Rains bring massive damage to southern Peru

16 February 2019

Does history repeat itself? Well, not quite. This year’s extreme weather conditions in the Andes – avalanches and flooding – are not so much in the north of Peru (as in 2017) but more in the south. The worst hit areas appear to be in Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna. The numbers affected rose through the course of last week as homes were washed away and basic infrastructure (like roads and bridges) destroyed.

As of 12 February, it was reckoned that some 10,000 people had been affected, but the figure is likely to rise further as new information arrives and as unusually heavy rains fall elsewhere. More than twice the annual rainfall recorded for Tacna region has fallen in only ten days. But other parts of the coastal area are also affected such as Ica, Ancash La Libertad and Piura.

The avalanches and floods, which have also brought untold damage to Bolivia and northern Chile, will once again raise questions about Peru’s vulnerability to climate change. The frequency and intensity of rainfall along the western side of the Andes cordillera is typical of conditions associated with the El Niño phenomenon. Climate change appears to be exacerbating the El Niño effect.

But as an editorial in La República argued forcefully, it cannot be argued that the rains in the Andes took the authorities by surprise; they had been widely predicted since the second half of December.

But the lessons from the so-called ‘Niño Costero’ of two years ago do not seem to have been learned. The response to this year’s rains appears equally chaotic and improvised, although the Vizcarra administration has in past days sought to mobilise assistance to stricken communities.

As became clear in the aftermath of the Niño Costero, the main problem lies with the weakness of local government in Peru. Regional, provincial and district authorities are weakly constituted and, in many places, wracked by the corrupt use of the money made available to them. Little seems to have been done, for example, over the last two years to relocate those people who live in precarious conditions on the edge of water courses.

Flooding is also expected in the Amazon jungle where the water level in major rivers is dangerously high. Those most likely to flood are the Marañon, Ucayali and Huallaga rivers. 

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