A different type of complaint for a changing climate
It was almost the end of March, and I was ready for the typical complaint from my parents living in Lima, “it is so cold!” they would say, even when March is only the beginning of autumn in Peru. It is not like Peruvians enjoy hot summers very much but, as is often the case, people are difficult to please.,
This year, however, was different. “It is so warm and it is raining so much” they said instead. This was a new type of complaint for this time of the year. Besides, it doesn’t rain in Lima, not hard at least, maybe just a few showers. Over the following few days these new complaints would be accompanied by apocalyptic images on the television and the Internet. The rain along the coast of Peru was causing floods of catastrophic proportions: whole cities were deluged, a woman emerged from the mud, cows and dogs were washed away in the flood waters, and houses collapsed.
Worse was yet to come. While in northern Peru people were fighting to escape the water, in Lima people had no drinking water or lemons. Strange as it may seem, lemons are an important part of the Peruvian diet, and not having lemons was a psychological blow. Bottled water was sold out in shops, long queues were forming outside markets and supermarkets, and people were fighting for half liter bottles of water that were skyrocketing in price.
You may be asking, why was Lima so badly affected when the flooding was further north? Although the floods only reached a few areas of Lima, the areas they did reach were where the treatment plants and water supply plants are located. Tons and tons of sediment obstructed the plants, and it took a couple of days to get them fully operational again. The floods brought a chaos that we hadn’t seen for years.
Co-ordination and preparedness are critical
Like many, I mistakenly believed this was El Niño, a complex series of global climatic changes. This though was a new type of phenomena: El Niño Costero. The difference is that this type of climatic event only affects the coastal areas of the Pacific, more specifically the coasts of Peru and Ecuador, whereas El Niño has a global impact. Scientists attribute this new phenomenon to climate change, and stress that we are likely to experience more events like this in the future. There will be an increased need to better plan for and manage the new challenges that such an event will bring. Learning from the events of 2017 will be critical to getting things right in the future.
I look back at the floods and think that many things could have been different. The failure to coordinate the response was important, but improvements in preparedness are also critical. If we’d been better prepared, we could have saved many lives, and damage to homes and businesses could have been minimized. Early prevention systems, and preparedness for coastal areas in Peru could have mitigated the impacts. The loss of access to drinking water over so many days could have been avoided if utilities had more reliable emergency plans.
My work with the Floods and Drought Management Tools project has demonstrated the importance of tools that help countries improve their planning for extreme weather events. The project provides essential tools for planning and decision making to mitigate floods and droughts, including a recently released Water Indicator application.
Being part of the project gives me hope that, in the future, the Peruvian government, utilities and other stakeholders can use such tools to avert the worst outcomes from floods and droughts. It may not stop my parents calling me with complaints about heavy rains, but it may mean Peruvians don’t go without lemons when the rains come.