Over the years there have been various publications by the Costa Rican government institutions responsible for disaster planning and prevention that warned of the risks of landslides and floods in the San Jose Greater Metropolitan Area, (GAM). In 2010, in the densely populated area near San Antonio, Escazú, twenty people were killed by a mudslide as a result of heavy rains flowing down the Lajas gorge.
Dr. Rafael Arce Mesen, director of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) School of Geography, had previously conducted studies and reported about various terrains around the hills of Escazú and Santa Ana that were unstable as well as a number of rivers and streams that were a threat to areas of high population from excessive rainfall that fills and widens the rivers. As a result, there have been numerous mudslides and floods over the years that have affected people living in these areas. These steep slopes of unstable terrain and streams that become blocked by landslides of rocks and broken trees are disasters waiting to happen. In the hills of Escazú, there are four fault lines where there have been various landslides over the years when the terrain becomes inundated with excessive precipitation. In spite of all the published information, the municipal officials that govern these communities continue to overlook the potential hazards and permit construction in high risk areas.
In 2002, an interdisciplinary team composed of UCR’s director of geography, Rafael Arce, geologist Guillermo Alvarado and archaeologist Jose Martin Sanchez, warned that there were potential risks for the eventual fall of large blocks of Cerro Pico Blanco in San Antonio de Escazú, which occurred during the avalanche in 2010. If the published master plan studies are not taken into account by the municipalities, there will continue to be property damage and loss of lives.
Since the entire world is in the process of climate change, more severe and frequent storms are occurring. Likewise, the population is increasing and with growth comes new and more serious concerns to locate safe areas for housing of the world’s citizenry.
In 2009, the UCR School of Geography, along with officials from the Costa Rican National Emergency Commission (CNE) conducted a study to detect risk sites, and provided the details in a report. The report mentioned a site in San Gabriel de Aserrí, showing pictures of cracks in the soil around existing homes as a resulting shift of the terrain. Following the study, the Municipality of Aserrí issued a memorandum saying that people should evacuate, but the problem was that there were no safe places to provide alternative housing for the people in this area.
Another report, prepared by UCR professors for the Geotechnical Seminar VII, warned of other hazards in the higher elevations near Escazu, Alajuelita and Santa Ana. In these communities, populations have settled in areas that receive high concentrations of rain and near rivers like the Agres, Uruca and Carrogres and streams such as the Lajas gorge, where the 2010, Escazú tragedy occurred. The towns of San Antonio de Escazu as well as Salitral and Rio Oro in Santa Ana have changed from agricultural to residential and development of housing projects continues in these areas. The potential hazards due to landslides is commonly known in these areas and the dangers posed by excessive rainfall causing material to slide down the hillsides was indicated in the reports of the UCR professors. Salitral, Santa Ana was created by the river Uruca, hundreds or thousands of years ago and the study that was conducted in this area noted that there were 90 sites of very unstable soil conditions. The main risk of landslides comes from the Chirrical hill, where an avalanche previously occurred near the Carrogres River, a tributary of the Uruca River. The hills up in these communities receive more rain than most and previous landslides caused by excessive precipitation have occurred. If tropical storms produce periods of heavy rain and the soil in the hills becomes saturated, landslides could flow down into the centers of the communities, causing extensive property damage and loss of lives.
The National Housing Institute (INVU) has new regulations that authorize funding for development of a large number of rural parcels that are not suitable for building housing projects in mountainous areas where INVU previously prohibited construction. According to agricultural engineer and territorial planning specialist, Jaime Brenes, there are mountains where development should not be permitted in communities near high risk zones, such as Escazu, Alajuelita and Santa Ana and the areas between Orosi and Puriscal. Some of these communities are receiving government housing grants for developments on hazardous slopes and housing is being constructed close to riverbeds. An example, he said, is the church of Orosi that is built on a riverbed.
