Now is the time for Peru to prepare for natural disaster

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Over the weekend, while the thermometer hit 90 degrees in Lima, Arequipa was dealing with unprecedented floods. A local weather official said that the nearly 5 inches of rain that fell on the desert city was, “the record of all records; it had never rained like that in our city.” Five people were killed in the floods, which also caused upwards of $100 million in damages.

There’s no abnormal weather pattern to easily blame this on. Despite early prognostications, El Niño did not bring warm ocean currents to roast Lima. There is no La Niña phenomenon to explain the heavy rains in southern Peru this year. It was just a coincidence that the two events happened at the same time. However, they do provide a preview of what could be coming to Peru.

It is folly to blame any specific event on climate change; there were natural disasters long before humans started pumping carbon into the heavens. However, climate scientists have long said that one of the effects of global warming will be more extreme weather. What they can predict is that the weather will be unpredictable, and Peru will not be spared from this. There will be more floods, more heat waves, more mudslides, more droughts, more forest fires.

What is Peru to do? The ideal response would be to halt global warming. Of course, as Peru produces a minimal percentage of the world’s carbon output, it cannot solve the problem single-handedly. Still, there are steps that Peru can take to help. Just recently, the country has begun building its first solar power plants; more resources should be invested into this endeavor, as Peru has an ideal climate for generating solar electricity and could become a leader in the industry. Peru also contains a significant portion of the Amazon rainforest, the world’s best resource for extracting carbon from the atmosphere. More steps need to be taken to sustainably manage it.

Even if Peru does all of that, however, it will still be at the mercy of the rest of the world’s inaction in regard to climate change. So, Peru needs to start looking at how it can prepare for the natural disasters that are sure to come, in order to minimize the losses in terms of life and damage.

Currently, little is being done in that regard. In an interview with El Comercio, the regional president of Arequipa said that his government had a disaster relief budget of just S/. 1 million, to spend on blankets, medicines and tools. By the day after the flood, the money had all been spent. The government needs to do a better of job for preparing for relief efforts.

Little investment has been made in necessary infrastructure projects to face the future. Already, many cities in southern Peru have to ration drinking water and electricity, due to a lack of supply. What will happen when the glaciers recede even more, or even disappear, and when the seasonal rains fail? For that matter, how will water be supplied to the irrigation canals and farms that provide employment for millions and feed the country?

Most cities in Peru also lack proper drainage systems to handle intense rain. Arequipa’s system was designed to handle the sparse rains that typically come between January and March, not the torrential downpour that came last week. Sewage systems need to be designed to handle lots of rain, or else we run the risk of major health crises.

It’s not only a question of money and investment, but also one of planning. In cities and towns across Peru, people have been allowed to build homes in flood plains. Even more dangerously, many have also built their homes in canyons, where flash floods can quickly wash away people, vehicles and buildings, or where forest fires can quickly burn out of control. Thousands of others live in communities perched precariously beneath bare mountains, which could be buried in an instant by a mudslide. The lack of proper zoning has put thousands, or perhaps millions, of citizens at risk.

As the residents of Arequipa found out, it’s not safe to imagine that past weather patterns will predict the weather in the future. Right now, there is still time to act and the resources to do so. Perhaps the government cannot stop climate change, but it can do a lot more to protect its citizens from the fallout from global warming.

The recent floods in Arequipa and heat in Lima provide a glimpse into water global warming could bring to Peru. It’s time to prepare now.

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