El Nino brings drought to Venezeula, and exposes a flooded town

By Daniel Collins 16/03/2010

El Nino means different things to different people. “The boy”, in Spanish, in weather-related circles it is the warm phase of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern. The cold phase is La Nina (“the girl”).

To Venezeulans, El Nino means a little more: drought. But this year’s drought brought a blast from the past – bitter-sweet memories. Water levels in the Uribante-Caparo reservoir have dropped so low, people can visit the Andean town of Potosi that was flooded in 1985 when the reservoir was first filled.

“Former town resident Josefa Garcia, 74, is grateful for the drought, even though it has triggered Venezuela’s worst-ever electricity crisis.

Standing in the shadow of a usually submerged 85-foot-high (26-meter-high) high church here, Garcia vividly recalls when then-President Carlos Andres Perez swooped in by helicopter to tell residents the town would soon be flooded.”

“He said we’d all be expropriated and we had to leave,” Garcia said, standing in the old village square. “It took our hope away.”
Before its flooding, this Andean town of around 1,200 in the western state of Tachira was evacuated and its residents dispersed around the country. Garcia moved to a nearby region, and had never revisited her former town until now.

National Geographic has some before-after photos of the church.

The history of reservoir development is studded with forced relocations. The government decides that the country needs irrigation or hydropower, and the residents of the valley are moved. Sometimes compensated, sometimes not, or not enough. This story rings true around the globe, West and East, North and South. Increasingly, the liberal democracies have phased out the practice, finding too much resistance or alternative options. Elsewhere, the forced migrations continue and we’ll visit some over the coming weeks. I wonder what John Rawls would have thought…