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Cartagena struggles to get pioneering climate plan into action

When the historic Caribbean seaport city of Cartagena drew up a long-term plan for climate change adaptation in 2014, it was hailed as a pioneer. But three years later, the so-called Plan 4C – Competitive and Climate Compatible Cartagena – is still struggling to get off the drawing board and has not yet been officially included in the city’s urban planning policies. If, as officials hope, the plan is finally submitted for approval by the city next year, only then will Cartagena start fully implementing its recommendations.

The plan’s boosters hope that the city can become a model of urban and coastal planning by 2040, basing its development on environmental standards that take climate change into account. But progress has stumbled due to administrative challenges – including a rapid turnover of mayors – and a lack of financial resources, critics say.

Around the world, countries and cities are making plans to deal with worsening climate change impacts – such as more extreme weather – and trying to put into action promises to reduce their emissions made as part of the 2015 international Paris Agreement on climate change.

But getting those plans and actions incorporated into larger national and city processes can be challenging, and is one reason action to deal with climate change in many places remains slower than what is needed. Cartagena, founded in the mid-16th century by the Spanish crown, is now Colombia’s biggest tourist draw, with almost 2 million visitors a year.

The city of a million people is also the base for 2,500 industries and factories responsible for 6 percent of Colombia’s GDP, while its port handles 60 percent of the country’s maritime trade, according to the Plan 4C. But one-third of its population lives below the poverty line and many are the most vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes and other severe storms that are becoming stronger and more frequent as oceans warm.

“The ocean currents and intense local storms in the rainy season (September to November), added to abundant precipitation in very short periods of time, make the city vulnerable,” said Francisco Arias, director of the Institute for Marine and Coastal Research (INVEMAR), in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. In 2010, flooding left extensive areas of the city submerged for months, affecting 50,000 residents. The waterlogged areas became a breeding ground for mosquitoes that can carry diseases such as Zika, dengue, malaria and chikungunya, Arias said.

“I believe it was related to climate change. The city was not prepared. There was no planning nor responsiveness,” Arias said. Rising sea levels also pose a long-term threat to Colombia’s coastal gem. INVEMAR predicts the city could see the sea bordering it rise by as much as 20cm (7.8 inches) by 2040. Rainfall is likely to increase by 30 percent during the same period, according to an analysis in the Plan 4C.

Cartagena’s climate action plan was the product of four years of work to create a roadmap for policies to minimise Cartagena’s climate vulnerabilities. Contributors included 80 institutions, research centres and public authorities, as well as representatives of industries and tourism businesses. The plan warns that, unless action is taken, about 27 percent of households and 35 percent of roads in the city could be flooded by 2040, under the worst-case scenario.

“If we don’t take the necessary measures, the losses might be quite high,” Arias said. The plan proposes moving approximately 300,000 people out of high-risk areas to better-protected zones on higher ground. As part of the effort to prevent flooding losses, INVEMAR has recommended updating urban planning policies to remove flood-prone areas from the property market. Such a move would require approval from the city council.

Currently such land remains available for building, whether for low-income homes or luxury houses and hotels. That is in part because Cartagena’s climate plan, for now, remains on paper. Thanks in part to rapid changes in political leadership – the city has had five mayors since 2008 – it has not yet become a legal framework, which means that the city is not obliged to implement it.

“That is the major problem we have encountered,” said Francisco Castillo, a city official who helped develop the climate change adaptation plan between 2008 and 2015. “The most urgent step is to have it as a legal norm.” The new administration, however, has restarted the long-interrupted process of revising urban planning codes, and Castillo hopes that in 2018, the city will finally be able to start implementing the climate plan’s recommendations.

He said the city is already planning some projects, such as expanding coastal protection and increasing the distance between buildings and the sea to 100 metres along 1.7 km of Cartagena’s coast using landfill. The $43 million project will get the necessary environmental licenses by 2018, he said. The city’s rainwater drainage system also is being extended at a cost of $667,000 and is due to be completed in five year’s time, he said.

Still, Arias argues that money for improving infrastructure often does not go where it is needed, and works are sometimes not completed. Plan 4C estimates the cost of adapting Cartagena to coming climate change challenges to be around $500 million. It calls for the 100 hectares of the walled old city of Cartagena – declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984 – to be kept at least 200 metres from the sea. As sea level rises, this will require a system of dams, dikes and breakwaters.

Without those, up to 86 percent of historic Cartagena – including much of the old city – will be invaded by the Atlantic, the climate plan warns. One third of the industrial sector could also be impacted, and all the city’s beaches could vanish, it says. Castillo said most residents are now aware of the rising risks.

“We have to do something about the floods. It is a reality for Cartagena. If we don’t do anything, in five years we’ll be shipwrecked. We already have areas that are permanently flooded by 45cm (17 inches) in the rainy season,” he said. Asked why buildings are still being built along the beaches, Castillo blamed inadequate environmental monitoring and control, which he said should be done by the municipality together with the national government.

Protecting Cartagena against risking climate threats will require more resources than the city itself can put together, he warned. “We should have measures for better monitoring, but we don’t have them today. It is expensive to adapt Cartagena. Every work done on the coast is always costly,” he said.

Fabiola Ortiz, "Cartagena struggles to get pioneering climate plan into action," Reuters. 2017-09-10.
Keywords: Environmental science , Rainy season , Political leadership , Climate , Population , GDP

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