Surviving Alone: Improving Assistance to Colombia's Flood Victims

Evaluation and Lessons Learned
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Over the past year, persistent and unprecedented rains have resulted in massive flooding in Colombia that has affected close to 3 million people. In March 2011, Refugees International sent a team to assess the situation.

This report describes significant shortcomings in the Colombian government’s and international agencies’ response to the disaster. While Colombia has spent decades building a disaster management framework, the severity of the emergency exposed serious flaws in the system — most notably the lack of local implementation and capacity. In light of expert projections that climate change is likely to increase the frequency and force of floods, storms and other climate-related events in Colombia, the report outlines steps to ensure Colombia is better prepared to address this threat.

At the time of RI’s visit, significant numbers of people were still not receiving basic humanitarian assistance including food and water. Tragically, RI found that it was the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society, including victims of Colombia’s decades-long internal armed conflict and poor populations living in remote rural areas, who received the least amount of aid. Thousands of children had not yet returned to school. The construction of transitional shelters was abysmally slow and conditions in many shelters were appalling.

The problem was not lack of funds. The Colombian government had mobilized close to US$500 million for emergency care, recovery and rehabilitation through Colombia Humanitaria, a newly created funding mechanism. But setting up this new, parallel system with a new set of actors ultimately slowed the response, leaving thousands of desperate and vulnerable people to survive on their own. The new scheme also largely ignored existing institutions responsible for responding to conflictinduced humanitarian emergencies that may have safeguarded the rights of those affected by the floods.

The response from the UN Humanitarian Country Team was also disappointing. While the Colombian government refused to allow the UN to appeal for funds to implement a more comprehensive flood response plan, the Team’s initial response was nonetheless sluggish and the commitment by various UN agencies appeared uneven. For example, no information had been collected on the number or needs of conflict-displaced people who were affected or displaced again by the floods.

The humanitarian emergency in Colombia is not yet over. Ongoing rains are expected to last through June 2011. Going forward, the Colombian government must immediately address the administrative barriers under Colombia Humanitaria that are hindering the prompt distribution of flood relief, and allow UN agencies with expertise in the provision of emergency humanitarian assistance to more fully support and facilitate the flood response. In addition, norms and procedures must be included in the response framework that allow victims to exercise their rights by voicing needs and participating in decisions affecting them.

Colombia’s vulnerability to natural hazards — and the high probability that climate change will magnify these risks — requires both humanitarian and development actors to adapt their programs to prepare for future disasters. UN agencies should negotiate with the Colombian government to implement protection activities for people displaced by natural disasters and set aside dedicated and realistic funding.

The United States and other donor governments must also acknowledge the threat that climate change presents to an array of development priorities from economic growth to environmental sustainability to human security — not only in Colombia, but other climate-vulnerable countries as well. Development programs must therefore seek to build resilience to climate vulnerability by strengthening local capacity for disaster prevention and response, enabling greater community participation and oversight, and protecting the rights of affected groups.