First Person

Floods in Peru—‘This is no natural disaster: It’s a social one’

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Hundreds of Peruvians are in temporary shelters after losing their houses to flash floods in Chosica, Lima, Peru. Photo by Flor Ruiz

“We write to you from Peru where the El Niño phenomenon has caused flash floods and landslides which have devastated the country…”

In a US news cycle that is so focused on politics and all that’s been happening—or not—in Washington DC, it’s easy to forget that there’s a bigger world out there, a world where the injustices of poverty have put people directly in harm’s way.

I got that wake-up call last night when colleagues in Peru sent a message about the devastating floods that have hit their country. I’m grateful for the news, for a better understanding of the social dynamics behind this disaster, and for all that my colleagues are doing to help families who have lost so much.

The infrastructure in Carapongo, Lima, Peru has been heavily damaged by flash floods, caused by the coastal El Niño. Photo: Flor Ruiz

Here’s their message:

“We write to you from Peru where the El Niño phenomenon has caused flash floods and landslides which have devastated the country, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, killing over 70 people, ravaging farmlands, wiping out highways and roads, destroying bridges, and leaving much of the country’s infrastructure in shambles: over 1,194 educational institutions have been affected and local governments and health authorities are unable to provide sufficient water evacuation and sanitation equipment, material to rebuild, or machinery to repair roads and clear heavy debris.

Lastest statistics:  45,029 people affected and 5,363 homes collapsed .

Heavier rainfalls than usual and El Niño have been swift and unforgiving, but this is no natural disaster: it’s a social one, reflecting the Peruvian state’s inadequacy in properly preventing, adapting, and mitigating the impact of natural phenomena. Twelve out of 24 regions are currently in a state of emergency, primarily those in coastal areas, and the situation is only expected to get worse, given heavy rainfalls still forecasted to come.

And it’s the poorest who are suffering most keenly: dengue, malaria, the zika virus, chikungunya, and cholera have all become serious risks due to the collapse of sewage systems. The situation is aggravated due to little to no access to health services because of flooded health centers and the fact that no field hospitals have been set up.

But we are not without hope! It’s been amazing to see people in Peru pull together in solidarity to help alleviate the situation.”

Sisters Milagros and Rosa are cooking Carapulcra to help the people affected by flash floods in Carapongo, Lima, Peru. Photo: Flor Ruiz

That last part is what inspires me—that people can find hope in the middle of such a crisis, that from solidarity solutions are born. But people alone can’t solve all the problems: they need their government to help. That’s why Oxfam is calling for fast and rapid aid for those who have been hit hard by the disaster. As important, the country needs to prioritize a national policy to mitigate, prevent, and reduce disaster risks—and that means guaranteeing adequate funding for initiatives to reduce those risks.

In the short term, Oxfam, working with local leaders, is responding to the crisis by helping people get access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, promoting hygiene to reduce the risk of waterborne diseases, and providing temporary emergency housing to some of the most affected families.

When disasters strike, Oxfam and our partners on the ground need to be ready to respond. Make a gift to our Saving Lives 24/7 fund.

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