Let’s Stop Repeating the Same Story: Prioritizing Climate Resilience in Colombia

2018 is an important year in Colombian politics. In March, Colombians voted in legislative elections. In about a week, they will decide who will be the next president of the country.

As usual, the environment has not been at the center of candidates’ proposals. However, it has certainly gained some traction given the rampant deforestation in the Amazon region of the country and the recent oil spill caused by state-owned oil company Ecopetrol. A few months ago, the candidates participated in a debate on environmental issues, where deforestation, cattle ranching, and clean energy were some of the topics discussed.

There have also been some discussions on climate change, mostly focusing on mitigation. Despite the importance of tackling emissions from deforestation -which is the main source of greenhouse gases in the country- and investing in renewable energy, Colombians face the increasing challenge of climate change adaptation.

As many other Global South countries, Colombia is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The geography, high levels of economic inequality, and corruption amplify its vulnerability. Approximately 48% of Colombians live in areas exposed to flooding and 33% in areas exposed to landslides. As if this was not serious enough, future scenarios on climate change warn that water shortages are imminent and that the natural phenomenon of EL Niño and La Niña will only be stronger and more frequent.

Even if climate change was not a concern, Colombians are already used to being victims of climate-related events. Each year, the news are plagued with headlines of flooding, landslides, and “natural” disasters. Last year, the tragedy of Mocoa made national and international headlines.

However, as experts point out, these so-called “natural” disasters are in reality not so “natural.” Rather, these are disasters that arise from our failure to adequately plan and organize the territory.

The Land Use Plans or Planes de Ordenamiento Territorial (POTs) are the main instrument for local governments to assess the potential risks, allocate land for different uses, and prepare for eventual disasters. However, the majority of these plans have expired as many were published in the early 2000s and are only valid for ten years. Furthermore, many were drafted in a rushed process, some even copying and pasting from other local plans. And despite the fact that it is 2018 and Colombia has repeatedly acknowledged its own climatic vulnerability, only about 3% of these plans include climate change indicators.

So, it is not at all shocking that when disaster strikes, municipalities rarely have the resources or the technical capacity to respond.

Currently, municipalities are working on updating their local plans under the program “Modern POTs,” but this is no easy task. The process requires a real commitment from local leaders and enough resources to develop the technical inputs needed for rigorous planning. This is not about just checking boxes. We are talking about millions of lives at stake and development strategies at their core. What are territorial plans if not ways to improve the quality of lives of Colombians?

It is rather absurd that a country that self-identifies as highly vulnerable to climate change and that included an adaptation component as part of its climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement, does not integrate climate change into its local land use plans. It is even more serious when we are talking about a country facing a political transition, where land planning is key when it comes to consolidating peace in the territories.

The power vacuums left behind by the guerrilla, the struggle for economic control of the land, weak institutions, and increasing deforestation threaten to exacerbate the social and physical vulnerability of communities. This is a challenging time in the country, but it may be precisely for this reason that we have an opportunity to think more holistically about our development and the way in which we see risk management plans.

These plans need to have a comprehensive inventory of the risks and threats municipalities face, analyze the social and economic vulnerability of populations at the local level, include the technical studies and mapping necessary, and promote local participation. Without these basic components, we will continue to lament avoidable tragedies.

*Camila Bustos graduated Magna Cum Laude from Brown University with honors in Environmental Studies and International Relations. Her thesis focused on the international politics of climate change, looking at Colombia as a case study to explore climate politics in the Global South and the UN climate negotiations. Camila was lead researcher at Nivela before joining Dejusticia, where she works as a researcher focusing on issues regarding business and human rights, climate induced displacement, and the human rights movement.

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