In the fall of 2010, I was part of a Nature Conservancy team evaluating the potential for a new conservation project in the Magdalena River Basin in Colombia, South America.
On a portion of the trip, we traveled by small boat along the river. One evening our boat broke down just at dusk and we did not arrive at our destination, the City of Mompox, until well after dark. Founded in 1537, Mompox was eventually isolated by a change in the river’s course and still retains much of its colonial architecture, but when we landed at the old waterfront, we found it to be partly flooded by high water from the Magdalena. We walked through deserted streets to our hotel, and we could see that if the river continued to rise, much of the city would be under water.
Well the river did rise and rise again after we departed. There was disastrous flooding all along the Magdalena through the winter and spring of 2011. Three million people have been displaced. Whole communities have been inundated. Colombia’s GNP has suffered a 4 percent loss. The flooding is unprecedented and Mompox provides stark visual evidence – it was not built up on stilts and has not been protected by levees. Were the floods of 2010-2011 a regular occurrence over the last 400 years, Mompox would have been entirely abandoned long ago.
This last week, I returned to Colombia and spent a whole day with a group of high-level Colombian officials discussing the Magdalena, with recent flooding and associated damages an important focus of our conversation. A key question for planning the future of the basin was whether the flood was a highly unusual phenomenon (in other words, part of a particularly intense La Nina event), or whether it was the result of global climate change and likely to be repeated? While climate models suggest more rain in the future for the northern Andes, it is, of course, impossible to say with certainty, but what struck me was the Colombians’ acceptance of climate change as a possible contributor to recent events, and their willingness to use the risk of climate-induced increases in rainfall as a factor in designing dams and future development in the Magdalena Basin.
As we all know, the Mississippi is also experiencing record flooding. Unlike the Magdalena, the Mississippi has become a highly engineered system. The engineering seems to be working – including floodways that have been opened for the first time in many years to relieve pressure on the river’s levees. Yet even with the use of the floodways, flood-control structures are close to their capacity and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland have been inundated. A major levee breach remains a possibility as the flood continues.
To plan for future of the Mississippi, it is also important to know whether the flood of 2011 is a very unusual event or is likely to re-occur more frequently as Earth’s climate grows warmer. Yet in the U.S., unlike Colombia, the issue of climate change has become so politically charged that, despite the climate predictions articulated by the scientific community, members of Congress are discouraging government officials from including climate risk in planning for the future of the Mississippi and other areas exposed to natural hazards.
It is an odd contrast: two countries coping with floods of record, but only the developing country readily accepting science-based risk analysis in its planning for future flood events. Perhaps it is simply a question of capacity. Politics aside, Colombia cannot possibly afford to install the kind of highly engineered flood protection on the Magdalena that the U.S. has constructed along the Mississippi, so it must carefully evaluate future flooding risks to choose wisely if, where and how much flood protection is to be provided, how dams are designed and operated, and where future development is located. And even then, “green infrastructure,” such as maintaining natural floodplains that disperse floodwaters, will be preferred as the lowest-cost and most-effective options.
So Colombia’s government officials aren’t waiting for certainty to begin planning for the next flood. And neither should we. Like a wide range of other risks to our health and safety, if one waits for certainty in planning for the future, it will likely be too late to intervene if the potential for disaster becomes reality. And, in an America where public budgets are already acutely stressed, thinking that we can afford to engineer our way out of a future created by politics trumping scientific risk assessment is a tragic illusion.
Robert Bendick is director of U.S. Government Relations at The Nature Conservancy
Photo: Governación de Antioquia