El Niño Pummels Peru and Poses Challenges Elsewhere in Latin America

By Abby Lindsay*

Mangrove

Mangrove against waves, Estuary of Rio Tumbes, Peru. Photo Credit: Bruno Locatelli/CIFOR / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although advanced scientific models can better detect the severity of an upcoming El Niño, preparing for the impact of each episode remains a recurrent challenge for many Latin American countries.  El Niños change rainfall patterns in ways that result in extreme flooding in some regions and droughts in others, affecting food and energy production and other economic activities.  In July 2015, satellite and computer modeling predicted that an “extraordinary” El Niño would likely strike in six months – and although not record-breaking, this episode has wreaked havoc in parts of Latin America.  Citizens below the poverty line tend to be hit hardest, as many live on lands vulnerable to natural disasters, such as landslides and flooding, and rely on subsistence agriculture that cannot withstand weather shocks.  Studies by climate and atmospheric scientists argue that El Niños will become more frequent and severe in future years due to rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the urgency that governments build resiliency against the associated flooding and droughts.

  • Peru has been particularly affected by this year’s ongoing El Niño, especially in the northern coastal zone. As warming in the middle of the Pacific Ocean causes less upwelling of nutrient-rich waters, fish stocks have declined, damaging an industry upon which Peru relies for 2 percent of its GDP.  Extensive agricultural losses also result from changes in ocean currents and wind patterns that cause droughts in the southern part of the country and a spike in rainfall in the north.  Severe flooding is already having a detrimental impact; local media report that in the Tumbes area, in northwest Peru, 3,000 people have lost their homes and 30,000 have been affected because overflowing rivers have washed out bridges and devastated houses along river valleys.  Landslides have devastated dwellings constructed on the steep, marginal land on the outskirts of cities or in river valleys.
  • Other parts of Latin America are also affected during El Niño. In Central America, the warm Pacific Ocean temperatures are exacerbating existing droughts, which have reduced agricultural yields, while excessive rainfall on the east coast wipes out bridges and houses.  The Andean and Amazonian regions have seen reduced rainfall, leading to worries about forest fires in the rainforest.  The La Plata River basin is getting abnormally high levels of run-off.

With proper warning, governments can take action to mitigate the damage of El Niños.  Receiving predictions last July, Peruvian President Humala declared 14 regions in a preemptive state of emergency and called for preparations.  It is still too early to tell how much these measures have helped, but there is little debate that some preparation is better than none.  Local officials held planning meetings, and the national government provided funding for citizen programs – such as warning the population to move away from flood and landslide zones, and building infrastructure’s ability to withstand flooding and landslides.  In Piura, for example, they dredged part of the river and built diversions to direct water away from populated areas.  Given the predictions that El Niños will continue and worsen in severity, governments need to start thinking about long-term solutions and preparations.  Rather than last-minute preparations, however, governments could consider proactive measures such as conserving or constructing mangroves, wetlands, and riparian buffers that can naturally mitigate flooding; promoting crop diversity with drought-resistant strains; or harnessing water surges for benefits such as aquifer recharging.  Better planning could help Peru and other countries weather future episodes with less emergency scrambling. 

March 28, 2016

*Abby Lindsay is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on global environmental policy, particularly water governance.

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