The remains of the Cuzco village of Piñipampa emerge from the water
Credit: Roberto Guerrero/Courtesy of Oxfam
El Niño's Tantrum in Peru
By Milagros Salazar
Although Peru is among the countries paying closest attention to the climate phenomenon known as El Niño, it seems defenseless against the heavy rains that have been thrashing the country for weeks.
LIMA, Feb 22 (Tierramérica).- Peru's lack of disaster prevention has combined with climate imbalances in South America to produce a weather cocktail that has claimed dozens of lives and destroyed thousands of homes in this Andean country.
The excessive rains have caused damages in the northern part of the country, but the epicenter has been Cuzco, in the south, where in three days there was as much rain as normally falls in one month.
Of Peru's 25 regions, 17 are facing destruction from the rains that began in December. By the end of last week, the National Civil Defense Institute reported that more than 22,700 people had been left homeless and more than 108,000 had suffered damage to homes, crops or other assets.
The changes in the climate affect the entire Andean region of South America, Elizabeth Cano, head of the disaster risk reduction and humanitarian aid program at Oxfam International, told Tierramérica.
In Ecuador, several provinces in the sierra are suffering drought, while on the coast torrential rains have left a death toll of at least 11. In Bolivia, Amazon River tributaries have overflowed in the eastern departments of Beni and Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, Venezuela is faced with an acute lack of precipitation.
In Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, a heat wave arrived for the current austral 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 as they flow west to east, have repercussions on weather around the world.
Most experts agree that the presence of ENSO triggers rainfall along the northern coast of Peru, and drought in the country's southern sierra.
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 sierra, a zone that otherwise trends 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 sierra, according to Ferradas.
Although the rainy season in the Andes is 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 Organization predicted that this phase of ENOS would be moderate or weak.
Since the beginning of the year, seven people have died in Cuzco, and another four have disappeared 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, the archeological 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.
Since Feb. 16, there have been floods 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 Ayacucho, where 10 people died in December, victims of a landslide.
The state of emergency is also in effect in the north. In La Libertad, damages were reported at Chan Chan, an archeological site of intricate adobe that was declared a United Nations heritage of humanity site.
The weather forecasting systems have been overwhelmed. The National Meteorological Service announced intense 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, resident of the Nueva Esperanza, in the Cuzco province of Anta.
The urban areas of Cuzco have grown quickly in recent years, "and the population has located its homes in high-risk zones. The spaces have not been organized with a vision of land regulation, and there has not been enough disaster mitigation work," Oxfam expert Cano told Tierramérica.
As a result of decentralization, local and regional governments are responsible for natural disaster prevention measures and emergency services.
Each municipality must apply for resources through its civil defense 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 defense technical secretary of the Cuzco regional government, Luis Ballón, told Tierramérica that his department has a civil defense plan in place until 2021, but the district and provincial committees rarely carry out their plans, 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 Center for Disaster Research and Prevention.
The Cuzco government is monitoring the Sapi River, which flows below the city's historic district, and conducts maintenance to prevent floods there, but the city lacks a strategic development plan that includes other areas of the region that are also vulnerable, said Cano.
Mayor 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. "This has to change, and there should be a permanent institution focused on the problem."
Scientists have not yet established whether global warming has played a role in intensifying the ENOS. 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 Defense director, the biggest obstacle continues to be the lack of a culture of prevention among the Peruvian population.
"Toda it's the rains, tomorrow it's frost. Taking action and analyzing each at-risk site, making contact with the people likely to be affected and continuing to educate - these remain the pending tasks," he said.