El Nino-related drought in Colombia forces cutbacks of Christmas lights

BOGOTA - This year's El Nino weather phenomenon is claiming an unexpected casualty in Colombia: Christmas lights.

An exceptionally strong El Nino has created a severe drought that officials fear will empty reservoirs that are used to generate a good part of the South American country's electricity.

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Already this year, 238 cities across Colombia have rationed electricity.

In a nationwide address, President Juan Manuel Santos urged restraint in water use, while some officials went even further by encouraging Colombians to take 30-second showers.

But the most controversial energy-saving effort has been the scaling back of Christmas light displays that are a favourite for thousands of families in this deeply Roman Catholic country.

Santos' government decided not to decorate public buildings with lights at all, and several shopping malls heeded the government's call to reduce their displays.

Miguel Angel Abril, a doorman in the capital's Usaquen tourist zone where people have traditionally flocked to see the lights in its main park, says the cutback has lessened holiday cheer even though there are still dazzling displays.

"Christmas lights are something typical in Bogota, but now they are turned off and the neighbourhood is sadder. Less people come," he said.

Medellin, the country's second-largest city, has reduced by an hour a day its spectacular light display that covers churches, parks and even the city's namesake river. The dimming of the 32 million bulbs used in the display amounts to an energy savings of 15 per cent, or what the entire metropolitan area's 4 million people normally consume in the same period of time, said Esteban Duque, the manager of the celebration.

But Duque rejected a proposal to completely end the display, which attracts 50,000 tourists to Medellin each year. He said that would be even more damaging than the strain placed on the power grid.

"It's worse off not having the lights because it's something that generates 2,000 jobs that families depend on," he said.

The blow to Colombia's holiday tradition is poignant given that El Nino is thought to be a reference to the baby Jesus - a name given to the climatic phenomenon long ago by South Americans who noted that it seemed to arrive around Christmas time.

El Nino is caused by the warming of waters in the Pacific Ocean that causes changes in rainfall patterns. While leading to heavy flooding in the southern part of the hemisphere, rainfall since August in northern parts of South America like Colombia, Venezuela and parts of Brazil has averaged 50 per cent or less of normal levels, according to AccuWeather.com.

With reservoir levels already low, Colombia's government recently raised electricity rates to boost production of fuel-based power plants and prevent blackouts like those that spurred deep economic losses in 1992 and 1993, the last time El Nino was so intense.

Meteorologists are forecasting the drought will worsen.



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