By Fabiana Frayssinet
Defined by the governor of Córdoba, José Manuel de la Sota, as “a tsunami that fell from the sky”, the rains that on February 15 affected 320 square kilometers of the mountain range of Sierras Chicas, in the northwest of the province, left eight dead and 1,500 homes destroyed.
This Thursday 26, another strong storm, this time in the east and southeast of Cordoba, again flooded several towns and forced to evacuate more than 800 people, according to provisional data, although there were no fatalities.
It was a catastrophe: broken bridges, destroyed houses, a square with its sports beach are gone, several hundred meters of trunk pipe that supply us with water disappeared. And the most regrettable thing is the death of people, ”environmentalist Ricardo Suárez, a resident of Río Ceballos, one of the towns most affected by the floods on the 15th, told IPS.
But the “tsunami” that day, a metaphor for the 320 millimeters of rain that fell in 12 hours, in that region of 300,000 inhabitants, “did not fall from the sky,” according to Raúl Montenegro, president of the Foundation for the Defense of the Environment. . "Sierras Chicas depredated, parceled out by real estate companies, and without prepared populations caused the tragedy," the biologist, an Alternative Nobel laureate, summarized to IPS, an award given annually by the Swedish Parliament to those who fight for a better future for the planet.
"The human hand intervened to make this worse," added Suárez, director of the Project for the Conservation and Reforestation of the Sierras de Córdoba. "Squares on the river, houses built on its banks, uncollected garbage, planted exotic trees that are not adapted to flooding, pedestrian bridges and private cars, everywhere, lack of planning, alerts and prevention," he listed.
According to Montenegro, the tragedy had two main causes: "extensive rainfall in a short time and deforested mountain environments", where the main water courses are born in those mountains. "The environmental deterioration of the mountains transformed them into dangerous and unpredictable slides that quickly fill the water courses," he illustrated. Federico Kopta, biologist and president of the Córdoba Environmental Forum, explained to IPS the role of native vegetation on the peaks.
"It acts as a kind of umbrella, preventing the water from directly impacting and breaking up the soil," he said.
Furthermore, together with its roots, "it operates as a kind of net holding the soil and preventing it from dragging down the slope," he added. Finally, he added, it acts as "a kind of sponge", "retaining the water in the upper part of the mountains and administering it slowly". When that vegetation disappears "surface runoff increases" and with water erosion and floods "there is less water reserve during the dry season," he explained.
The environmental organization Greenpeace attributed the increase in flooding in Argentina to high rates of deforestation, despite the entry into force in late 2007 of a demanded Law for the Protection of Native Forests, with specific budgets for their restoration.
He stressed that Cordoba only has less than four percent of its original forests. This is after deforestation in the province, the second most inhabited in the country, between 1998 and 2007 reached 247,967 hectares and between 2007 and 2013, 44,823 hectares were eliminated, of which 10,796 were forests protected by law. "The clearings for agricultural and urban development destroyed native forests in fragile areas, losing the protection of the vegetation against heavy rains," he said in a statement on the 18th of this month.
"Ironically, deforestation, fires and real estate advance over the mountains generate two opposing crises: rivers lacking water in winter and dangerously overflowing during summer rains," said Montenegro, recalling that two of its three major ecosystems were practically eliminated in Córdoba.
The “most violent” deforestation, according to Montenegro, was in the 1990s and coincided with the introduction in Córdoba of transgenic (genetically modified) soybean, corn and cotton crops.
The construction of gated communities, industries and large tourist complexes also drove deforestation in the province, which contributes eight percent of Argentina's gross product. Kopta considered that “the hand of man” influenced the catastrophe in two ways. In a global context, he recalled, planetary warming generates a greater frequency of extreme weather events, "something that Cordobans cannot handle." In a more local context, he added, the tragedy "is related to the incorrect use of natural resources." .
In this sense, he pointed out, the "devastation of native vegetation" at the headwaters of the basins, caused by forest fires, deforestation, logging and invasion of exotic species, and grazing at height, "change the hydric dynamics of the place." Kopta considered it urgent to limit large real estate developments and developments in the mountains, which exacerbate deforestation.
He said that these developments have multiplied in the last 20 years, "due to the great demand of people who, working in the city of Córdoba, use Sierras Chicas as a bedroom", which in turn generated occupations in floodplains. The capital, of the same name as the province, is the second city in the country and concentrates more than 40 percent of the provincial population.
“It is understandable that we are more and more and we need decent housing, but there is so little control that -for example- the construction of two houses on a stream was authorized and, of course, today they are flooded and the street destroyed by the diversion of the stream itself, ”Suárez added.
Montenegro called for the watershed committees to be reactivated to avoid these tragedies. While Kopta urged that the laws of urban planning and forest protection be applied, to reorganize and protect the territory, including the advice of geologists and geomorphologists.
He also considered it necessary for infrastructure works to contemplate the new climate reality.
"Sometimes when the bridges are not big enough, they act as dikes, where the trunks and remains of trees carried by the flood are blocked, causing the water to rise and flood," he exemplified.
Suárez referred to other cases of "bad planning of works" such as roads "that do not have an environmental impact assessment."
Some engineers, Kopta recalled, propose preventive works such as "retention ponds" to reduce water runoff. But above all, he emphasized, "we must increase the area of native forests, control of exotic species and care for forests and pastures, to prevent them from catching fire in overgrazing areas."
These meteorological phenomena "are no longer atypical", emphasized Suárez, for whom it is not paradoxical "that today we are experiencing floods and a year ago we were fighting over a drop of water." “It is what we are going to live for the environmental damage suffered. The province no longer has environmental resistance and any event will turn into a tragedy ”, he warned.