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Colombia: Ecosystem services take a central role in disaster risk management

Source(s):  Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)

By Leonardo Sáenz

Last year, Leo Sáenz blogged about Gramalote, a town in northeastern Colombia that was buried under a massive mudslide in 2010, triggered by the wettest La Niña event in over a century. Part of a team tasked with determining a new location to rebuild the town, he reports on the progress on the Human Nature Blog.

If you’ve paid any attention to the news lately, you know that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to climate change. For example, in my native Colombia, torrential rains have increased. In 2010, flooding displaced more than 2 million people, or 5% of the country’s population.

In addition to their toll on human life, natural disasters such as flooding, landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados are also costly in other ways. In Colombia, the number of natural disasters almost doubled between the 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century, with an economic cost of around US$ 7.1 billion.

This trend extends beyond Colombia. Globally, the cost of disasters has increased from a few US$ billion in 1980 to more than US$ 200 billion in 2010, leading to increased tensions between environmental refugees and neighboring communities or governments and causing people to feel less secure in their homes.

These events also fuel government instability and violent conflict. In Colombia, the chaos caused by disasters like landslides or flooding can pave the way for the infiltration of armed groups that quickly take control, exacerbating the conflict further.

Risk reduction and recovery from these extreme events are imperative. Conventional infrastructure and emerging technologies will be important factors in solutions; however, there also seems to be a role for nature to play.

This is where my eco-hydrology work comes in. I study how fresh water creates and interacts with ecosystems. Forests and other natural ecosystems like wetlands or páramos can regulate water flows and hold soils in place on steep hillslopes. Furthermore, preserving their role as “green infrastructure” can result in cheaper, more long-term solutions. However, if these ecosystems are lost, their water storage capacity will also disappear, increasing vulnerability to extreme events like flooding.

Conservation International’s (CI) project in Gramalote is perhaps one of the first examples in the world where officials in charge of disaster risk management are giving natural ecosystems a central role in the process.

This wasn’t the first disaster for Gramalote. The town had been destroyed by extreme events three times in the last two centuries. After the 2010 mudslide, many of Gramalote’s 6,000 inhabitants — some temporarily relocated to nearby villages, some still living among the ruins — were rightly pushing for a permanent relocation which would increase their security and reduce regional tensions.

To find a new location for the destroyed town, the national government of Colombia combined technical, administrative and financial efforts with CI-Colombia. Our role was to convince the government’s Adaptation Fund, the entity responsible for collecting funds for site selection and the rebuilding process, that nature’s services must be considered for the relocation of the municipality.
In the Anchicaya River Basin in western Colombia, the merging of two rivers reveals the difference in sedimentation between a river that is protected (left) and unprotected (right) upstream. (© CI/photo by Leonardo Saenz)In the Anchicaya River Basin in western Colombia, the merging of two rivers reveals the difference in sedimentation between a river that is protected (left) and unprotected (right) upstream. (© CI/photo by Leonardo Saenz)

Our scientific analysis was conducted by CI’s eco-hydrology program, with technical capacity provided by CI-Colombia and in collaboration with key scientific partnerships, such as King’s College London. We reviewed past research, performed laboratory studies, conducted biodiversity inventories and performed cutting-edge eco-hydrological modeling.

The tools we used — FIESTA/WaterWorld and Costing Nature — are some of the most robust frameworks that exist to study ecosystem services in the rugged and complex topography of tropical mountains. We are continually striving to improve these policy-support systems to make sure they are as accurate and effective as possible.

In determining the best place to relocate Gramalote, we considered factors such as landslide/erosion control, flood mitigation and flow regulation. We explored the impacts that the relocation could have on sensitive species (such as amphibians) using Tremarctos, a tool created by CI-Colombia that provides an early warning system of the impacts of infrastructure development on the country’s species. And we considered the impacts of the relocation upon other ecosystem services, such as water provision.

So where will the new Gramalote be located?

Out of four possible sites proposed by local institutions and communities, our analysis indicated that a rural area called Miraflores is the best choice.

Miraflores is located only two miles northeast of the old Gramalote. According to geological assessments, the team found that the risk from landslides is lower at this site. In addition, the headwaters of the local river are located within El Bojoso Reserve, which could help sustain the water supply and provide resilience against future extreme weather. In order to perpetuate these benefits, CI proposed to double the size of the reserve — a move which has been positively endorsed by the government.

Through several workshops, we shared our findings with national, regional and local governments — as well as the affected communities — in order to make sure everyone understood the science and could use it to inform their decisions. In discussions with the affected communities, their reactions have been very positive.

The next steps in the relocation of Gramalote will be development of the new town management plan; acquisition of the land, including the expansion of El Bojoso Reserve; infrastructure design and urban planning; and finally the actual reconstruction of the town. It is expected that Gramalote will be rebuilt by the end of 2014, and its inhabitants will move in the following year.

I believe CI and our partners are meant to lead the world toward a green infrastructure paradigm. The new Gramalote may be one of the first towns in the world that is completely designed from scratch in a way that truly values the critical role that nature plays in all our lives.

This project represents a big opportunity to influence Colombia’s climate adaptation policies. I also think it’s an important step toward changing global perceptions about how we cope with disasters. Rather than simply reacting once they happen, we need to do more to protect ourselves, both now and in the future.

I’ve been honored to be a part of this project so far, and I’m excited to see what comes next.

Disaster management and reduction is a central ecosystem service in agricultural development. With increasing social, climate and environmental unpredictability, it is increasingly important to design resilient systems. This is one of eight principles highlighted in the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems Framework for Ecosystem Services and Resilience.

[Ed. This was originally published on the Agriculture and Ecosystems blog. See additional information link below.]

About the Author:

Leonardo Sáenz is CI’s director of eco-hydrology. Thanks to Dr. Fabio Arjona, Patricia Bejarano and Angela Andrade for their contribution to this blog; special thanks also to Colombia’s Adaptation Fund, the Gramalote community and King’s College London.

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  • Publication date 26 Aug 2013

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