Why Colombia is Staggering From All That Rain

The lessons to be learned after reading this story by John Otis in Time magazine couldn’t be clearer. Here’s the set-up, describing the situation in Colombia:

Amid 11 months of nearly nonstop rain, dykes have burst and rivers have topped their banks, inundating communities, cattle ranches, and croplands in 28 of Colombia’s 32 departments. Waterlogged Andean mountainsides have collapsed, burying neighborhoods and blocking highways. More than 1,000 people have been killed, injured or gone missing. In the flooded town of Puerto Boyacá in central Colombia, coffins holding the dead are being floated to the cemetery on boats.

Surely, there’s a climate change story here, begging to be told, some of you will ask. There is, but that’s not the story Otis is writing about. His objective is to show you how ill prepared Colombia was for this slow-motion disaster in the making, and what’s impeding recovery efforts and keeping aid from reaching the afflicted. Otis writes that Colombia’s President

has toured some of the worst flooded areas, but the government’s response has been marred by bottlenecks and graft. Due to the isolation of flooded villages, the inexperience of local officials and the presence of rebels and drug traffickers, just four of 753 public works projects to repair roads, bridges, homes and schools are underway. Four governors and 26 mayors are being investigated for allegedly mishandling flood assistance. Outraged victims have blocked highways in protest.

Here’s additional reasons why climate change is not the main story here:

Yet long before the rains hit, Colombian officials had paved the way for this tragedy. They allowed developers to build housing projects in flood plains and failed to shore up retaining walls and dykes. Poorly designed drainage systems mean even modest rain showers can turn streets into lakes. Meanwhile, efforts to design modern highways that can better withstand heavy rains have hit speed bumps. On Tuesday, Colombia’s inspector general suspended Bogotá Mayor Samuel Moreno from his post temporarily amid a widening kickbacks scandal involving road-building contracts. (Moreno denies involvement.)

As for the country’s waterways, reengineering has made some even more prone to flooding. “These are natural catastrophes but, essentially, they are man-made,” Bruno Moro, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombia, told TIME. A vivid example is the Bogotá River, which runs through the capital and has become an all-purpose dumpster for garbage, sewage and industrial runoff. The waste plus the rerouting of streams into the river have swelled water levels, and massive earthen embankments are now required to keep the river on course. To make matters worse, the dykes sometimes fail.

At the end of his piece, Otis weaves in the climate change angle:

Forecasters predict the rain will peter out by July. But thanks to global warming and climate change, Colombians should get used to extreme weather, says Ricardo Lozano, who heads the government’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies. He points out that just before the floods, Colombia suffered through a lengthy drought. “It’s wrong to think that climate change is a future threat because it is taking place right now,” Lozano says. “The world should learn from what’s happening in Colombia.”

It should, but what would that be? Now, if a certain frothy climate blogger gets hold of this Time story, he’ll probably say that the reporter buried the lede and blew the story. You can can take it to the bank.

But for my money, what the world “should learn” about what’s happening in Colombia pertains to the primacy of climate adaptation and the kinds of institutional and socio/political obstacles that have to be overcome to make places like Colombia more climate resilient.

34 Responses to “Why Colombia is Staggering From All That Rain”

  1. Eli Rabett says:

    You swallowed the lede.  Here is a slow motion disaster that could have been prevented by some foresight years earlier.

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    That would be a different story. You and others beat that one to death pretty well.

    Now what are you going to do? Keep snarking about that like a one-trick pony or are you going to expand your field of vision to include the reality-based world we live in today?

  3. Tom Fuller says:

    Hmm, let’s see. I think we all agree we should help Columbia–their vicinity and strategic importance in the all important war on drugs adds to real humanitarian concerns.
    But how should we do it? Option A would be nuts and bolts–loaning or giving outright the machinery to swiftly repair the damage and access to development specialists that can help rebuild out of harm’s way.
    Or we can pontificate about the certainty of climate change and demand they incorporate the very greenest of technology at a much higher cost, give fantastical and magical imaginariums about what climate change is ‘certain’ to hold for Columbia and just generally get in the way.
    Climate change didn’t cause this. Fixing climate change won’t fix this.
    There is an opportunity to gently slide green elements into the rebuilding process, and I’m all for that. But they may have had their fill of gringo taskmasters yelling at them to build to an agenda far removed from their real needs.

