With approximately 20,000 inhabitants residing in high-risk areas, most of them in the outskirts of the city, there is a constant fear that the upcoming rains accompanying the El Niño phenomenon will lead to further disasters.
Rómulo Coraizaca, a resident of Los Pinos Altos in the north of Cuenca, lives in constant fear that his home will be engulfed by the mountain looming in front of his house. The entire neighborhood lives under the threat of a massive landslide that has them in captivity.
Describing his fears, Marco Fárez, another resident, expressed their collective worry, “We cannot sleep; when it rains, it seems that everything will fall apart, that we are going to wake up with our houses destroyed, because it has happened before.”
Decade old problems
The problems in these peripheral areas began over a decade ago, and despite the emergency declaration in 2019, not all stabilization efforts have been completed.
In 2013, nearly 20 homes were destroyed in the Jaime Roldós citadel, located in the Miraflores sector. The heavy and continuous rains this year have once again wreaked havoc, with large cracks appearing in March 2023, and accumulated water detected on the mountain by residents.
Between March and June, landslides have occurred frequently, leaving mud at the doorsteps of homes and blocking the narrow streets of the neighborhood. The affected area spans 2,500 square meters, putting dozens of homes at risk. Responding to the residents’ pleas, the Municipality initiated mitigation work in June.
As the remedial work progresses, only two families remain at the foot of the landslide, as others have fled in fear. Rómulo Coraizaca, compelled by his reliance on his carpentry shop located in his home, stays put, observing the machinery’s efforts to dislodge the earth and fortify the mountain, hoping for peaceful sleep in the near future.
Over 20,000 people affected
The plight experienced by the residents of the Jaime Roldós citadel is mirrored in other vulnerable sectors of Cuenca, such as Nulti, Los Trigales, Llacao, Paccha, Turi, Sinincay, Sayausí, and Sidcay. These areas, located on the outskirts of the city, have already suffered damages from heavy rains in the early months of this year.
In late May 2023, Baños witnessed a flood in El Lirio, leaving 25 people homeless and decimating crops. Residents there fear that another flood may engulf their homes. In 2022, the Marianza sector experienced a devastating flood, resulting in the loss of homes and five lives. The lingering fear of heavy rains persists among the residents, particularly after a lesser magnitude landslide caused damages to homes in May.
These emergencies occurring during regular rainy seasons have raised concerns among authorities about the impending El Niño phenomenon, set to strike Ecuador in the coming months.
According to the updated Land Management Plan of 2022, mass movements, specifically landslides, pose the greatest threat to Cuenca. Around 20,474 inhabitants, approximately 3.27% of Cuenca’s population, reside in areas highly susceptible to mass movements.
The expected heavy rains this year could potentially trigger such disasters, especially in informal settlements, explains Erick Gutiérrez, the director of Risk Management for the Municipality of Cuenca. Although vulnerable areas have been identified by the local government, many families refuse to evacuate due to a lack of alternative accommodations. Some homeowners also do not qualify for compensation due to illegal constructions or lack of proper documentation.
Contingency plans are in place
In response to these challenges, the Municipality of Cuenca has begun working on a contingency plan in anticipation of the El Niño phenomenon. On June 15, 2023, the Cantonal Council established the Occasional Risk Management Commission with the objective of implementing preventive measures against potential disasters associated with this phenomenon. The authorities have commenced stream cleaning and resident training to enhance water management. Additionally, neighborhoods affected by previous disasters but still awaiting necessary mitigation works are also a priority.
As the Municipality of Cuenca endeavors to address the pressing concerns and risks posed by landslides, the hope remains that these measures will provide a sense of security and stability for the affected communities.