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Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 16:23 GMT
Disaster - but was it natural?

stream Leaping for their lives in Caracas: The cities lure the poor into a trap

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Venezuela is no stranger to disaster. Although officials say the rainfall which caused the present floods was the heaviest this century, the country has gone through earlier agonies.

But it is possible that human pressures have made this tragedy worse than it might otherwise have been.

Venezuela Floods
Venezuela is one of the most urbanised countries in Latin America, with 85% of its people living in cities and towns. That figure is matched only by Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Luis Oswaldo Baez, a United Nations official in the capital, Caracas, says the Venezuelan environment ministry has ample information on the dangers of flooding in the areas that were worst damaged.

He believes people should have been discouraged from living in the risky areas, a conclusion that many other governments are beginning to reach as they find their own people settling in floodplains and on river banks.

Increased severity

The problem is simply spelt out in 'Reinventing Cities for People and the Planet', published last June by the Worldwatch Institute, based in Washington DC.

"Roads prevent water from seeping into the ground. Thus rain runs off pavement straight into channels, where it speeds into rivers and streams, causing more severe floods than would occur if plants and soil soaked up some of the deluge."

santa One Venezuelan puts a brave face on things
In several other countries the loss of forests has worsened the impact of heavy rains, as the water rushes quickly down to the nearest stream, unimpeded by tree roots and the soil they keep stable.

The World Wide Fund for Nature says this means the ecology of many parts of Latin America is at risk because of the pressures to exploit its timber.

"The current emphasis on free trade, privatisation, and market forces, with no concern for environmental policies and regulations, threatens the region's natural resources.

Hungry elite

"Privatisation has typically targeted such resources as forests, minerals and oil. People are leaving rural communities to go where jobs are - in the cities.

"As a result, natural resource management is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small land-owning elite eager to make quick profits."

And Venezuela's horrors are in line with another recent trend, rapidly-accelerating havoc caused by extremes of weather.

The cost of weather-related damage in 1996 was $60bnn, a record sum - until 1998, when the total reached $92bn.

By the cruellest of ironies, 2000 marks the end of the UN's international decade for natural disaster reduction

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20 Aug 99 |  Sci/Tech
Deathtrap cities keep growing
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