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Colombia evacuates at-risk populations around Huila and Machín 28 January 2009

Posted by admin in Colombia, Machín, natural hazards, Nevado del Huila, volcano monitoring.
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Where you have substantial populations living in close proximity to active and dangerous volcanoes, you can’t move the volcano but you can move the people. Colombia appears to have embarked upon a policy of relocating the populations of volcanically at-risk areas, beginning with Nevado del Huila and Cerro Machín.

The news from Colombia is that the national government is moving quickly to carry into effect its decision to evacuate Belalcázar, the town most at risk from an eruption of Nevado del Huila. If that is so, it is probably a good thing. A report published in El Espectador on 25 January 2009 paints a bleak picture of life in the town since a large part of it was destroyed by lahars unleashed through the Páez valley by Huila’s November 2008 eruption.

Belalcázar High School (reports El Espectador) was left ruined and classes for its 1200 students are suspended until further notice, says the principal, Sister María Odilia Perdomo Leiva: ‘The laboratories, cinema, books, documents, chairs, desks and computers were devoured by the river’. Looting has taken place in flood-damaged properties. The price of almost everything has gone up since the damage to bridges and roads left the town almost isolated. Internet and telephone connections are unreliable. The mayor of the town ordered the construction of a pedestrian bridge across the Páez, ‘but the work was badly done and the structure collapsed’, causing an accident that injured a child. The only way of crossing river is the tarabita, a form of cable-car, and locals complain that the fare for using the cable is extortionate: ‘a means of communication has been converted into a means of profit for the owners of the cable’.

The Belalcázar municipal authorities have been saying that the relocation process will take a long time – the secretary of the town government, Eloy Muñoz Salazar, is quoted as saying that he did not believe the evacuation would happen this year: ‘It will take a long time, there will be a social, economic, structural and populational study before the evacuation of the town begins’. The atmosphere in the town has been one of anxiety. ‘The streets are nearly empty and the population gathers in the central park during the day to talk about the future of the town, since the municipal authorities do not seem to know anything … In the shops, stores and bars of Belalcázar the talk is of the relocation’. Of course, there is a human cost to relocation, with people unhappy at having to leave their home town, worried about recouping the value of the property they will be leaving behind, and concerned about where they will end up and what the future will bring.

In the last few days, however, it seems that the national government has decided to end any uncertainty by acting without any of the prolonged studies predicted by Muñoz Salazar, motivated no doubt by the current INGEOMINAS forecast of an eruption of Huila ‘within days or weeks’. The National Emergencies Directorate has confirmed the beginning of the ‘final relocation of most of the inhabitants of Belalcázar municipality in Cauca department’, reports Caracol Radio:

In the first instance 800 families will leave who would be at high risk in the event of a fifth eruption of Huila volcano, provoking an avalanche that would descend the valleys of the Páez and Simbola rivers. The town is located on the left bank of the Páez river, less than one kilometre from where the Simbola river empties into the course of the forementioned river, thus forming the point of greatest risk in the event of an avalanche. Luz Amanda Pulido, director of national emergencies, told Caracol Radio that there is no estimate of how much the relocation will cost.

According to [Pulido], the national government will provide the resources necessary for moving these families from the zone of risk.

La Patria also reports that 800 families will begin to be relocated this week. ‘”The process is in the hands of the communities. They are the ones who will tell us of the most suitable sites for their relocation”, said Luz Amanda Pulido, director of the Sistema Nacional de Atención y Prevención de Desastres’. In the same story, La Patria reports that similar preventive measures are being taken around Machín volcano, which has been showing signs of restlessness recently:

As well as Nevado del Huila, action is also being taken at Machín volcano in Tolima. Cortolima and Invias are readying evacuation routes and purchasing land in at-risk areas … The director of the Corporación Autónoma del Tolima, Cortolima, Carmen Sofía Bonilla, announced that the work being done with the Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi, Igac, concerned with the valuation and purchase of 45 properties that are close to the volcano, is advancing satisfactorily, and that priority is being given to 7 sites around the dome.

It seems that the Colombian government is determined to address the dangers posed by its volcanoes by moving people from harm’s way wherever possible, rather than risking another Armero. The larger the population, of course, the more complex and expensive relocation becomes: no-one is suggesting moving Pasto (population 450,000) from its location at the foot of Galeras. If you can’t move everyone, it is vital to keep them as safe as possible through effective and robust monitoring and early warning systems, evacuation procedures, and public information policies.

For all our Nevado del Huila coverage: Nevado del Huila « The Volcanism Blog.

Comenzó desaparición de BelalcázarEl Espectador, 25 January 2009
800 familias abandonarán Belalcázar ante la amenaza del Huila – Caracol Radio, 26 January 2009
El Gobierno nacional dio la orden de salida de los pobladores de Belalcázar (Cauca)La Patria, 26 January 2009

Global Volcanism Program: Nevado del Huila – summary information for Nevado del Huila (1501-05=)
Portal Corporativo de INGEOMINAS – main page for the Instituto Colombiano de Geología y Minería
INGEOMINAS Popayán – main page for the Observatorio Popayán, which monitors Nevado del Huila

The Volcanism Blog