Thomson Reuters Foundation, trust.org (TRF)
By Lisbeth Fog
Bogota - A group of scientists has urged the Colombian government to act faster to protect the country from extreme weather and longer-term climate shifts, saying it is failing to implement climate change policies that already exist.
Last month, the National Environmental Forum (NEF) and researchers working with it called on Bogota to adopt measures to address the impacts of climate change now and in the future, and launched a study offering ideas on what could be done.
Manuel Rodriguez, NEF president and Colombia’s first environment minister from 1993-94, said the government has crafted an ambitious strategy on climate change adaptation, but has acted at odds with it.
In practice, “we have a very well established ‘bad policy’ and we are increasing the country’s vulnerability to climate change”, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Colombia’s official development plan was drawn up during the 2010-2011 rainy season, one of the worst for decades. Floods and landslides killed around 450 people, 73 went missing and more than 3.3 million were affected. Crops were lost as 1 million hectares of farmland were swamped, and almost 13,000 houses destroyed.
This disaster prompted the government to devote an entire chapter of its development plan to environmental sustainability and risk prevention, including the threats posed by climate change and how to cope with extreme events.
But members of the NEF - an alliance of two universities and six NGOs - say governance in the environmental sector remains weak and the country is still poorly prepared for weather and climate extremes.
The study it commissioned, “Economic Development and Adaptation to Climate Change”, analyses ways of tackling climate change in three key sectors the government is promoting as economic growth engines: mining, agriculture and housing.
‘PLANNING BY SURPRISE’
Brigitte Baptiste, director of the Institute for Research on Biological Resources - Alexander von Humboldt, said the government is taking some positive steps.
For example, it is building stilt houses in places that are vulnerable to flooding, even though they tend to cost more and take longer to construct.
And it backs the gene banks of Corpoica, the Colombian Center for Agriculture Research, which can distribute seeds quickly to small farmers when they lose crops to floods.
But while extreme events occur naturally, and can sometimes act a springboard for progress – as when cities are rebuilt to be more resilient after an earthquake - that is not an excuse for “planning by surprise”, Baptiste emphasised in an interview.
“Unfortunately, the inflexibility of the state is usually a recipe for failure,” she said, adding that forging links between the needs identified by science and government policy is a real challenge. Policies are sometimes just a “flag salute” and have no practical effect, she said.
NEF president Rodriguez stressed the need for more research on climate change adaptation. “Nowadays, science and technology research - quite different from what was developed in the past - should include the climate change aspect,” he said.
He highlighted the importance of the agriculture sector, saying Colombia should invest in research to boost productivity from its extensive land area available for growing crops.
Rodriguez also made clear his disapproval of the government’s policy to develop mining as a key sector of the economy. “Generating an activity which dumps oil into the water, and simultaneously practising agriculture – these are incompatible, yet in Colombia (some people think) it is possible to do both,” he said.
In a contribution to the NEF study, environmental economist Guillermo Rudas proposed a review of government policy on mining taxation and royalty payments, arguing that this revenue should be spent on tackling poverty in mining regions.
Anthropologist Gerardo Ardila, now working in the Bogota municipal government’s planning office, wrote that the capital city, with help from the United Nations, is evaluating a proposal that future development should focus on compact city models that emit less greenhouse gases instead of lower-density urban areas.
At the launch of the study, Mauricio Reina, an associate researcher with private research group Fedesarrollo, identified three problems that obstruct Colombia’s progress on climate change: weak institutions, a lack of relevant information and the feeble role of civil society.
Pablo Leyva, a former director of the government agency dealing with meteorology and environmental studies, was critical of the research. “(It) should have included more detailed ideas on how to adapt to climate change,” he said.
Lisbeth Fog is a freelance journalist with an interest in science stories, based in Bogota.