Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Tierramerica

CLIMATE-PERU: El Niño Throws a Tantrum

Milagros Salazar* - Tierramérica

LIMA, Feb 24 2010 (IPS) - Peru’s lack of disaster prevention policies and measures, combined with climate imbalances in South America, have led to the loss of dozens of lives and thousands of homes in this Andean country in the last few months.

What remains of the Peruvian village of Piñipampa emerges from the water.  Credit: Roberto Guerrero/Courtesy of Oxfam

What remains of the Peruvian village of Piñipampa emerges from the water. Credit: Roberto Guerrero/Courtesy of Oxfam

Excessive rains have caused damages in northern Peru, but the worst precipitation occurred in Cuzco, in the south, where a month’s worth of rain fell in just three days.

Of Peru’s 25 regions, 17 are dealing with destruction from the rains that began in December. By mid-February, the National Civil Defence Institute reported that more than 22,700 people were left homeless and more than 108,000 suffered damage to their homes, crops or other property.

The changes in the climate are affecting the entire Andean region of South America, Elizabeth Cano, head of the disaster risk reduction and humanitarian aid programme at Oxfam International in Peru, told Tierramérica.

In neighbouring Ecuador, several highlands provinces are suffering drought, while torrential rains in coastal areas have left a death toll of at least 11. In Bolivia, Amazon River tributaries have overflowed in the eastern departments (provinces) of Beni and Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, Venezuela is facing severe drought.

Parts of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina were hit by a heat wave in the current southern hemisphere summer, accompanied by intense rains.

The region is seeing the effects of El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a cyclical phenomenon in which the surface temperatures of the equatorial Pacific rise and have repercussions on weather around the world as the currents flow west to east.

Most experts agree that the presence of ENSO triggers rainfall along the northern coast of Peru, and drought in the country’s southern highlands area.

But, judging from El Niño’s previous cycles, such as 1997-1998, it can also cause intense rains over short periods in Peru’s southern Andean mountains, an area that otherwise tends toward drought, disaster prevention expert Pedro Ferradas, of the international technical aid group Practical Solutions ITDG, told Tierramérica.

The authorities have taken action on the north coast, but did not do enough for the southern highlands area, according to Ferradas.

Although the rainy season in the Andes runs from December to April, what was surprising was the “ferocity” of the rain in just a few days, he said.

Last year, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the World Meteorological Organisation had predicted that this phase of ENSO would be moderate or weak.

Since the beginning of the year, seven people have died in Cuzco, and another four have gone missing as a result of weather disasters. In addition, there have been 868 people injured and 10,000 left homeless, with more than 6,000 houses destroyed.

The routes that lead to Machu Picchu, Peru’s top archaeological site and tourist destination, remain blocked and entire towns are buried in mud. The Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism estimates that in Cuzco alone, the losses for the year’s first quarter will surpass 162 million dollars.

The flooding began Feb. 16 in the province of Cañete, in the southwestern region of Lima, with more than 400 people affected. That same day, a two-month extension was issued for the state of emergency in the provinces of Huamanga and Huanta, in the central Andean region of Ayacucho, where 10 people died in a landslide in December.

The state of emergency is also in effect in the north. In La Libertad, damages were reported at Chan Chan, an archaeological site of intricate adobe construction that was declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) world heritage site.

The weather forecasting systems have been overwhelmed. The National Meteorological Service did announce heavy rains in Cuzco for Jan. 23, 24 and 25, but failed to predict the deluge that occurred.

“The rains came at night and caught us unprepared. Suddenly we were awakened by shouts and whistles. When I stood up, my feet were already in water. The first thing I did was grab my children. We didn’t have time for anything else,” Eufemia Araníbar, 34, who lives in Nueva Esperanza, in the Cuzco province of Anta, told Oxfam workers.

Cuzco has experienced major urban sprawl in recent years, “and people have built homes in high-risk areas,” a problem compounded by lack of urban planning and disaster mitigation work, Oxfam expert Cano told Tierramérica.

As a result of decentralisation, local and regional governments are responsible for natural disaster prevention measures and emergency services.

Each municipality must apply for resources through its civil defence committees, headed by the mayors. But this shift in functions, including the assessment of high-risk zones, is not usually accompanied by funding or training, say experts.

The civil defence technical secretary of the Cuzco regional government, Luis Ballón, told Tierramérica that his department has a plan in place until 2021, but the district and provincial committees rarely carry out measures needed, such as building containment walls along rivers or setting up early warning systems.

“The rules exist, but there is no way to ensure compliance,” said Gilberto Romero, a scientist with the Centre for Disaster Research and Prevention.

The Cuzco government is monitoring the Sapi River, which flows below the city’s historic district, and is conducting maintenance to prevent floods there, but the city lacks a strategic development plan that would include other areas of the region that are also vulnerable, said Cano.

Governor Wilbert Rozas of the province of Anta is calling for a special fund for disaster prevention and emergencies.

“We can’t confront a global problem like climate change all alone,” he told Tierramérica. “Something must be done, and there should be a permanent institution focused on the problem.”

Scientists have not yet clearly established whether global warming has played a role in intensifying the ENSO weather phenomenon. But Ferradas said there is growing evidence that it “not only produces greater climate variability, but also makes the occurrence of phenomena like El Niño more unpredictable.”

For Gen. Luis Palomino, Civil Defence director, the biggest obstacle continues to be the lack of a culture of prevention among the Peruvian population.

“Today it’s the rains, tomorrow it’s frost. Taking action and analysing each at-risk site, making contact with the people likely to be affected and continuing to educate – these remain the pending tasks,” he said.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags