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On Costa Rica and its Natural Disasters

In November 06, m7 will travel to Costa Rica to partcipate in ‘Estrecho Dudoso’ - an international art event arranged as part of San Jose´s celebrations as Iberoamerican Capital of Culture 2006. m7 are organising an iteration of Inundacion! to be played in a four-day workshop. This post collects together information found on the internet about local flooding conditions, which could in turn inform how the framework for the version of the game in San Jose is constructed.

Not necessarily directly related to flooding….I like this fact nonetheless: the idea that Costa Rica is ‘geologically speaking’ rather young: it is only three million years old. It suffers frequent earthquakes caused by the collision of two main tectonic plates (the last serious one was in April ‘91), active volcanoes (in the sixties the Irazu volcano showered ash and clouds of smoke over San Jose for two years) and during its rainy season (May to September), flooding and landslides. The average yearly precipitation is 100 inches nationwide, with excess of rain often causing flooding in low-lying areas of the country along the Atlantic Coast. Droughts sometimes occur in the Northern Pacific section of the country.

The most severe flooding in recent years was in late November and early December of 2002 when a cold front generated rains which inundated 110 communities, with waters rising to a metre and a half in some areas. 7 people were killed, 53 injured, 25,000 homes damaged, 3000 acres of crops destroyed and 65,000 people were affected in sum by the worst flooding in more than 30 years. A month’s worth of rain fell on the night of Nov 23rd alone. The provinces of Limon, Heredia and Cartagon were most severely affected.

CR Turrialba Map

The Emergency National Commission organised the search-and-rescues and provided food, water and shelter for evacuees. It was aided heavily by the Costa Rican Red Cross, who also received supplies from their German and US counterparts. Emergency strategies were informed by a team of disaster experts located in the region known as PADRU (the Pan American Disaster Response Unit).

In May 2004 Costa Rica declared a state of emergency when flooding killed two, forced the evacuation of 7500 and damaged twelve bridges. In January 2005 the Carribean region of Costa Rica received 35 cm of rain in one day, the biggest volume ever recorded in a single day in this region. Five people died and 6062 people evacuated. In September 2005 major flooding was caused by Hurricane Rita, the hurricane that followed close on the heels of Katrina. Meanwhile some 50% of disaster related damage and losses in San Jose over the last 35 years have been caused by floods. Apparently “hypotheses suggest that recurrent flood events are the result of a progressive risk building by hydrometeorological events, and not the consequence of the hydrologic and meteorological dynamics of the rivers themselves”. Hmmm, tell me if you understand what this means!

NASA CR image

Turrialba City suffers particularly severe urban flooding, related to the occurrence of torrential rainfall from humid winds off the Caribbean Sea but also due to “wrong policies in urban and land use planning”. For example uncontrolled urban expansion along river courses has narrowed their channels and discharge capacity so that the amount of rainfall necessary to cause a flood has been decreasing. Flashfloods are caused by small rivers coming down from the mountains of the Turrialba Volcano. The maps below are from flood vulnerability assessments that mapped several different flood scenarios onto information about slope, drainage pattern, grain size, permeability of different areas of the city. The diagram underneath them shows the ´flood risk assessment methodology.´

CR Vulnerabiliyt Maps for Varying Flood Depths

CR Flood Risk Assessment Methodology Diagram

San Jose, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be a locus in Central America for disaster-related conferences. These are summaries of a few different ones I found.

A conference on “Components of an Integrated Program for Flood Vulnerability Reduction and the Development of Local Warning Systems in Central America” brought together national and municipal governments, local planning, health, water and emergency managers, representatives from agriculture, transport and energy sectors and NGOs active in environmental, community and infrastructure development “to develop planning processes for management and response, damage mitigation projects in the river valleys and community preparedness for emergency warning and response”. Topics discussed included the design of warning systems, local monitoring and flood forecasting models and the implementation of a preparedness program, presented in the form of local workshops and response simulations.

