Weathering the Storm

This winter's El Niño Costero has ravaged both Peru and Ecuador. Why have the impacts in Peru been so much more destructive?

April 20, 2017

A district of Castilla, in Piura, Peru, affected by flooding in late March ( Galería del Ministerio de Defensa del Perú/Flickr)

Torrential rains, flooding rivers and lightning huaicos(mudslides) have battered the Pacific coast of South America in the first few months of 2017. Experts have labeled the culprit an “El Niño costero” (coastal El Niño), a localized variant of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon that periodically causes warmer and wetter weather than usual in the eastern Pacific region. The most devastating impacts have manifested in Peru: rural agricultural zones (chacras) along Peru’s coast, after months of drought, have lost crops and cattle as flood water has engulfed rice, maize, mango, and cacao plantings.

The reach of the devastation, however, extends well beyond the chacras. Videos captured by local media through Facebook Live show swift-moving courses of mud passing through the middle of settlements on the outskirts of Lima, carrying debris, cattle and even a human being in the current. Citizens documented surreal scenes of collapsed bridges and waist-deep floodwater in central plazas and along main thoroughfares in northern cities of Trujillo and Piura.

Since what was then called the “Mother of All El Niños” shattered records in 1982 and 1983, scientific and popular interest in ENSO has grown in tandem with growing research and a scientific consensus around climate change. Another ENSO cycle beginning in 1997 set new records, both in terms of meteorological measures as well as economic and human costs worldwide. The present spate of warmer temperatures in the Pacific, however, is localized specifically off the coast of Peru and Ecuador, differentiating this manifestation of El Niño from the most recent 2015 oceanic warming in the central Pacific that contributed to heavy rainfall and drought conditions in other parts of the world.

This makes Peru and Ecuador seem uniquely unlucky. Yet despite the high social cost in Peru, with over 900,000 people affected in some way as of the end of March, neighboring Ecuador has weathered the coastal El Niño comparatively well, though not entirely unscathed. Perhaps this is most evident to residents along the border, a former site of international conflict that extends across each country’s three principal geographical regions.

In Tumbes in northern Peru, flooding in March halted the city’s brisk commercial activity, while many outlying agricultural districts and villages found themselves isolated. Schools delayed the start of the new school year, and rates of endemic mosquito-borne illness like dengue, zika, and chikungunya climbed, according to Katherine Valdez Zapata, an obstetrician and local councilwoman for the province of Tumbes. Meanwhile, north of the Rio Zarumilla along the present-day border between Ecuador and Peru, flood damage has been less pronounced, according to Valdez Zapata, who sees a marked difference between the two countries.

 “Ecuador has made a very good investment in the protection of its riverbank defenses …more technical, more advanced, and more optimized,” says Valdez Zapata. Organizational capacity and focused investment in Ecuador, such as the recently completed Bulubulu River flood control project in Guayas province, contrast with the more short-term maintenance projects, such as cleaning weeds and debris from irrigation and drainage canals, found in Peru.

Disparities between Peru and Ecuador also can be found in their respective capitals. Heavy rainfall and mudslides laid bare the critical deficiencies in Lima’s sanitation infrastructure, leading to a potable water shortage for nearly a week in mid-March in several neighborhoods across the city. Quito, on the other hand, has withstood numerous flood emergencies, which Fabricio Zembrano, an assistant manager with Quito’s public sanitation agency (EPMAPS), attributed to the modern management and ample coverage of the metropolitan region’s sewage and drainage systems. These systems serve to protect the subtropical highland city in years of heavier than usual rainfall. In a recent tour of Guayas province in southern Ecuador, outgoing president Rafael Correa insisted that investment in public works and planning has shielded Ecuador from worse outcomes.

The destruction and loss of homes in Lima’s outlying districts, which extend into the foothills of the Andes, has led observers to forcefully criticize the metropolitan area’s complacent lack of regional planning. Partially urbanized and unplanned settlement has prevailed in Peru for decades now, as migrants searching for economic opportunity (or fleeing conflict) relocate to Lima and regional capitals, hoping to maintain footholds at the edge of expanding cities. When disasters occur, these precarious settlements experience the worst impacts. Precarious informal settlements are now found throughout Peru, including in small- and medium-sized provincial cities in northern Peru. In spite of revenues from coastal petroleum reserves, export agriculture and commercial fishing, regional towns including Sullana, Talara, and Paita show patterns of settlement (and disaster impact) comparable to larger cities. As urban populations continue to grow, unplanned urbanization can entrench further social inequalities, especially when catastrophe strikes.

