San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Thousands at Risk From Natural Disasters

Urban planning is the Achilles’ heel of Costa Rica.

Houses sprawl up and down steep, frail mountainsides; they line waterways, precariously built on riverbanks with running water only inches away. Tragedy seems almost inevitable. 

As residents cope with the loss of life caused by Hurricane Tomas’ heavy rains this month, some say that faulty planning not only worsened the damage, but also helped cause it.

A 2002 study by geologists from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) warned of the possibility of dangerous landslides at Pico Blanco, a mountain above the western suburb of San Antonio de Escazú, where a Nov. 4 collapse killed 26 people and left one person missing and presumed dead (TT, Nov. 12, Nov. 5).  

Escazu Landslide

Destruction in Calle Lajas.

Ronald Reyes | Tico Times

The study, which analyzed geographical data in the heavily populated suburbs of Santa Ana and Escazú, noted that “potential dangers exist for the eventual collapse of large blocks from Pico Blanco, … [yet the area] is slowly becoming populated with more and more houses.”

Foreshadowing this month’s disaster, geologists predicted that debris could fall from 400 meters up the mountainside at a speed of 120 kph.

“What is clear is that the government must decide to discourage construction in areas of high risk,” said UCR geologist Guillermo Alvarado, who co-authored the study.

In the case of Pico Blanco, Alvarado acknowledges it would have been impossible to predict when a landslide would occur or to remove residents already living there.

But living in harm’s way is an ongoing problem for Costa Rican residents.

In San José’s greater metropolitan area, approximately 50,000 people live in areas prone to floods and landslides, according to 2008 research by the Regional and Urban Plan for the Greater Metropolitan Area (PRUGAM), a mixed public and private urban zoning initiative.

Part of PRUGAM’s mandate is to identify environmentally sensitive areas where construction should be limited or restricted, and to provide municipalities with guidance in establishing new zoning plans.

Plans to move forward are currently under review by the Housing Ministry, but President Laura Chinchilla last week spoke of the need to refocus on urban planning issues. She said approval of PRUGAM is “fundamental,” and necessary to minimize the impact of natural disasters.

She also acknowledged that moving forward with PRUGAM would be a long process. 

“It’s like slowly kicking a ball forward. It’s going to take a long time for Costa Rica to ultimately resolve this issue,” Chinchilla said.

Meanwhile, Chinchilla asked municipal authorities to “use their power” to find ways to relocate families in high-risk zones. One option is to seek out new locations for housing development and finance moves with short-term subsidies for families living in dangerous areas.

But relocating people who refuse to leave is another matter.

Fernando Montero, owner of a small house in Lourdes de Aserrí, a neighborhood south of San José where dozens of homes were destroyed during flash floods and landslides two weeks ago, said he is staying put and has nowhere else to go.

Montero, an appliance repairman, has lived next to the river for 15 years.

“I’m invested here,” he said as he looked up the river to where a two-story house, destroyed by the storms, lay in shambles. He knows staying is risky. But he said he is “too stubborn to leave.”

Government officials have used this type of reticence to defend their decision to allow residents to stay in dangerous areas.

According to Costa Rica’s Forestry Law, houses must be built at least 10 meters from the edge of any waterway, a law only loosely enforced here. In Escazú, many of the houses destroyed by Pico Blanco’s recent landslides were built directly on the banks of the river at Calle Lajas, the small neighborhood were much of the damage occurred.

Escazú’s mayor, Marco Segura, this week blamed residents for building on public land too close to the river, according to the daily La Nación. He said municipal officials had been meeting to figure out how to remove the residents when the disaster struck.  

Also this week, experts from the Costa Rican Geologists Association and officials from the National Emergency Commission (CNE) held a national forum on development and disasters, hoping to find the best way to handle disasters and minimize damage should they occur – a task CNE President Vanessa Rosales said was both “critical” and “being put to the test.”

Still, Costa Rica’s terrain is rugged and disasters can strike at any time.

“As geologists, we can say an area is dangerous, but we can’t say when something will happen,” Alvarado said. “It could be today, or it could be 100 years from now.”

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