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by Diego Cevallos

Hurricane Stan Will Deepen Latin America Poverty For Decades (2005)

(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- Hit by torrential rains in the last 15 days, 80 percent of the southwestern Mexican state of Tabasco is under water, one million people have been left homeless and damages are estimated at five billion dollars. Recovery will take years.

But environmentalists and experts say the disaster could have been mitigated.

"The authorities did not do a good enough job, in spite of previous experiences and the existence of studies warning of the risk of large-scale flooding," Jorge Escandon, head of the Greenpeace Mexico climate change campaign, told IPS.

Critics point out that in Tabasco, which is on the Gulf of Mexico, housing, roads and shopping centres were built in places that are floodwater drainage areas.

Mishandling of the hydroelectric dams that surround the state, dubious use of public funds, lack of hydraulic infrastructure and a permissive attitude towards deforestation have also been singled out for blame.

"Against the backdrop of climate change, which is producing ever more extreme natural phenomena, itŐs clear that Tabasco did not do the right things," said Escandon.

With 25,000 square kilometres of mostly low-lying ground, Tabasco was pelted last week with an amount of rainfall equivalent to what the Mexican capital receives in a year and a half. The rivers swelled, broke their banks and flooded nearly everything.

It will take at least 100 days for the water levels to subside, sources at the state National Water Commission said on Tuesday, adding that the rainfall in Tabasco far exceeded the historic average.

Water levels slowly began to fall on Monday as the rains let up and the tide on the coast receded, allowing rivers to drain. However, the floodwaters remain.

One million people -- half the total population of Tabasco -- have lost their homes, businesses or crops.

Seventy thousand people are living in shelters, in their own state or in neighbouring Veracruz. Others were evacuated from the flooded areas in buses, and there are still hundreds of thousands who have stayed in their own flooded homes.

The adjacent state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, also has thousands of flood victims. On Sunday a hillside collapsed into a river, creating a giant wave that engulfed a rural village. The death toll is not yet known, but estimates vary between 16 and 80 people killed.

The government of conservative President Felipe Calderon has said that the top priority now is to concentrate on helping the victims, rather than look for people to blame for the catastrophes, which in his view are due "to enormous climate variations."

Several tons of food, clothing, household goods and water have arrived in Tabasco over the past five days. A large part of this aid is from voluntary donations by ordinary Mexicans, as well as contributions from several foreign governments.

Environmentalists and members of opposition parties agree that now every effort must be made to support those affected by the tragedy, but say that later they will also examine its causes, which in their view go beyond the torrential rains.

Tabasco has grown under planning strategies that failed to take into account extreme climate variables, in spite of warnings and precedents, said Escandon.

"There was corruption among the authorities," because no hydraulic engineering works have been carried out in the last 20 years, said AndrŽs Lopez Obrador, the former presidential candidate for the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), who is from Tabasco. The state is governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

According to Miguel Granados, an analyst for the leftwing weekly Proceso and the newspaper Reforma, "ineptitude, corruption or a mixture of the two, and other factors, added to the heavy rains, combined to produce the enormous suffering that is overwhelming the people of Tabasco."

Guadalupe Trevi–o, an expert consultant in hydraulics for private construction companies, told IPS that while Tabasco grew, the authorities "did not take seriously the fact" that the state is in a swampy, low-lying tropical area surrounded by rivers.

"Housing, highways and other infrastructure should not have been built, as they were, on land in the drainage course of floodwaters," she said.

"When the disaster is over thereŐll be lots of dirty linen to wash, and a number of past and present officials will be called to account for their irresponsibility," Trevi–o predicted.

Tabasco is one of the states carrying the most water in the country, due to its complex river network that flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Usumacinta and the Grijalva rivers, which carry higher volumes than any other river in the country, form a delta in Tabasco that pours 125 billion cubic metres of water a year into the Gulf.

The secretariat of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction issued a communiquŽ which said that the impact of the flooding in Tabasco could have been reduced by an early warning system and adequate land-use planning.

In 1999 Tabasco also suffered widespread flooding, though not to the same extent as at present. At that time, engineering works were planned and measures were promised to prevent such problems in the future.

Interior Minister Francisco Ram’rez said on Friday Nov. 2 that "it is quite certain that these works were never carried out, and it is quite certain that the corresponding investment has not been made in the past few years" to prevent flooding.

Ram’rez was speaking about the Integrated Flood Control Project, an official plan designed for Tabasco, costing some 260 million dollars. Doubts have arisen about how this money was spent, as 70 percent of it should have been invested by now, according to the plan.

The government of the state of Tabasco received an additional one billion dollars in the last seven years, and other allocations, to carry out works to mitigate potential floods.

"What happened to all that money? That is a question that will have to be answered. The evidence indicates that buildings were constructed in the wrong places and that the river basins were generally mismanaged," said the Greenpeace spokesman.

In the view of Sergio Sarmiento, a columnist for Reforma, "if the floods could really have been prevented by hydraulic engineering works, and if these had been planned and there were resources available for them, then we are talking not only about negligence, but criminal responsibility."

"But there are good reasons to believe that no hydraulic infrastructure could have stemmed the enormous floods in Tabasco," brought on by quantities of rain that have never been seen before, said Sarmiento.

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Albion Monitor   November 7, 2007   (

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