  4. PDA says:


  5. Keith Kloor says:

    Thanks! Fixed.

  6. Sashka says:


    Would you mind telling us about disasters that await us next year? That would be much appreciated by everyone, I’m sure.

  7. PDA says:

    There’s still a couple of references to the capital of South Carolina in the first two grafs.
    I’m not sure if Eli is saying what you think he’s saying; which seems to me to be the same thing Otis is saying: lack of foresight is to blame here. I think we can all agree that a developing nation in the tropics should have infrastructure that is more able to deal with heavy rains.
    The fact that adaptation is more complex than many breakthroughists seem to want to acknowledge is highlighted at the end of the story: “just before the floods, Colombia suffered through a lengthy drought.” I think it’s reasonable to ask if it makes sense to give “primacy” to making Colombia and Columbia more resistant to torrential rains and drought, and hurricanes, and tornadoes, and frogs falling from the sky and all the other consequences we can’t predict.

  8. Marlowe Johnson says:

    What PDA said.  Keith I really do wonder why you’ve got such a chip on your shoulder when it comes to a certain rabett.  It’s peculiar to watch…

  9. Tom C says:

    Mr. Kloor –

    Tell you what, you are an honest and enterprising journalist.  Instead of endless arguments about whether this or that event was caused by AGW, or how well this or that journalist covered the event, or whether preparedness was adquately emphasized, perhaps you could do an investigation into what exactly the scientific basis is for expectation of extreme weather.  After interviewing suitably credentialed atmospheric physicists and meterologists (not the “climate scientists”) you would be well placed to write an authoritative article and it would widely hailed, since many of us have been wondering for quite some time. 

  10. Keith Kloor says:


    And I really wonder why you actually take him seriously. Maybe it’s a guilty pleasure.

  11. Sashka says:

    @ PDA

    I am also talking about lack of foresight which is a part of life, not anybody’s stupidity or bad intentions.

    Let me understand: you are actually suggesting that Colombia invest its scarce resource into preparation to frog or locust? But why stop there? Why not have Seattle prepare for a category 5 hurricane or New York for a magnitude 9 earthquake? What’s your definition of “reasonable” in this context?

    BTW, Colombia is too close to equator to be seriously affected by hurricanes.

  12. Keith Kloor says:

    PDA (7),

    You seem to have read right past all the parts about corruption, graft, reingineering, poor infrastructure planning, etc.

  13. Marlowe Johnson says:

    well played sir. there is some truth to that.  while he’s not Bart V, if I’m forced to choose, I’ll take his brand of persuasion every time.  Having wtinessed this particularly depressing discussion for close to 20 years, I’m probably more drawn to sardonic humour than some…

  14. Sashka says:

    My feeling is that this particular brand of humor is negatively correlated with the power of persuasion. My guess is that everyone ever persuaded by Eli would fit in a cab.

  15. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Since you mention “corruption, graft, reingineering, poor infrastructure planning”, I’m curious how you — with your editor hat on — think these aspects are played out in similar media stories.  As I’m sure you’d agree these are pretty generic governance problems that are common to all societies around the world (although to varying degrees), and as such don’t make for much of a ‘hook’ as far as selling newspapers…
    Put another way, do you think the Otis piece would have been a more *profitable* story if it had led with the climate change angle?

  16. Jeff Norris says:

    Why would or should the need for climate adaption teach the world about  overcoming institutional and socio/political obstacles more than in other natural disaster( earthquakes, forest fires, epidemics).
    Here is the take away from an article comparing the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti.
    They’ve conceded that niceties like rule of law, accountability, education, entrepreneurial opportunity and administrative efficiency actually have merit. And they’ve stopped making worn-out excuses, like the threats of communism or U.S. imperialism, for not modernizing their political and economic systems.
    For those who would then say this is why we need not adapt but eliminate the threat (emissions) ;how then will we overcome these same obstacles to ensure countries comply? 

