04 April 2007

What the waters are leaving behind

The rains are over for now, but the consequences are still visible. There are still a few hundred evacuees in Rosario, as the water has not drained from certain places. More than 60 towns and cities were affected by the floods, as well as three million hectares (30,000 km²) of crops. Important roads throughout the province are unusable, either because they're blocked by the water, or damaged, or because bridges have been damaged or destroyed. In the city of Santa Fe there were almost 20,000 people displaced from their homes, pickets demanding emergency aid are popping out, and there have been several episodes of looting, mainly supply trucks assaulted by groups of people as they headed for affected areas. Several pickets are also blocking important peripheric streets in Rosario.

The political maneuvering and eye gouging is starting as well. The province is asking the national government for a 20-million-peso aid package (and one has to wonder, where's the province's fiscal surplus they've been advertising ad nauseam?). A full estimate is not yet done, but in Rosario alone the cost of the emergency and the repairs that need to be done on the infrastructure climbs to more than AR$30 million (US$10 million). That's only to pay for the evacuees' food, mattresses, and all manners of logistics, plus the damage done by the storm to the streets. The figure is completely out of reach of the municipal budget, so the mayor is demanding that it be provided by the province and the nation, half and half, using special Treasury funds and a monetary stipend that the national government provides for metropolitan areas. As with all funds distributed through the provincial government, these are usually not distributed evenly: for political reasons, Rosario is discriminated in favour of the municipalities ruled by the Justicialist Party, and in particular, the capital city of Santa Fe. A few hours ago the Coordinator Minister of Santa Fe told mayor Lifschitz that they won't send all of the money towards Rosario because there are others in need as well, but the province "will be there with the rosarinos, as always". Hmm.

The mayor of Santa Fe, Martín Balbarrey, is facing serious opposition. Governor Obeid himself removed him from the command of the emergency operations, and 400 people who flooded in 2003 demonstrated demanding his resignation. Balbarrey is running for reelection; he's the same who was in charge during the 2003 flood, and it seems neither he or the provincial government have done anything to prevent another one during these four years. Santa Fe City is built in the worst possible place, on low-lying terrain in the junction of two large rivers, so it's vulnerable to both rain coming down from higher lands and to rises in the level of the rivers. When these hazards combine, as they did, the result is that the barriers that keep the water out on one side also keep it in on the other side. Santa Fe had to wait several days for pumps to reach the city and begin working at full capacity — while common sense indicates that those pumps should've been available and ready in a matter of hours, as soon as the water started coming.

Rosario is not vulnerable to river flooding, as it sits on top of a ravine — most of the city is at least 5 or 6 meters above the maximum historical level of the Paraná. The western periphery of the city is vulnerable to flooding because there are two streams and two canals there that may overflow. In the case of the Ibarlucea Canal, which caused most of the trouble this time, it should've been widened years ago, but there were bureaucratic delays, as with the Salvat Canal. One major problem is the relocation of the poor people that are occupying the lands. It's practically impossible for them to settle elsewhere; the cost of land and construction is exhorbitant and many of these people make barely enough money to eat. They'll be offered new homes, paid by the state, but they know very well that, once removed from their miserable huts in the worst possible part of town, they'll be at the mercy of the politicians that decide when to grant the funds. Many have already returned to their homes, even as the water hasn't gone away completely, because it's all they have and they know their possessions will be looted by their own neighbours if nobody's watching.

The anti-flooding works already in place worked remarkably well, mainly because they were planned with extremes, rather than averages, in mind. And this rain (almost 500 m in a week, half the average precipitation expected for a whole year) was truly extreme. Or so we think. We'd like to blame this bizarre weather on bad luck, and hope that this is (like the experts say) a one-in-a-hundred-years occurrence, but climate change is a reality and it's very likely that these things will be more and more common in the future.

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