Are the Peru floods the first El Niño disaster of 2002?

by Fernando Nuño in Arequipa
The Peruvian Red Cross remains on alert after seven days of heavy rains and floods which have left four people dead and 1,660 families affected in eleven of the twenty four departments of Peru.

Because these rains have been more intense than those normally experienced during the December to May rainy season, there is concern that they could be a harbinger of the El Niño weather phenomemon which last appeared with devastating impact in 1997 and 1998.

The El Niño phenomenon is linked with unusual warming of the Pacific Ocean and higher rainfalls resulting in changing weather patterns around the world. During the last El Niño, floods in South America and Africa led to many deaths and food shortages. East Asia experienced a drought leading to severe forest fires and smog.

Both the US Climate Prediction Centre and the Peruvian Research Committee on El Niño have confirmed sea surface temperatures in the Pacific are rising. The US Centre cautions "It is important to note that this warming represents the early stages of El Niño development and that mature El Niño conditions will take several months to develop."

"The rainy season was late this year, and the Peruvian Red Cross did not start with their annual contingency plan until January, one month later than usual. The rains which have fallen in the last days have obliged several branches to intensify their daily work not just on the rescue activities, but to prepare the vulnerable communities for a possible El Niño year", says Ariel Kestens, programme co-ordinator of the International Federation=B4s Office in Peru.

In Lima, the population concentration and weak infrastructure in several neighborhoods aggravated the consequences of the rainfalls, killing three people and injuring twelve more. "Poverty pushes people into urban and coastal areas where jobs are available. They establish themselves in settlements that are usually close to rivers and areas that are vulnerable to floods and landslides," adds Kestens.

The relief director of Peruvian Red Cross branch in Arequipa, Moisés Rosales, has worked for the last four years training several communities in disaster prevention. "People are conscious of the risk. We can not oblige them to quit their livelihoods, but we can advise them how to avoid danger, like not building their shacks where floods are expected or encouraging them to strengthen their traditional adobe houses with stronger cheap materials".

As part of a long-term disaster preparedness programme, supported by the Spanish Red Cross, the Peruvian Red Cross has trained the local leaders in Selva Alegre, in Arequipa, close to Misti Volcano, on a simple system whereby a network of volunteers advise the villagers in case of natural risks. "If any disaster happens, the volunteers use whistles to alert the members of the communities as where to go and what to do. A whole community is evacuated in several minutes if an earthquake, flood or huayco (local name for landslides) affect the area".

In the last two weeks, Moises Rosales and the rest of Red Cross volunteers involved in relief in Arequipa have rescued several drivers and people blocked by floods in informal settlements, but not in Selva Alegre.

"Perhaps, we cannot avoid the natural disasters", he says, "but the disaster prevention and preparedness has helped us to surivive."