Government responses to climate change – Peru’s El Niño

Grantham Scholar Sally Faulkner‘s research has taken her to Peru, just as the country has suffered the worst floods in recent memory. Here, she reports from Peru on the environmental forces behind the flooding, and the Peruvian government’s response.

Sally Faulkner

During my two-hour bus ride to Ocongate, a town in Quispicanci Pronvince in the Southern Peruvian Highlands, the weather was perfect. With the Andes shining in the bright morning sunlight, it was easy to forget that the weather had caused a state of emergency to be issued around much of the country just two days before. But even though a stroll around the town’s Sunday market had me wishing I hadn’t left my sunglasses on the bus, a reminder soon came. A massive rainstorm hit early afternoon, sending everyone running for the covered part of the market.

This isn’t unusual for Peru at this time of year, as the rainy season usually runs from January to April. I was warned by PRISMA , a local NGO, that the weather in March could cause roads to become impassable, particularly in Northern Peru, likely affecting my field visit to the Tambogrande mine. What is unusual is the severity of this year’s rainy season. By the time I reached Ocongate, the rainy season had delivered ten times more rain than usual and showed no signs of abating. Chaotic scenes from the worst hit areas in the North and around Lima played on TV screens in restaurants and shops, dominating the headlines.

In Lima, the world’s second biggest desert city, water shortages are usually considered the most pressing environmental problem, especially given the high levels of migration reaching the city. However, in recent days the capital became inundated with water when the Huaycoloro River burst its banks. Torrential downpours in the capital led to flash flooding, which were exacerbated by heavy rainfall in the highlands flowing down to the coast. The cause of this torrential rain and flooding – which is reportedly the worst in two decades – is the sudden rise in surface ocean water around Peru, known as an El Niño. The links between El Niño effects and climate change have been documented by scientists, with some predicting that increasing global temperatures will lead to more El Niños.

Last week I received a couple of messages from the President, distributed to the population via a local mobile phone provider, stating that the country needed us all to unite and remain calm. My Peruvian friends in Cusco found this almost funny, and their consensus is that the government hasn’t reacted quickly enough to the current problems. Indeed, the government has come under criticism from the opposition parties and in the international press for failing to have preventative measures in place. This seems like quite an oversight, given the devastation caused by El Niño here in 1998 and the fact that Peru is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impact of climate change. Aside from the possibility that warming global temperatures will cause the coastal climate to become tropical, there is already evidence of glacier retreat, resulting in water shortages and that will force people to adapt their livelihoods. The Peruvian ministry of environment, meanwhile, has described it as premature to attribute El Niño’s effects to climate change.

It remains to be seen whether the current situation will have any impact on government policy, or if the chaotic scenes and loss of life will spur the population into action. As with other climate-affected countries, it is the poor in Peru, especially in the Andes, who feel the effects of environmental change first as it starts to affect their livelihoods. It is also the poor in the coastal regions who have so far borne the brunt of the flooding, but the effects are being felt in the richer areas of Lima, such as Miraflores and Barranco, where there are many more affluent people experiencing a lack of power as well as water and food shortages in local shops. Perhaps this, along with the nationwide coverage of the emergency, will lead to changes climate change policy. Only time will tell.