March 31, 2019 / 10:08 AM / in 23 days

Danger still lingers two years after Colombia's deadly Mocoa landslide

MOCOA, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Two years after a mudslide that killed more than 300 people in the Colombian rainforest town of Mocoa, local authorities are struggling to get the funds to resettle tens of thousands of residents living in areas at risk of flooding.

Torrential rains on March 31, 2017, triggered a deadly torrent of mud, debris and rocks, and caused rivers to burst their banks, washing away entire neighborhoods.

At least 300 people lost their lives and hundreds more went missing, many of them children, in the worst disaster to hit Colombia in recent decades. Local community leaders put the combined toll of the dead and missing at around 1,000 people.

As part of reconstruction efforts, so far 300 new homes have been built for property owners who lost theirs in the disaster.

But around 25,000 residents of Mocoa, the rainy and humid capital of Colombia’s southern province of Putumayo in the Amazon basin, live in areas that are at risk of flooding and mudslides, according to Jose Antonio Castro, the town’s mayor.

“It’s most advisable to create a resettlement plan,” Castro told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But the funds needed from the national government to buy the land for resettling people and to build new homes have not yet been defined or secured, the mayor said.

The resettlement of tens of thousands of people would take about 20 years in total and be carried out in phases, starting with communities living along river banks who are the most vulnerable, he said.

“It’s a very complex task. It’s very difficult to do because you have to give people psychosocial care so that people take the initiative (to leave), because the historical tradition here is to live alongside the rivers,” Castro said.

Community leader Eugenia Torres and her daughter live in a destitute part of Mocoa, alongside a river that she knows is at high risk of flooding.

But Torres, who narrowly escaped being washed away in the deadly landslide, says she has no option but to stay where she is as she cannot afford to leave and pay higher rent in a safer part of town.

“We live in permanent danger,” Torres said. “I live here out of necessity, not because I want to or don’t want to leave.”

According to the mayor, work on building another 1,150 new houses in and around Mocoa is set to start soon, mostly for homeowners who lost their property in the disaster.

“There are very many houses to build,” Castro said.

Surrounded by mountainous rainforest and with six rivers running through and around Mocoa, the town’s topography and location makes it prone to mudslides and flash floods.

Yet, two years after the disaster, apart from a handful of repaired roads and bridges, new flood control measures, like retention walls along river banks, are almost non-existent.

“We’ve just finished recovering a bit and so the reconstruction of the city, the reconstruction of the social fabric, has barely begun,” Castro said.

The first of 56 planned infrastructure projects to help prevent flooding and rivers bursting their banks will start within days, the mayor said.

“These are public works to mitigate the impact (of disasters) so that some areas go from being areas of high risk to areas of medium risk,” Castro said.

Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org

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