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Coastal El Niño has passed but its aftermath remains
Ramiro Escobar
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Intense warming of the waters along Peru´s coast highlights the lack of preparation and risk management.

Following nearly three months of storms, heavy rains, rising rivers, floodings and huaicos — a word of Quechua origin that refers to a mud and rocks avalanche coming down from a mountain —, Peru, mainly in its northern coast, can now breath, rise from the rubble, and begin to repopulate its towns and cities. The country finally gets ready to go back to their uneventful normal activities.

The phenomenon known as a coastal El Niño, an abnormal warming of the waters in the Pacific along the Peruvian coast, has left a tragic toll of 107 deaths, 171,322 people affected (people who practically lost everything) and 1’010, 208 who were partially affected. Also, 221,761 homes were destroyed or severely damaged across the country.

The data was presented on Apr.12 by the National Emergency Operations Center (COEN), in a moment during which cities like Piura, capital of the northern department of the same name, were still cleaning the dust and mud left by the floods brought on by the unstoppable overflowing of numerous rivers.

According to Pedro Ferradas, executive director of the non-governmental organization Soluciones Prácticas, this unusual warming of the waters presented itself before in 1891 and 1925 in the Peruvian coast, causing similar or worse damage.

More recently, an El Niño weather phenomenon occurred in 1983 and again in 1998 — known as El Niño-Southern Oscillation, characterized by the warming of the surface waters of the eastern equatorial Pacific due to the weakening of the trade winds that blow from east to west, causing heavy rainfall, flooding, droughts and high temperatures —, that also left extensive destruction and thousands of people affected.

“What both have in common is the weakening of the anticyclonic winds [which rotate clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, in the opposite direction to a cyclone], something that makes possible for the warm waters to remain for several months,” explains Ferradas to Latinamerica Press.

Once this alteration takes place the Humboldt Current, the cold stream that runs south to north of the Peruvian coast, becomes incapable of stopping the advance of the warm or equatorial current that flows north to south.

As a result, the northern sea of Peru, typically warm, although not as much as in tropical regions, registered an increase in temperature of 8ºC and as high as 9ºC, something that precipitated continuous processes of evaporation that brought with them torrential downpours, almost nonstop, something for which small and large populations were not prepared for.

Nonexistent climate monitoring
In the department of Piura alone, according to the Regional Emergency Operations Center (COER), those affected were around 10,000 people and some cities like Catacaos, a cozy town widely known for its wicker handcrafts, was left literally submerged under water. The same happened in several other towns and even in larger cities like Chiclayo, the capital of the department of Lambayeque, some 200 km south of Piura.

This city, which withstood ferocious storms and the overflowing of the La Leche River, did not have a proper system of gutters to contain the rainfall. According to Carolina Chambi, projects director of the consultancy firm Libélula, Ambiente y Comunicación, a “climate monitoring system” is still inexistent.

If this existed, the specialist tells Latinamerica Press, we would be sure to have “information in quantity and quality that would allow us to develop forecasting models,” as well as establishing an early warning system that would dampen the effects as those caused by the coastal El Niño. Also is missing a “climate resilient infrastructure,” that could better resist other similar events, she adds.

The phenomenon had been talked about in Peru since 2015. The World Meteorological Organization announced that an El Niño episode would have taken place by 2016. However, it appeared very strong this year only as a surface warming along the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coasts.

While Ecuador also suffered disastrous effects — 21 deaths and 1,410 displaced, according to information reported by the website —, it was Peru that took the hardest hit, on top of which was the lack of preparation in general, of infrastructure, as Chambi points out, and also, comprehensive strategies that would have come very useful.

Ferradas says that among the strategies, the absence of “risk management in the basins and streams” is a void that dramatically increased the vulnerability in countless areas across the length and breadth of the Peruvian territory. As an example, in Chosica, east of Lima, the capital, the floods and huaicos have caused devastation and destruction once and again.

The rains in this area were a result of not so much of the coastal El Niño, but also from incoming rainclouds from the central highlands of the country. The fact is that, as described by Ferradas, the “preventive measures” were not enough, and the outlook — there and in other regions — worsened by the existing uncontrollable urban land speculation.

Large and highly vulnerable areas, extremely close to potentially dangerous ravines during rising waters, have been sold, or trafficked, in complicity with companies and municipalities that exercise poor control. That is to say, the terrible use of the ecological floor and ecosystems, inherited from the cultural break as a result of the Colonial times, is starting to show the results.

The palpable proof that there was a more solid preventive culture in the pre-Hispanic world is that, towards the end of March, a group of residents from Catacaos took refuge in the Narihualá archeological center located at 2 km from the town, but in high ground. Similar examples were found in other parts of the country, amidst uncontrollable storms.

Resilient infrastructure is an urgent need
Chambi says that it is important to raise awareness of the vulnerability, and to strengthen the capabilities “so that people do not continue doing things as they always have;” so they do not continue occupying vulnerable lands, as have been seen in dramatic fashion in the last few years, or even centuries. Now, for the first time in Peru, there is talk about possible relocation.

It does not seem like an easy task; and, according to consulted sources, it is imperative to take some other variables into account. For Ferradas, an essential element is to count with “the organization of the vulnerable population itself.” In previous years, in the very same area of Chosica, the effects of the huaicos were mitigated by putting up “dynamic barriers” that stopped the falling of rocks.

Adding to that, resilient infrastructure, could be “gray” (tougher construction) or “green,” states Chambi. The latter implies a strategy that has been used in Peru and in other countries, but in a very small scale: reforesting the riverbanks, so that when it rains hard, the plants can absorb some of the water volume.

As far as the state is concerned, the answer should be much better organized. Something visible in the emergency brought on by the coastal El Niño was that the government put the responsibility on the shoulders of the Armed Forces, to the point that Defense Minister, Jorge Nieto, assumed the leadership of rescues and operations related to the growing disasters.

There are specialized organizations, as Ferradas explains, and there were different public and private institutions for the distribution of humanitarian help. The constant appeal made by the authorities and the population to organize collections for those affected had plausible results, but the situation revealed that the administrative apparatus of the state was somewhat unguarded.

A fundamental question surges from the pain generated by the tragedies that the country withstood the last months. It is still not clear, despite the media haste, that the coastal El Niño is a direct consequence of climate change. The presumption that this is the case is latent, but science has not been definitive on this subject, as long as they do not have all the assurances.

Even so, as Chambi states, it is very probable that global warming makes it so that “the extreme events [like, for example, extreme rains and droughts] turn even more extreme, both in intensity and frequency.”

It does not seem very smart for this reason to think that this was an exceptional situation, as it is very likely that it will repeat itself in the future, and with more intensity. —Latinamerica Press.


People living in the North of Peru abandon their homes destroyed by floods. / Instituto Nacional de Defensa Civil (INDECI)
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