Landslides and flooding this last week have created new levels of destruction, as numerous rivers broke their banks, spilling out into vulnerable communities, washing away transport infrastructure and interrupting water supplies for millions of people. Probably the worst crisis of its type for 30 years, it has exposed the fragility of the urban fabric and poses the Kuczynski administration with enormous problems.

Up to now the worst of the flooding has been concentrated in the north of the country, particularly in Piura, Tumbes and Lambayeque. However recent days has seen havoc hit Lima as the rivers Rímac, Huaycoloro, Lurín and Chillón burst their banks. Devastation has also hit other places along the country’s coastal strip. Water supplies were cut in the majority of Lima’s districts because of the flooding of the Rímac.

The tally of woe (up until 16 March) was 62 deaths, eleven people disappeared, 560,000 people directly affected, 116,000 homes damaged, and up to one-fifth of the country’s road infrastructure damaged in one way or another.

The reason for the flooding is unusually heavy rainfall along the western flank of the Andes, an area in normal times almost totally arid. The lack of vegetation binding the soil has caused huge landslides (huaycos) in the steep sided valleys, with mud and water pouring into the watercourses and swelling the size of rivers that in normal times see but a trickle of water.

This heavy rainfall is caused by the impact of the warming of the Pacific waters due to the Niño weather phenomenon. These are currently four or five degrees higher than normally the case in March. The Niño is a fairly regular event, but this year’s Niño seems to outdo its recent predecessors in terms of destructive effects. Niño-watchers believe that this is worse even than that of 1983, which brought devastating floods to the north of Peru and (possibly worse in its long-term impact on peasant agriculture) drought to the south. The economy that year, reflecting also the impact of the Mexican debt default, contracted by as much as 12%.

Political impacts
Although the Niño is a regular event, the destruction caused over recent weeks appears to have taken the authorities by surprise. The Kuczynski administration has been criticised for reacting far too slowly, although it has to be said that the army has been quick to deploy assistance to those worst affected.

The political consequences of this crisis are hard to evaluate at present.

On the one hand, it provides a welcome distraction from the bad news, not least the consequences of the Odebrecht and other corporate corruption scandals, knocking these off the front pages of the newspapers. President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has sought to rally a sense of national unity, a message echoed by the media. One immediate beneficiary has been Transport and Communications Minister Martín Vizcarra, whose grilling before Congress (interpelación) on the Chincheros scandal (see PSG article), due on 16 March, has been postponed for a future date. The usual opposition critics have fallen silent in order to avoid appearing to carp at a moment of national crisis.

On the other hand, however, the present situation represents an enormous challenge for a state apparatus which, even at the best of times, is not noted for the scope of its capabilities or its efficiency. As the days pass, it is almost inevitable that criticism will mount as to the ways in which public bodies are responding. At the same time, shortages of food and water are leading to hoarding and speculation, pushing up prices of basic items. As of 19 March, many items were selling in food markets at twice, three times or even four times their normal level.

The ferocity of the Niño event – widely referred to as El Niño Costero for its effects on coastal communities – exposes a generalised lack of community preparation for such disasters. Homes and communities in the coastal regions of Peru are not built to withstand flooding, while roads and bridges are easily washed away as normally small rivers becoming roaring torrents. Many thousands have been rendered homeless.

As Eduardo Darget argues in a cogent piece in Saturday’s La República newspaper, natural disasters are not something unexpected in countries like Peru and that the necessary institutions exist. The problem, he argues, is the tremendous gap between laws and official plans on the one hand and the reality of responses on the other. Other countries in Latin America consistently do better than Peru in responding to disasters of one kind or another.

The impact of the Niño and the difficulty in forecasting its occurrence appears to be closely related to climate change.

Peru is believed to be one of the countries of the world most likely to be affected by climate change. But while the topic excites much discussion, the practical responses to the likely effects of climate change are conspicuous by their absence.