CR Water Measuring Device

In May 1999 San Jose hosted the "World Meeting of NGOs, Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples on Wetlands" with the participation of 110 delegates from 21 countries and more that 500 local, national and international organizations and coalitions. The representatives were concerned about the destruction of wetlands around the world from dam construction and the serious impact, including increased flooding problems, that dams have on the communities that depend on the resources provided by wetlands. They called for a moratorium on the construction of new hydroelectric dams, including a cluster of eighty small but destructive dams in Costa Rica.

In January 2006, the World Hyperbase of Disaster Reducation Technology Implementation Strategies had a third meeting in San Jose. The Hyperbase is a plan for an evolving public database of disaster-reduction information. Rather than just providing information about hazards, the goal is for the project to contain useful mitigation experiences, procedures and methodologies for prevention. At the conference participants discussed its content, its architecture and its management. Will it be an active catalyst or a passive library for example? What is the relationship between the ‘knowledge producers’ and the ‘change agents’ (users)? How can they make it accessible to a wide variety of users with limited access to technology? Will the architecture be a traditional database or a self-organising system? What will motivate people to contribute to it, “in short be sure that if you build it, they will come”?

To imagine the database from the perspective of users they created three stories, using the scenario of a library (“who goes in and out, what is on the shelves, why are people going there, what advertising or events led them there”), an interagency agreement with technological implementation, and a local government using it to prevent flood loss. Interestingly they used Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point as a reference in a discussion about how to get more grassroots actors to care about risk reduction. The conference notes also record that “around 8pm there will be a surprise” but unfortunately that was the last of the text. Perhaps Malcolm himself showed up!

In March 2006 The International Workshop on Flash Flood Forecasting was held in San Jose, co-ordinated by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstrations National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Organisation. The conference provided information on types of flash flood prediction capabilities for ‘at risk’ regions in developing countries, determined weak links in the warning systems and engaged in dialogue with potential donor organisations. The workshop which perked my interest from the list was entitled ‘Ice Jams and their Hydrological Implications’ by a Mr Sergei Borsch from the Federal Service for Hydrometeoroloy in Russia! In looking up exactly what an 'ice jam' is ('an accumulation of broken river or sea ice caught in a narrow channel') I also discoverd there exists in technical terminology ice aprons, ice blinks, ice fogs, ice veins, ice quakes and ice cakes!

San Jose has also hosted a group of Latin American Disaster Researchers known as La Red, who argue that not enough attention is given to small and medium size disasters that are more common than the catastrophes that catch national media attention. They have developed a computer based accounting system called DESINVENTAR for compiling chronologies of these disasters. The information “underscores the vulnerability of people in rapidly growing megacities in a period of economic stringency” and demonstrates how the cause of floods is often not rainfall itself but "uncontrolled development of green spaces and natural water catchment areas, along with broken or refuse-choked drains."

The NWP (Netherlands Water Partnership) also seems to be developing some kind of dialogue with Costa Rica on the theme of ‘Global Climate Change and Urban Flood Mitigation.’ Their program explores how to integrate urban flood planning with urban planning….how to incentivise local actors to consider flood risk and the ‘long horizon’ in the context of uncertainty about future climate change….and how to use flood management not simply for safety but also to ‘minimise economic damage’ and to ‘improve spatial qualities’.

Lastly, I also came across a PHD report entitled Developing a Paradigm for Disaster Recovery in Central America.’ Although the four case studies were from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador there was some interesting, more general content in the introduction. For example: “disasters are not solvable problems. They are physical, political, economic and social events to be mitigated, managed and learned from.” In Central America where “disasters are woven into the fabric of community life” the generic recovery model, used to organise and manage post-disaster efforts involves “a series of linked actions are programmed, ending in a return to normalcy.” But a second paradigm is gradually emerging – the transformative path. This emerging paradigm “views disaster recovery as a mechanism of social transformation at many levels, but predominantly local and regional.” The report explores four examples of the latter paradigm using a comparative conceptual model based on vulnerability, community assets, claims and access, where “the ability of a community to sustain any improvement over time is a function of both its internal capacities (the degree of horizontal integration) and its external capacity (vertical integration) to utilise the non-local resource within its sphere of influence (national, state and international cooperation).” Etc!

CR Flooding 02
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