  17. Keith Kloor says:

    Marlowe (15), This Colombia story is greatly underreported to begin with (as the piece hinted), that much we can all probably agree on.

    As to the most “profitable” hook (what does that mean, anyway?), that would be something for advocates to debate.

    The news hook in nearly all these types of stories is disaster. The reporter in this case, based on his pretty extensive reporting, seems to have made the right call in what the factors are.


  18. harrywr2 says:

    <i>kinds of institutional and socio/political obstacles that have to be overcome to make places like Colombia more climate resilient.</i>
    One doesn’t even need ‘malfeasance’ to end up with a natural disaster waiting to happen.
    Start out with the good intention of building ‘moderate income’ housing in an area where all the ‘quality’ building lots are already used. So the first problem is that the ‘affordable’ lots all some problem…marginally in a flood plane…marginally on a hillside that ‘may’ have a tendency for mudslides.
    Well intentioned political group gets some land ‘on the cheap’ then the local building inspector ‘cuts them some slack’ because they are doing a ‘good deed’ and rather then force them to do proper remediation for mud slides on the sight accepts a ‘marginal’ mudslide control plan. The ‘bullet proof’ plan will psuh the cost of the ‘moderate income’ housing way past what ‘moderate incomes’ can afford.
    We have exactly this case in the community where I live in Washington State. We have a nice neighborhood of ‘moderate income’ housing protected by wooden retaining walls that are giving way after a lousy 10 years.(Of course a LaNina year with higher then normal rains as is normal in a LaNina year assisted in exposing the problem)
    So we have poor choices to make now. The cost of replacing the retaining wall is well beyond the means of the residents of this neighborhood and possibly beyond the value of the housing in this  neighborhood. The city can condemn all the properties which won’t be politically popular. The city can fix the retaining wall at it’s expense then place a prorated lean on the properties which will wipe out any equity these ‘nice people’ have in their homes or the city can socialize the cost of this retaining wall against the entire community.
    The only malfeasance was the original approval of the building department in accepting a ‘marginal but affordable’ retaining wall.
    The alternative was to add $100 thousand to the cost of each individual ‘moderate income’ condominium.

  19. PDA says:

    This is – again – not an either/or but a both/and, in my opinion. The world needs mitigation and adaptation, less monkeying around with the climate and better planning and governance.
    See under: walking, chewing gum.

  20. Sashka says:

    I always admire people who know what the world needs more than anything else. They would probably not take it well if someone tells them to buy a fridge before the couch. But they know know that the world needs to be saved and they know how.

    See under: grand illusions

  21. PDA says:

    In my opinion. You’re free to disagree, or to tell me how to furnish my own house. That’s the beauty of the interwebs.

  22. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Sorry Keith I should have been more clear.  MSM is a for-profit enterprise and as such will select and frame stories in a way that sells more papers.  What I was getting at is the tension between the need for a good ‘hook’ and the desire to provide accurate, timely,  contextual information.  I think you’re right that in this particular case the ‘disaster’ aspect is enough of a hook, so there is no need to play up the climate change angle.  It’s still somewhat depressing though that it takes a disaster in the first place to draw attention to these sorts of mundane, but consequential governance problems. File under ‘whistling in the wind’…

  23. Sashka says:

    I have a different take on it. You don’t tell me what to do and won’t tell you where to go. That’s the beauty of the real world.

  24. grypo says:

    “But for my money, what the world “should learn” about what’s happening in Colombia pertains to the primacy of climate adaptation and the kinds of institutional and socio/political obstacles that have to be overcome to make places like Colombia more climate resilient.”

    This is an excellent point, Keith.  And there’s a but here…  for whatever reason, until people understand the risk they assume by not properly adapting, this situation will become so commonplace in the future, they’ll be no reason to tell this story again.  IOW, there’s a reason beyond corruption that no country is adapting properly to the risk.  They don’t understand it.

  25. PDA says:

    You don’t tell me what to do
    You’re the only one issuing commands. Though I may disapprove of what you say, on the other hand, I will defend to the death your right to say it.

