As storms and floods become more extreme and less predictable, weather forecasts trigger relief funding before disaster strikes, giving people time to prepare and potentially saving many more lives.
Reporting: Manuel Rueda
Beatriz Paredes remembers the last time that the River Amazon almost destroyed her wooden home in Belén, a neighborhood in the city of Iquitos, Peru. Water levels rose dramatically in just a few days and her living room, kitchen and bedroom were covered in murky river water. While the flood receded, her family of five slept on wooden planks that they had placed just below the house’s roof, making an improvised ‘attic’ that kept them dry.
“Some days we had to go to sleep without eating,” says Paredes, who sells sugar-cane juice at the local market and was not able to work during the flood. “I lost my pots, furniture, dishes; everything that we could not store in the attic was taken by the river.”
Flooding is part of life in Belen, a riverside community that is home for Paredes and thousands of people who cannot afford to pay rent in safer parts of Iquitos. But the district — touted by local tour guides as the ‘Venice of the Amazon’ — is being increasingly subjected to more dramatic flood seasons as climate change affects weather patterns in the Amazon basin.
In 2012, an estimated 200,000 people were affected by the floods in Iquitos and the surrounding province of Loreto that almost wiped out Paredes’ home. In 2015, another spate of extreme weather caused flooding along Peru’s stretch of the Amazon, affecting more than 160,000 people according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
As seasonal floods become more extreme, a new programme run by the Peruvian Red Cross seeks to dramatically reduce the number of people impacted by flooding by completely reversing the way disaster relief happens. The idea is to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable people before floods hit, so that they can stay safe and healthy during these extreme events.
“We have been a humanitarian organization that traditionally focused on responding to disasters,” says Kemper Mantilla, the project’s national coordinator for the Peruvian Red Cross. “What we are doing now is a paradigm shift.”
Pioneered by the German Red Cross and the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, based in The Hague (Netherlands), the approach is known as Forecast-based Financing (FbF) and has been rolled out in numerous countries around the world, from Bangladesh to Togo.
In Peru, it is being tested in three areas that are prone to extreme weather events: towns along the Pacific Ocean coastline impacted by extreme rainfalls related to the El Niño phenomenon; villages high in the Andes mountains, located at 3,800 metres above sea level, where alpaca farmers struggle to deal with cold snaps and glacial snowstorms; and parts of the River Amazon basin around Iquitos.
In the case of the alpaca herders, forecasts trigger funds that enable construction of shelters and provision of medicine for the livestock. “We lose 15 to 20 alpacas each winter,” says Flavio Cabana, who has a herd of 400 alpacas in the Arequipa región of southern Peru. “The young ones are the most likely to die from the cold.”
The programme works with the national meteorological and hydrological service of Peru, which analyses incoming weather patterns and provides Peruvian Red Cross staff with advance warning of extreme events headed towards vulnerable communities. That gives humanitarian workers time to prepare and distribute help to people in need.
“We try to get scientific information into the hands of decision-makers as fast as we can,” says Juan Bazo, climate science adviser for the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, another key partner in FbF projects around the world.
“The benefit of this programme is that it uses weather forecasts, which give us a window of time to act, so that we can get help to the most vulnerable people.”
"The benefit of this programme is that it uses weather forecasts, which give us a window of time to act, so that we can get help to the most vulnerable people."
Preparation is critical
The real FbF work happens long before the dreaded forecasts of heavy rains or floods. In Iquitos, which is located deep inside the Amazon rainforest, the Peruvian Red Cross started to set up its FBF programme in 2016.
The first step, says Mantilla, was to identify neighbourhoods that could benefit from the project based on risk-data analyses that factor in the communities’ exposure to danger and vulnerability. Through community meetings, residents discussed their greatest needs during extreme floods, like the ones in 2012 and 2015.
During these meetings, it became evident that access to drinking water was one of the main challenges faced by the residents of Belén and several rural communities participating in the project. Most people in these communities don’t have safe drinking water in their homes. They collect water in the nearby river for washing and cooking, and drink bottled water that they buy in local markets.
During floods, the distribution of bottled water collapses, while river water carries sediments and pollutants that make it dangerous to consume, Mantilla says.
With funding from an IFRC early action funding mechanism, the Peruvian Red Cross is now prepared to distribute water filters to 600 families in the region of Loreto the next time an extreme flood approaches. The Red Cross has run several simulations and drills to ensure the distribution will go smoothly.
“These filters separate sediments from the water and eliminate bacteria,” Mantilla explains. “They help us to prevent the spread of intestinal diseases.”
'No product to sell'
For Beatriz Paredes, who survives on a daily income of around US$ 8 per day this kind of help during floods can also make a big difference — using a water filter can save her from having to purchase expensive bottled water.
Paredes says that she has also struggled to buy food and other basic items during floods because these weather events take away her main source of income: the sugar-cane juice that she sells in the local market. “When the water level rises, my land gets flooded and I can’t cut any cane,” says Paredes, who grinds her own sugar cane every morning on a large juice extractor. “And when I have no product to sell, we struggle to get by.”
Marcos Paimaya, a coriander (cilantro) farmer who lives in the village of Cantagallo, about an hour down the river from Iquitos, faces similar challenges.
Seasonal floods cover a forest clearing where he plants his crops. Paimaya says he prepares for the inevitable floods by saving money during the months of the year in which he can work. He has also built a boat to get around when the river seeps into his village.
But larger floods that take longer to recede eat away at his savings and make it harder for him to get around in a small boat, forcing him to pay for transport on larger boats when he needs to go somewhere.
“Those floods eat into my livelihood,” Paimaya says. “They affect my ability to provide for my children.”
Striving for a 'better place'
For these reasons, a key part the Peruvian Red Cross’s FbF project is a money transfer programme for vulnerable families. The next time the Amazon starts to swell to extreme levels, 400 families will be given a one-time cash payment of approximately 220 Swiss francs (about US$ 225), a few days before their villages and neighbourhoods begin to flood.
It’s not a large amount. But it can help families get food, buy medicines, pay for transport or solve any other problems brought about by flooding, says Natalia Gomez de Travesedo, the German Red Cross’s FbF delegate in Peru and Ecuador. This type of funding helps the Red Cross reach communities that could potentially be affected earlier than traditional programmes that dispense funds after disaster strikes, Gomez de Travesedo explains.
The programme’s impact in the Amazon still has to be measured, she adds. But for people such as Marcos Paimaya, this kind of help relieves him from many of the burdens brought by the floods. Like many parents here, Paimaya works feverishly to save money to put his four children through high school. It’s their one shot, he says, at having a better life. All the flood-related expenditures can be a big setback towards realizing that dream, he says.
“I burn my back [in the sun] every day so my children can be in a better place,” says Paimaya, adding that he never finished high school himself. “I want them to get higher education, so that perhaps they can move somewhere else and not suffer from floods and all the complications that we have here in our farm.”