Floods block food from reaching thousands of refugees in Colombia

·3-min read

Flooding and landslides have left thousands of refugees cut off from food supplies in Ituango, the conflict-strewn municipality in north-western Colombia.

Roads have been blocked by mud and debris after heavy rains, while helicopters have been unable to land. As a result, the delivery of food and medical supplies has been stymied, and communications cut off.

More than 4,000 people have fled the violence of militias operating in the resource-rich region in recent months. Bringing only what they could carry with them, entire families have fled from their homes in rural hamlets to the urban hub anchoring the region. According to the UN, 1,300 of those displaced are children.

“This is a terrifying situation; we’re seeing that the government is completely incapable of protecting these people,” said Isabel Cristina Zuleta, an activist with Rios Vivos, a local environmental watchdog. “The government is not tending to the growing poverty there, nor to the cultural patrimony that is lost when peasant farmers have to abandon their homes, animals and livelihoods.”

The government in Bogotá have now dispatched military and police to the area, along with the interior minister.

“In terms of attention to the humanitarian crisis, from the national government, in collaboration with the government of Antioquia [the province where Ituango is located], almost 70 tonnes of humanitarian aid have been arranged, of which six have entered the municipality,” Daniel Palacios, the interior minister, said this week. “We have distributed more than 400 toilet kits and 700 additional kits will be arriving in the next few hours.”

The region has long been fought over by myriad armed groups, including dissidents from the now defunct Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (or Farc), a Marxist rebel group that waged war against the Colombian government for five decades before signing a peace deal in 2016. That war cost 260,000 lives and forced more than 7 million to flee their homes.

Related: Colombia's ex-guerrillas: isolated, abandoned and living in fear

The army is also present in Ituango, fighting drug trafficking groups such as the feared Clan del Golfo, which originated from state-aligned militias set up to fight leftist guerrillas. The region’s strategic value – sitting on a corridor between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as well as the nearby land bridge to Panama – has long rendered it a hot zone for drug runners.

“We don’t see any judicial measures that will halt these mass displacements,” said Zuleta, who spoke to the Guardian from the region. “And each time these displacements are worse. In February 500 people were displaced, now it’s 4,000.”

Zuleta said that while rains can complicate the delivery of aid and state assistance, they are foreseeable, given the region’s long history of landslides. “It’s not true that the rain is the only reason for the roadblocks,” Zuleta said. “It is predictable.”

Colombia’s meteorological agency, Ideam, on Thursday announced that rainfall is expected to rise by 40%, with swathes of the country’s Amazonia region, Caribbean coastline, and western interior all likely to bear the brunt of inclement weather.

“It is important to bear in mind that the rainy season is continuing, which increases the threat of landslides in unstable areas,” the agency said in a statement on Thursday.

In June, Brazil’s central and western Amazon saw its most severe annual flood season on record, with homes, crops and cities washed out. Climatologists say rising temperatures are to blame, and that, if current trends continue, the weather events will only become more catastrophic.

In Peru, large parts of the north-east flooded in April, with 856 families affected in Laredo province, according to the UN.

And in Latin America’s most northern reaches, on the border between Mexico and the US, flash floods have raged through Sonora, after months of drought this week.

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