Peru and Ecuador prepare for El Niño devastation
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Peru and Ecuador prepare for El Niño devastation

Peru and Ecuador are bracing themselves for what could be a disastrous 2016 as experts predict the climate phenomenon El Niño, which periodically brings heavy rains to the region, could surpass the most damaging on record.

The meteorological event, which occurs every two-to-seven years, happens when waters in the eastern Pacific heat above normal and shift towards the west coast of the Americas. In the past, El Niño has been responsible for droughts in Asia, severe flooding in the United States and freezing temperatures across Europe.

The severity of El Niño varies from year-to-year, though many experts believe next year could rival, or even exceed, the worst on record in 1997.

Globally, the impact was enormous, taking some 23,000 lives and costing upwards of $45 billion in damages. In South America alone, torrential rains and flooding caused $20 billion in damages and killed 900, according to The Economist at the time.

It is not surprising then that the possibility of a record-breaking El Niño has sent alarm bells ringing across the continent. With memories of the 1997 disaster still fresh, Latin America’s Pacific coastal countries are rushing to prepare for what has been dubbed “the Godzilla” El Niño.

Peru: “Now we are working against time…”

Peru, which is predicting the effects to continue into late summer 2016, recently created the National Risk Management Council of El Niño, which is hoped will streamline the government response in emergency cases.

The Andean nation, which created a $1 billion fund for preventative projects has also proposed post-El Nino emergency infrastructure funding in the 2016 budget on top of declaring a state of emergency in 14 of the country’s regions.

In 1997 Peru was left with $3.5 billion in damages. A leg of the 2016 Dakar Rally, reuters reports, which was set to be held in Peru has been cancelled. Event organizers cited, due to the expectation of a particularly strong El Niño, that the Peruvian government wishes to have all emergency services available.

President Ollanta Humala has made 35,000 soldiers available for deployment to emergency areas, with further support from planes, helicopters, mobile bridges and water processing plants.

However, teleSur reports analysts have been critical of the Peruvian government’s progress.

Among them, the news agency reported Sergio Álvarez Gutiérrez, a specialist in disaster management, saying:  “Now we are working against time and if conditions are not right or if suddenly rains come earlier than expected, it would be difficult. That is part of the lessons we learned and we lived in 1997 and 1998.”

Ecuador: “A very dangerous threat…”

Peru’s northern neighbor, Ecuador, which has already been grappling with an active Cotopaxi volcano on the outskirts of Quito, has also started preparations.

President Rafael Correa expressed his belief Ecuador’s preparation would mitigate the worst effects: “We have a help system in place, with shelters, clean-up teams and flood control channels,” he told Xinhua News Agency.

Director of the International Center for the Investigation of the El Niño Phenomenon (CIIFEN), Rodney Martinez, believed those in immediate threat were Ecuador’s coastal inhabitants. As a result of doubling in buildings along the coast since 1997 more people are at risk than ever before. Martinez warned, “They need to know what is coming and the impact it could have,” continuing, “(El Niño) poses a very dangerous threat.”

Faltering economies and natural disaster

Elsewhere in Latin America effects from El Niño are already being reported. Heavy rainfall in Mexico broke a 50-year record, while Colombia’s Andean glaciers are melting at alarming rates.

At the opposite ends of the continent, Chile is reporting extreme flooding while shipments along the vital Panama Canal, the vital artery between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, have slowed due to dropping water levels.

With many Latin American countries facing faltering economies and ensuing political instability, 2016’s El Niño could have far-reaching political consequences. A lack of available funds may hamper responses, not to mention the long-term recovery.

Ollanta in Peru, in his final term, is facing record-low approval ratings. Correa, also nearing the end of his presidency, remains relatively popular but has faced strong opposition to his government in recent months and is controversially looking to abolish constitutional term limits allowing him to run again. For both men, the strength and response to 2016’s El Niño could have far-reaching political ramifications.

Unlike comedian Chris Farley’s explanation, the term El Niño -The kid, or Christ the child- was originally coined by Latin American fishermen who noticed weather changes pushing away cold water fish around the Christmas period.

See also:

Climate change ending island life for Panama’s Guna Yala

Rescuing the culture of Easter Island with bottles and cans