12.21.10

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Flooding In Colombia

MR. LEAHY.  Mr. President, I want to take a minute to call attention to a humanitarian disaster that has received only passing mention in the international press and which many Senators may be unaware of. 

On December 7th, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos declared a state of “economic, social and ecologic emergency” as a result of massive flooding which he called a “public calamity”.

Heavy rains over a period of months have caused landslides that have swept away homes and rivers to overflow their banks, and now large areas of the country are inundated with water.  According to a December 17th report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs which is assisting the Colombian government, so far 2.1 million people have been affected by the flooding, 270 have died, 62 are missing, and more than 300,000 houses have been damaged or destroyed. Thousands of miles of roads have been obstructed, damaged or destroyed. 

Twenty-eight of the country’s 32 departments, which comprise 61 percent of the country, have been affected.  President Santos said the number of homeless from the flooding could reach 2 million, and that “the tragedy the country is going through has no precedents in our history.”  What’s worse, the rains are expected to continue through next June. 

I do not have to remind anyone here of our close relationship with Colombia.  I also know Colombia has emergency response capabilities which may not exist in remote areas of other countries similarly affected by severe flooding or other natural disasters, such as Pakistan.  I was pleased to learn that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has people in Colombia because the devastation is on a scale more massive than any developing country could deal with alone.  There may also be other ways we can provide assistance.

I also want to use this opportunity to note what appears to be the growing number and intensity of natural disasters around the world that are straining the international community’s emergency response capabilities.  While no single weather event can be definitively attributed to climate change, scientists have long predicted an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events as a result of global warming.  They also predict that as many as 200 million people could be displaced by natural disasters and climate change by 2050.  That would cause incalculable havoc for many countries. 

President Santos, who to his credit has been out in the countryside with people who have lost family members, homes and, in many cases, everything they own, said he canceled his trip to the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun so he could deal with the devastation that climate change is causing in his own country.  Pakistani government officials likewise blamed climate change for the massive floods there that have affected more than 20 million people over the past several months.

Whatever the cause, and there isn’t time today to discuss my views about the role that deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels play in global warming, the world’s climate is unquestionably changing.  And a disproportionate number of recent climate related disasters has occurred in the world’s poorest countries where most people’s lives depend on agriculture.  They have seen their homes destroyed, crops drowned in water and buried in mud, and what few possessions they have swept away.  Other countries have suffered years of drought, and water sources that have sustained life for centuries have dried up.  In as little as 25 years, glaciers that millions of people and their livestock depend on for drinking water have shrunk to a fraction of their size.

These issues are going to occupy our time and severely tax our resources for the foreseeable future, and we and other countries urgently need to develop plans to try to prevent and adapt to climate change and to respond when disaster strikes. 

I am encouraged that there is a new field of research specifically focused on better understanding, preventing and responding to large scale displacement of people as a result of climate change and natural disasters.  Nongovernmental and international organizations are working to develop strategies to protect the world's most vulnerable people from this growing threat.  We need to support this and work together.

I want to commend President Santos who has not only helped to alert the world to a catastrophe that had previously gone largely unnoticed outside his country, but who has taken other important steps in his first months of office that have won the respect and support of the Colombian people.  His efforts to diffuse tensions with Colombia’s neighbors, to begin tackling head on the daunting economic, social and judicial challenges facing Colombia, and to appoint several top officials who have the necessary qualifications and integrity, are admirable. 

After a decade of Plan Colombia, U.S.-Colombia relations are entering a new phase.  While there will likely continue to be issues about which we disagree, I look forward to working with President Santos and his government on a wide range of issues of mutual interest and concern. 

I yield the floor.    

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