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La Niña ravages Colombia

In late 2010, an estimated 60% of Colombia’s territory was affected by the severe rains and flooding associated with the La Niña phenomenon. According to Colombia’s president and the country’s Risk Management Division of the Ministry of Interior and Justice, more than 2.4 million persons have been impacted; there were 323 deaths, 321 injured, and 66 persons missing; 7,450 homes were destroyed, and 298 aqueducts and 16 sewage systems were damaged.

Experts consider this prolonged and intense rainy season in Colombia to be the most devastating weather event in over 40 years. All but four of Colombia’s 32 departments (including the capital district of Bogotá) and thousands of people have suffered the harsh conditions brought on by the intense rains, widespread flooding, and landslides. The town of Gramalote in the Department of Norte de Santander, which borders Venezuela, is an example of one of the most severely affected areas. Landslides destroyed a large area of the town and more than 6,000 persons were evacuated and are living with relatives and in neighboring towns and villages.

It is important to keep in mind that Colombia continues to experience internal conflict. The populations displaced by violence have suffered disproportionately from the rains and flooding, and the humanitarian crisis has intensified significantly in territories where conflict is present. Responsible institutions must take into account the dual impact of conflict and the rains in the short and medium term.

The health sector has not escaped the impact of heavy rains generated by La Niña. The Ministry of Social Protection reported damage to over 225 health institutions. This significantly hinders the provision of services to the affected population, especially those located on the banks of rivers and in the most vulnerable urban areas.

These conditions, coupled with the human and economic losses, prompted the government to issue Decrees 4579 and 4580 in December 2010 declaring a state of economic, social, and ecological emergency, and a nation-wide natural disaster.

The Colombian government’s response to the emergency generated support from several international agencies. The office of PAHO/WHO in Colombia mobilized a team of public health experts to work with Colombia’s Ministry of Social Protection and Territorial Health to identify priorities and humanitarian needs. PAHO’s program for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief has been working with agencies of the United Nations system to develop a humanitarian response strategy and is leading the health cluster. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean is making assessments of the socio-economic impact of the severe rainy season in the sectors of water, sanitation, agriculture and livestock, housing, tourism, and health.

Regions affected by the rains and flooding show an increase in the number of cases of acute diarrheal disease, acute respiratory infection, skin infection, snakebite, food-borne illness, leptospirosis, rabies exposure, as well as cases of dengue and malaria. The Surveillance System of the National Institute of Health indicate that children, adolescents, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities are the most seriously affected groups and require special health interventions.

In response to these public health concerns, the Strategic Response Committee of the Ministry of Social Welfare identified actions to be taken by committees responsible for cholera, leptospirosis, and epidemiological surveillance. In addition, the advisory committee for water, sanitation, and hygiene dispatched national health officials to assess the health situation in the most severely affected departments. PAHO/WHO has provided assistance as needed to national, departmental, and municipal health authorities.

According to the National Institute of Health the increase in outbreaks cannot be attributed solely to the rains, especially in the case of diseases that occur cyclically, as in the case of malaria. However, an association with the rain and flooding is evident in most cases.

There are two major challenges facing Colombian authorities at this time. First is that of assisting thousands of displaced victims to return to homes in a dignified and healthy manner. Second, weather forecasts for 2011 indicate that heavy rains will extend beyond the usual rainy season.

A priority for PAHO/WHO is to continue to develop activities to improve the preparedness and response capacity of affected communities. This disaster represents a turning point in Colombia’s approach to preparedness and response to natural disasters, making risk management a national priority, as outlined in the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015, Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters.

In addition to its severe impact in Colombia, between December 2010 and March 2011 the La Niña phenomenon resulted in heavy rain, severe landslides, and flooding in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Panama, and Venezuela. At the same time, severe drought was experienced in other parts of the region.

For the first time in the history of the Panama Canal, operations had to be suspended because of heavy rain. A major water treatment plant was shut down because of the large amounts of sediment present in rivers. This crisis left more than one million Panamanians without water for more than 2 months.

In Bolivia, 102 of the country’s 337 municipalities were impacted by the rains caused by La Niña; more than 70,000 people in that country were affected.