooding. And this has something to do with the disasters we experienced during the 2010-2011 ‘La Niña’ event”, he continues. In the case of Colombia, these settlements are related to migratory movements and also, Eucastegui points out, to displacement caused by armed internal conflict. The causes-consequences don’t stop there. “This behaviour by the population generates intense pressure on the environment that gives rise to changes in climate patterns and normal atmospheric flows worldwide”, adds the engineer.

    Investment in forecasting

    Even today, the country is recovering from this episode that marked a before and after in its Early Warning System (EWS) for hydrometeorological phenomena. The consequences of the 2010-2011 “La Niña” event led the Colombian government to develop a recovery plan that also included the redesign of this EWS. A redesign that was carried out by the IDEAM and the Spanish State Meteorological Agency (AEMET)and managed by the FIIAPP.

    Before starting this project, forecasting weather variations in Colombia, despite having the IDEAM, was complicated given the country’s location between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, its topography and the scarcity of hydrometeorological stations. “Likewise, its technological resources could not meet the growing need for dissemination of the information and also failed to integrate data from the existing radars. Nor did they cover the entire country. This made it necessary to redesign the early warning system”, explains Eucastegui, the delegated technical supervisor for this project.

    The aim of this projectwas to redesign the EWS, upgrade the over two hundred existing stations and acquire another two hundred automatic ones, and to establish a national radar system. “Radars in meteorology are systems that provide an immediate forecast up to six hours in advance. As the IDEAM is also a hydrological service, the improvements will be considerably greater because it will be possible to predict rising water levels and flooding two or three days in advance, depending on the type of basin”, indicates the project’s Spanish technical coordinator and AEMET staff member, Jesús María Patán.

    In terms of technology, the radars represent the most important advance; up to now it has been nonexistent in hydrometeorological forecasting. In addition, the automatic stations will monitor the amount of water falling at all times and the intensity of the rains. “Another thing that was very important was the organization and coordination of the new facilities and the training that was given to the staff”, he adds.

    The final activities of this project were carried out in early June after six months of work. Now Colombia will have to continue the process that was started. “Even if radars and stations are installed, if you don’t have the staff and the organization isn’t well structured, they’re worthless in the end. The country has to commit itself to the development of the IDEAM. They have a large and interesting road ahead of them. Both for the government and for society”, indicates Patán, going on to say: “This will result in less destruction and death and, with the improvement in forecasting, the country’s wealth will grow thanks to tourism and agriculture, among many other things”. Now it is time to start demonstrating this.

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