Since the 1990’s, a lot of new housing developments have been built and these projects in the mountains that require excavation for new roads and infrastructure, cause uncontrolled drainage that flows downward with no stable terrain to prevent landslides.
Furthermore, National Electric Company (ICE) is subcontracting the installation of new infrastructure to private companies and they are paid handsomely to install electricity in dangerous areas, thus aiding in development of high risk zones.
The Costa Rica Construction Law #833, states that the municipalities are responsible for meeting the requirements of safety, health and cleanliness in their communities. This remains true, but there are few consciousness municipalities and they are all independent and continue to grant building permits without consideration for the law or the 1998 land use management act #7779 (PDF), a comprehensive law of agriculture and the use of national land.
Professor Astorga also indicated that all this important information was presented to the municipalities and was available for the local authorities to plan for the safety in their communities. All these studies were completed in a detailed manner in Escazú and the other 30 counties in the GAM. The Lajas gorge in Escazú, where the tragedy occurred in 2010, was identified as a rocky gorge with a stream that was filling up and widening, creating dangerous conditions for the mobilization of an avalanche and that coincides with the disaster that occurred, said Astorga
Costa Rica’s National Emergency Commission (CNE) has published maps of hazardous areas, but it does not have governing authority for urban planning and only issues warnings of potential hazards.
Additionally, several resolutions about the viability of the technical studies were made by the National Environmental Technical Secretariat (SETENA) in order to establish the environmental variables for Costa Rica’s master plan.
The studies of Escazú were conducted and reports of the results that detailed the risks were published, however, the municipality of Escazú did not evacuate the densely populated area where the tragedy occurred in 2010.
The independent professors and researchers have proposed that the municipalities need to be governed by the National Council of Urban Planning in order to avoid actions which cause great danger to the population of Costa Rica. The municipalities are the grantors of construction permits and they need to know where people should live safely and it’s the responsibility of the municipal governments to control risk in their communities. In all of these communities, there are specific areas that have been declared as protected zones, but this does not preclude land development because the land is still privately owned. These areas are coveted for their attractive landscape and in communities like Escazú and Santa Ana, development of expensive homes and commercial centers continues. Uncontrolled land development is a trend that will continue unless action is taken to avoid tragedies.
On April 29, 2003, the official legal confirmation that created the National Council of Urban Planning was published in La Gaceta, the countries official legal publication.
In the past, there had been resistance by the municipal officials because land developers of expensive housing and commercial projects pay large fees for building permits and their tax revenues generate annual income for the municipalities. The municipalities are now taking action and implementing responsible governing to control development in the protected zones and they are dissuading citizens from constructing housing in dangerous areas in order to avoid regrettable consequences for the residents. The Municipality of Santa Ana, for instance, has issued a warning in a recent Use of Land Report for a specific property in Salitral, Santa Ana. “ZONA DE PELIGROSIDAD”.
I don’t know that any individual can place a percentage of risk on any given area anymore than a weather forecaster can be correct in predictions of climatic conditions for any specific community. However, without a doubt, when heavy rains inundate the unstable slopes in the above mentioned risk areas, the probability of erosion and subsequent property damage and loss of life is much greater than in areas that are not designated as “ZONA DE PELIGROSIDAD.”
In Costa Rica, the Latino culture does not often react to probability and obvious warnings are usually ignored. All the Costa Rican government agencies have gone on record and published warnings about developing land and construction of housing in these areas. A prudent person would not ignore the obvious and would locate suitable property to construct a home in areas not designated as “Dangerous Zones.”
The writer, Tom Rosenberger has lived and worked in Costa Rica for 23 years and from his travels throughout the country inspecting property and construction he has acquired a wealth of knowledge about living and doing business in Costa Rica. Tom has other blogs you may like: https://costaricalivingblog.wordpress.com, https://costaricabusinessblog.wordpress.com/ andhttps://costaricatom.wordpress.com/. You can send Tom an email at; tom@CostaRicaHomeBuilder.com