Peru

Aid reaches Peru's freezing highlands

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As half the world swelters in a heat wave, vulnerable people are dying from cold-related illnesses in the highlands of southern Peru.
"Temperatures have dropped to more than 20 degrees below zero Celsius, which is very cold, especially when you consider that in most places there is no electricity, and therefore no heat," explains Gabriela Manrique of the Arequipa Red Cross branch.

Last weekend a Peruvian Red Cross team of six volunteers and a representative of the Federation went to the highlands of Caylloma, in Arequipa department, near one of the deepest canyons of the world, to hand out relief goods such as blankets, food packages and warm clothes to more than 400 families.

So far, 177 children have died of pneumonia this year in the eight southern provinces of Peru. At least 25 pregnant women have also died. He majority of those deaths have occurred outside health centres.

The worst affected department is Puno where 65 children under the age of five years have died. It is here - along with Arequipa, which has the highest rate of acute respiratory infections, with nearly 87,000 cases - that the Peruvian Red Cross is concentrating its efforts.

"People here survive by wearing one blanket on top of another. You can see children with dry and blackened cheeks, and cracked feet, due to a lack of proper shoes," says Candi Cardenas, head of the Peruvian Red Cross team.

The most common footwear used in the Andean highlands is called "ojotas", a type of sandals made from car tyres, which leave the feet unprotected from the weather. "Women go to water their "chacras" (plots of cultivated land) at four or five in the morning wearing only ojotas," explains Candi.

Many of the areas where the coldest temperatures have been registered are also places affected by extreme poverty. Mainly inhabited by persons of indigenous Quechua and Aymara origin, their main source of income is what they produce from the chacras - maize, beans and cereals - and from animals such as alpacas and vicuñas.

The high winds and intensely cold weather has killed livestock and destroyed crops. "When the chacra is frozen, the rest of the group gives the owner goods to survive the winter. Next year, it could be you," says local resident, Felicitas Quiluya, when asked how they can cope with the crop losses. "The issue this year is that the cold has come earlier."

Candi Cardenas says the biggest problem the Red Cross faces is transporting the aid across difficult terrain.

"There are places at more than 5,000 metres above sea-level that even a 4x4 truck cannot reach, and we have to ask people to come down and meet us on the road. They get there by horse, or simply on foot," she says, adding that the other problem is the altitude sickness that often affects volunteers.

The Red Cross aid has an important preventive purpose, as the cold snap shows no sign of ending soon. The National Service of Meteorology and Hydrology predicts that snow will continue in the southern provinces of Peru - Junin, Moquegua, Arequipa, Ayacucho, Huancavelica, Cusco and Puno.

"This is a short term solution since when winter is over, they won't have anything to eat since their cattle are dying" concludes Pedro Maco, head of the Peruvian Red Cross relief operation.