Devastating floods expose Peru's climate crisis

Some 70,000 are displaced and at least 70 dead as Peru's heaviest rains in two decades have unleashed flash-floods and landslides across the country. The National Civil Defense Institute (INDECI) is stretched to limit, with several communities left isolated by washed-out roads and bridges. The north coast has been hit the hardest, with the worst impacts in Lambayeque region, where some 40,000 are displaced. But the situation is grim both up and down the coast from there. INDECI is coordinating with the Defense Ministry to establish an "air bridge," bringing aid by helicopter to the stricken coastal cities of Ácash region. At least 15 pueblos outside Chimbote are cut off after the bridge over the Río Lacramarca was wiped out by a huayco (mudslide). Residents are also trapped in Huarmey district, and the town's hospital was destroyed. In all, 20 of Peru's 25 administrative regions are impacted.

"There's no need to panic, the government knows what it's doing," President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski said in a televised statement, less than convincingly. But he added: "We are confronting a serious climatic problem. There hasn't been an incident of this strength along the coast of Peru since 1998."

This year's El Niño phenomenon hs resulted in a sudden and "abnormal" warming of Pacific waters, in turn bringing 10 times more rain than usual.  The disaster—which follows a period of severe drought—has fueled criticism that the country is unprepared for the growing challenges of climate change. While total precipitation has not exceeded the powerful El Niño of 1998, more rain is falling in shorter periods of time.

Peruvian meteorologist Abraham Levy described the phenomenon as a "coastal El Niño," the first in Peru since 1925. He was quick to caution: "We've had these kinds of El Niños as long as we have historical data, so it's very difficult to link climate change or...global warming to these events."

But Gen. Jorge Chávez, tasked with coordinating the relief effort, said: "We've never seen anything like this before. From one moment to the next, sea temperatures rose and winds that keep precipitation from reaching land subsided." (Peru21, March 18; The Guardian, Reuters, RPP, March 17; Granma, Chimbote en Linea, March 16)