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  • Indigenous communities on the Cauca river had warned of the dangers while the dam was still under construction.

    Indigenous communities on the Cauca river had warned of the dangers while the dam was still under construction. | Photo: @RiosVivosCol

Published 22 May 2018
Opinion

Indigenous communities on the Cauca river had warned of the environmental dangers while the hydroelectric dam was still under construction.

At least 25,000 people in Colombia have been evacuated after fresh floods caused by the Ituango hydroelectric dam on Monday followed the flooding of the Cauca river on May 12.

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The failure of the dam forced about 5,000 people living on the riverside to leave their homes during the last flood, which razed a village, including two bridges, a school and a clinic.

Public Services of Medellin (EPM), the company in charge of the project, said the latest flow is "moderate," but the amount of water is enough to raise the Cauca river to dangerous levels.

The National Unit of Risk and Disaster Management (Ungrd) ordered the evacuation of Puerto Valdivia, Puerto Antioquia, and the Caceres and Taraza municipalities, which would be flooded within 48 minutes, two hours and two hours, ten minutes respectively if the dam breaks.

Other municipalities, such as Nechi and Caucasia, are on orange alert, while towns further downstream – such as San Jacinto del Cauca – are on yellow alert.

"The company is doing its best effort and works tirelessly to control the situation and assist the communities in the best way possible," EPM said in a statement.

"EPM is deeply concerned by the events, the effects on people, and reaffirms its gratefulness to citizens, authorities and organizations in solidarity."

Indigenous riverside communities and environmental activists have long warned about the risks of the project. In the wake of the disaster, they are now demanding the river be allowed to flow freely and the project be halted.

"The great environmental and social problem caused by #Hidroituango – that has severely affected the tranquility, the life projects, the subsistence means and the homes of the riverside communities in 17 localities in four departments, even threatening the lives of more than 120,000 people – is being managed by the same ones that caused it," said the Rios Vivos Movement of Antioquia, a social organization of riverside inhabitants opposing the hydroelectric project, and the Collective of Lawyers Jose Alvear Restrepo (CAJAR) in a statement.

"The ones responsible for this tragedy claim they're working on a solution, but don't take into account the affected communities nor their representative organisms, such as the Rios Vivos Movement of Antioquia.

"Part of this discriminatory management is the information bias by which the truth of what's happening is being hidden and manipulated, as well as the real dimension and imminence of the danger."

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A people's assembly in Puerto Valdivia, one of the displaced communities, raised two main issues: first, that the Cauca river must flow freely; second, that the Hidroituango dam wall actually worsens the problem. "It's not the people's will, but that of the EPM," one attendee said.

So far, calls have been issued for 25,234 people to be evacuated from various communities, but some are refusing to leave their homes because they fear that doing so could result in the loss of their land and property.

A police statement said: "We're trying to raise awareness among the few people that have not evacuated the locality, inviting them to do it as soon as possible. They can be confident that the police will take care of their property until the corresponding institutions determine if it's safe to come back."

The Rios Vivos Movement and CAJAR are calling on authorities to include representatives of the affected communities in the Unified Control Post to guarantee participation in management of the crisis and effective communication of important updates.

"We know we're ignorant because we haven't studied those things, but we can claim our rights because we're from Sabanalarga. I don't think there's someone here that's not from Sabanalarga. We're all from Sabanalarga,” says a man from a displaced community.

Rios Vivos claims the EPM's true intention is to oust the Indigenous Nutable people from the river basin because they are hampering so-called progess.

Neyla Castillo E., a researcher specializing in the cultures of the Cauca river, says the government is refusing to recognize the canyon's inhabitants: "The best way of erasing them – of eliminating them – is not recognizing them; turning them into a few families that have already 'been compensated for their lands and their houses,' paying them 170 pesos per square meter of land."

Castillo says part of the EPM's strategy has been criminalizing riverside communities, especially members of the Rios Vivos Movement, by accusing them of illegally occupying their own ancestral territory.

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