Rivers Have A Memory, Lessons From The Landslide Of Mocoa

A deadly flash flood and landslide in southern Colombia is a brutal reminder that people can't take the environment for granted.

Rivers Have A Memory, Lessons From The Landslide Of Mocoa
Gloria Guevara


CALI — As humans we've been ignoring nature when we take decisions that affect our progress. We rush to conquer territories, increase the areas we cultivate for food, and extract minerals like coal from the earth's bowels to fuel our society. Every day we want more and more, and we perform immeasurable feats to satiate our greed. But when nature strikes back, we grow weak and look for culprits to blame for everything going on around us.

We already know how brutal nature can be: temperatures become extreme, cold snaps kill the vulnerable. Interminable droughts cut off our access to water but we've also witnessed the opposite: when water rushes in from under our doors or mixes with boulders and mud to come crashing down on us.

The question remains: Who is guilty when natural disasters strike? Who should we blame? After a landslide destroyed the Colombian town of Mocoa in the southern department of Putumayo, it may not be easy to answer those questions right now. More than 1.5 million people suffered from flooding this past winter in Colombia. And that doesn't include the victims of the April 1 flash flood and landslide in Mocoa, where the death toll has risen above 300.

Many attribute phenomena like torrential rain to global warming and, they are right considering the changes in the movement and release of vast amounts of water in different microclimates. But we must also consider people's carelessness when occupying mountainsides, stripping these areas of tree cover and leaving them vulnerable to soil erosion.

Rivers, too, have an almost instinctive tendency to seek out historical courses in spite of recent changes to the landscape or the presence of vegetation. Rivers, it is often said here, have a memory — and that can become a calamity waiting to happen. These ancient courses are often ignored when communities expand. Our grandparents spoke of the histories of water sources and how rivers would previously cover varied terrain. They warned us against settling near rivers without knowing their histories. It's unwise to build on sunken terrain like that which exists in several parts of Cali. For now, residents in this city are protected by a dike, which disturbingly, is increasingly covered by illegal settlements (the jarillón). In recent years, Cali has expanded northeast, onto terrain previously covered by tributaries of the Cauca river.

Civil engineering is certainly important and benefits lives but we also need knowledge of water, risk management and environment. This ensures we can keep living in our beloved Santiago de Cali, a district at high risk of flooding.

I don't see a single culprit when it comes to natural disasters, whether it is climate change, careless communities or mismanagement by the local government. It is our collective fault, for our lack of understanding and failure to make decisions that favor life over profits. We must adopt social and scientific perspectives that involve reconciliation with nature. We must understand the dynamics of our environment.

It is time to proceed with caution across a planet that's changing from the one we have known.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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