Flood victims in Mercedes, Uruguay, trying to salvage what they can.
Credit: Inés Acosta/IPS
Tools Needed for Those Most Vulnerable to Climate Change
By Inés Acosta
A global forum in Uruguay is evaluating the country's plans for dealing with the problems that arise from increasing variability and unpredictability of the climate, especially for poorer populations.
CANELONES, Uruguay, Apr 19 (Tierramérica).- Water-borne diseases and illness related to disaster trauma are on the agenda for plans by officials and civil society for helping the precarious settlements in the metropolitan area of Montevideo and in other Uruguayan cities.
Studies place these poor neighborhoods, many in low lying zones, as the most exposed to diseases resulting from flooding and other weather events that are occurring with greater frequency and intensity as a result of climate change.
Training the residents is essential so that "they can identify the problems and create an early warning network," Leonardo Herou, director of environmental management for the government of the southern department of Canelones, told Tierramérica.
The departmental governments of Canelones, Montevideo and San José, through their Metropolitan Agenda, are promoting a project for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and vulnerability to the effects of climate change, sponsored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It is the first experiment at the local level for analysis and application of climate change adaptation and mitigation measures.
The metropolitan program includes land-use zoning, with specific proposals for roads and passenger transport, a regional health plan and for sanitation and solid waste treatment, as well as the designation of protected natural areas.
This experiment, along with others related to climate change, will be evaluated at the 3rd World Summit of Regions on Climate Change, Apr. 20-22, in Montevideo, under the auspices of the global network of Local Governments for Sustainability. More than 450 people representing all of the member regions are expected.
It will be an occasion for greater awareness of the problem and for continuing the process of initiatives and actions being developed at the regional level, according to spokespersons from the organization of the 19 departmental leaders of Uruguay, who are hosting the forum.
Several extreme weather events have revealed the climate vulnerability of Uruguay. Sixty-six percent of the country's population of 3.3 million lives in Montevideo and the metropolitan zone, which extends to neighboring Canelones and San José.
The intensification of rainfall in the last 13 years has meant the evacuation of 100,000 people across the country, with many thousands more affected, and damages in the millions, according to studies by the University of the Republic of Uruguay.
The most devastating floods were in 1959, when almost every coastal city was hit. More recently, storms and flooding in 2005 and 2007 caused costly damages to homes, infrastructure and services.
Lower-than-normal temperatures in the austral winter of 2007, one of the country's coldest on record, had a strong impact on public health, with high economic costs in part deriving from higher energy demand.
In late 2009 and early 2010, in contrast with the previous year's drought, rains were so intense that they forced thousands of people from their homes - who ultimately returned to begin a seemingly interminable process of rebuilding.
Luis Alberto Agüero lives in the neighborhood of La Calera, in the central department of Durazno. He was a victim of the latest big floods. The rise of the Yi River destroyed his house in 2007, sweeping away most of his belongings.
Reconstruction was difficult, and little by little his life returned to normal. But two years later the river flooded again. "To recover things we have to make a huge sacrifice. I hope this doesn't happen again," Agüero told Tierramérica.
"Families face great insecurity - they lose their belongings and they don't know how their lives will continue after a flood. It is a time of great emotional instability," Gabriela Garrido, director of social development in Canelones, explained to Tierramérica.
Eduardo Méndez, representative of the Ministry of Social Development in the National Emergency System, said it is essential to develop contingency plans that attend to the needs of the most exposed populations.
"The poorest, some who are settled along riverbanks and subsisting on fishing, selling firewood and sand, are the most vulnerable to new diseases," he said.
"That is why we understand that if we are to prepare for climate change, we have to take this into account," he added.
In Méndez's opinion, awareness of the problem is just beginning. "There is a very direct effect on certain sectors of society, and between us all we have to provide a response."
He believes that the Emergency Housing Plan of the national government of leftist President José Mujica, which is to begin a pilot project this year, is "an effective and rapid firsthand response to an emergency that the country faces." But he also noted that "it is not enough."
* IPS correspondent.