Poisoned Climate: Still Submerged In Colombia

Our guest blogger is Alice Thomas, Climate Displacement Program Manager, Refugees International. In May, 2011, Alice wrote how the extreme floods of Colombia were devastating the nation. This post describes Colombia’s continued fight for survival in our poisoned climate.

As we approach the town of Manatí, in northern Colombia, I look eagerly out the window for signs of change. When I was here almost a year ago, makeshift shelters and tents lined the sides of the road. Random pieces of furniture were piled nearby: a refrigerator or a rocking chair — anything people could save from the floodwaters.

Today the tents are gone. But just outside of town, we turn off the road and into a lot, where temporary shelters made of fiberboard and corrugated metal have been constructed. I see Irida emerge from one of them. Smiling and laughing, we embrace each other.

Irida is one of approximately 225,000 people who were affected when unprecedented rains in the fall of 2010 caused the nearby Dique Canal to rupture. The break in the canal, which connects Colombia’s coastal city of Cartagena to the Magdalena River, submerged half of the northern state of Atlántico under 80 million cubic meters of water. When I first visited Manatí in March 2011, half of the town was still underwater, and Irida was living under plastic sheeting after being evicted from the local school. Irida’s house, which she showed me by canoe, had water up to the rooftop.


To some extent, Irida was lucky. Hers was one of the first families in the town able to move into these temporary shelters last April. In many of the nearby towns we have visited, they were not completed until three months ago.

But the shelter where Irida now lives was designed to last only three months. She has been there for almost a year. Worse than that, the floodwaters have still not dissipated, and her house is still flooded. According to the state governor’s office, 60 percent of the area that flooded when the Dique Canal burst in 2010 is still underwater today. Pumping has proven ineffective because much of this area was once wetland and is now returning to its natural state. So Irida and the roughly 600 other families in Manatí who’ve lost their homes are now being told they will have to relocate.

The day after our reunion with Irida, we join a town hall meeting where the governor tells a schoolyard full of flood-affected families that his priority is to find land and build homes for the thousands still displaced more than a year later. But Irida tells me that she doesn’t want to take the piece of land being offered. It is too far away from the center of town, she says. Before the floods, she ran a small grocery shop out of her house. If she relocates, she will be unable to restart her business and will be isolated from her community.

Like so many other Colombians we are meeting on this trip, Irida is quick to smile and laugh. But the pain and anxiety are nevertheless visible on her face. Beyond the relocation troubles, she has many more immediate worries. The toilets at her temporary shelter do not work, and two of the plastic water tanks have recently ruptured in the heat. The Colombian government discontinued food deliveries to the area in November. Her husband has been unable to find work. Without permanent homes or work, how can the process of recovery even begin?

I am at a loss for words as we say our goodbyes. I hope things will be better for Irida the next time we meet; I wish I could be more certain.