  26. Jeff Norris says:

    Would you be willing to say the primary reason that Haiti was ill prepared was because of a lack of knowledge or Russia for a lack of understanding of Forest Fires? 
    Hopefully I will be wrong, but based on history Colombia will probably face a Cholera outbreak as a result of the flooding.  Will the primary driver of fatalities be a lack of knowledge of the disease or the lack of healthcare in part due to phantom or stolen equipment, the purchase of expired or counterfeit drugs, that instead of buying ambulances or incubators,  limousines for hospital and government officials were purchased?  


    Admittedly I get a little hot because of the bad things I have seen in various Asian and Latin American countries especially after seeing groups who originally claimed to be about the “People” but upon gaining power continued the same old practices.  It is just so frustrating

  27. grypo says:

    “Would you be willing to say the primary reason that Haiti was ill prepared was because of a lack of knowledge or Russia for a lack of understanding of Forest Fires?”

    In both cases, neither country took seriously the threat of these disasters.  In the case of Haiti, political strife has cause unimaginable poverty, so even had they been properly advised (I think they may have been), it would have made little difference.

    “Will the primary driver of fatalities be a lack of knowledge of the disease or the lack of healthcare in part due to phantom or stolen equipment, the purchase of expired or counterfeit drugs, that instead of buying ambulances or incubators,  limousines for hospital and government officials were purchased?”

    Again, the reason (if) a Cholera outbreak happens will be a lack of taking the risk seriously enough to institute proper adaption strategies.   Colombia, despite its political problems, has the economic resources to do so, and large enough voting population to force action.  First they need to understand the risk.  This would be a past action though.  Your question is about ‘now’.  So, of course, the corruption will play a large role in this problem.

    My point about ‘not understanding’ is about the breadth of the risk of climate change.  This blasé attitude many take will prevent any action taken on adaption. And this is about all countries, not just the ones with corrupt politicos or ones with a lack of resources.  Adaption is a gigantic undertaking that needs strict adherence, strong democracies, trust in science, massive taxation, and a willingness to know that it won’t be enough.  I just wish those promoting it, while opposing mitigation, would admit to it’s many shortcomings and resource draining properties.

  28. Sashka says:

    You’re the only one issuing commands.
    Really? Do you mind pointing to an instance of that?

  29. kdk33 says:

    You are no the boss of me – na na na na naaaa na.

    (sorry coudn’t help it)

  30. kdk33 says:

    If we’d work as hard at eliminating bad government and corruption as we do at trying to control climate, we’d do a heck of a lot more good in the world.

    Some might argue that the UN IPCC actually is bad government and corruption, which brings us back round.


  31. stereo says:

    Your logic fails.  You make the mistake of assuming that if their infrastructure and governance was better, it could have coped with exceptional flooding.  Your anti-agw mania is getting you into a WUWT level of journalism.

  32. stereo says:

    kdk33 Says:
    May 11th, 2011 at 6:53 am
    If we’d work as hard at eliminating bad government and corruption as we do at trying to control climate, we’d do a heck of a lot more good in the world.

    What have we achieved so far in trying to prevent AGW.  Despite the best efforts of some, the reality is not much at all.  And we aren’t trying to control climate, we are just trying to remedy an unintended consequence of releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
    You won’t see Keith raising hell about such misconceptions, though.

  33. Keith Kloor says:

    Marlowe (22),
    The same dynamic (for newspapers) applies to tragedies that have deeply rooted, underlying factors. Child abuse isn’t a story until a a small child dies a heinous death;lonstanding infrastructure problems aren’t a story until a bridge collapases and people are killed; the issue of overworked, fatigued airline pilots isn’t news until there is a big terrible crash.
    And so on…

  34. Paul in Sweden says:

    OMG, floods, drug crime & political corruption in Columbia. What next, is some joker going to tell us that the American South West(desert,arid,semi-arid region)is not getting enough rain to compensate for the over population?

    Should we adopt a world tax so that peasants can fill the slush funds eco-groups and governments can put solar panels on drug lord’s homes?

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