Enduring social inequalities in turn amplify the effects of extreme weather for poorer and marginalized populations, as they experience the brunt of the consequences of infrastructure failures. While geographical factors affect the outcome of environmental events, economic and social factors can exacerbate the impact. The responses of different countries to ENSO-related weather are contingent on these factors, much as they are for other catastrophic events like earthquakes. Global climate change and environmental catastrophes will continue to shape the political and social issues while affecting national populations unevenly, especially in Andean nations

In Peru as well as in Ecuador, precarious environmental situations are developing: rapidly receding Andean glaciers, dependence on the revenues of oil and mineral extraction at the expense of local environment, as well as pervasive drought and shifts in marine life ecologies that threaten export and subsistence livelihoods. In addition to natural forces, however, there are also economic factors in play. Historian Mark Carey, in his book In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society (Oxford U Press) employs the term “disaster economics” (a modification of Naomi Klein’s “disaster capitalism”) to conceptualize the way that environmental catastrophes “promote and empower a range of economic development interests; this development can follow both disasters and disaster prevention programs and can be private or state-owned, planned or unintentional, neoliberal or otherwise.”

Disaster economics also reflects the El Niño events in Peru and Ecuador, particularly during the global ENSO of 1997 and 1998. For Ecuador, the 1997-1998 ENSO precipitated a period of economic and social crisis that led to the full dollarization of the economy and, in an effort to recover, a doubling down on oil exports after global petroleum prices started to rise in 1999. Despite warnings by Ecuadorean weather forecasters, the government, having recently emerged from with Fabián Alarcón Rivera as interim president, undertook practically no preventative measures in 1997. After 2007 however, the Rafael Correa government took such calls more seriously. Six water management projects, including the Bulubulu project, which improves irrigation and flood prevention, are the fruits of what economist Mark Weisbrot calls “creative changes in economic policy” that allowed Ecuador to better weather the fickle shifts of the international oil market.

Oil, of course, continues to play a major role in Ecuadorean politics, and its continued exploitation at the expense of local environmental concerns continues to be a point of conflict with the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador (CONAIE), Ecuador’s most important indigenous movement. In the aftermath of a political uprising in 2000 that unseated President Jamil Mahaud, CONAIE has played a critical role in national politics, with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and critiques of petroleum-drive development.

Correa clashed with the CONAIE, and in the last month’s election, highland and eastern provinces (both with high indigenous populations and most affected by oil and mining), the confederation threw their weight behind conservative Guillermo Lasso rather than vote for Lenín Moreno, Correa’s former Vice President. While Moreno now carries the torch of the Correa years, groups with inherently environmental concerns such as the CONAIE have grown disenchanted with the government's empty promises. Mega-hydraulic projects encapsulate this paradox of disaster economics: megaprojects allow greater control over water, while drawing on wealth from environmentally and socially destructive extractive activities like mining and oil drilling.

Correa’s legacy in part lies in the country’s modern water management infrastructure, paid for by the windfall of profits from extractivism. In a reversal of the political geography of Correa’s first election where his strongest support came from the central highlands and the eastern lowlands, coastal provinces most vulnerable to the effects of El Niño weather hoisted Moreno and his Alianza País party to victory.


The 1997-1998 El Niño was also disastrous along Peru’s north coast, though in certain ways less so than the present El Niño cycle. Once part of the “Solid North” due to its strong political association with the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) party, today, the political landscape has shifted. Small-time regional political movements prevent strong organized political action in the north. Corruption, malfeasance, and paternalistic styles of campaigning have their roots in the decades-long authoritarian presidency of Alberto Fujimori, an era that has left an indelible mark on Peru’s contemporary political culture.

The Economist reported in 1997 on President Alberto Fujimori’s eagerness to appear to be working on El Niño disaster prevention, noting his attempts to shape his media image—an image that supporters of the disgraced and incarcerated former president have recently sought to resuscitate . Part of Fujimori’s ability to thrive came from his ability to spin crises, whether El Niño prevention or cholera outbreaks, to his advantage. The eventual El Niño caused wide-scale flooding in much of the north, as well as devastating the coastal fishing that drives a good part of the region’s economy.

Fujimori resigned in 2000, yet Peru’s subsequent presidents largely maintained neoliberal economic policies, grounded in mineral extraction, agricultural exports and an expanding tourism sector. Political and administrative reforms in the early 2000s attempted to create larger macro-regions to enhance cooperation and facilitate integration into the national decision-making process—though ultimately these reforms failed in their ambitious goals. The continuous decline of political coalitions beyond administrative regions has only hampered responses to extreme weather, especially since different levels of public administration have wildly variable levels of capacity.

In the city of Piura and throughout the region, infrastructure improvements and integration have slowly taken place over the past twenty years, though without the requisite protections from flooding and rains. Many observers have noted that at its highest, the volume of water in the past few months remained lower than in 1998.  Furthermore, the routine public works required for maintaining irrigation and flood control infrastructure has lagged or in other cases, was contracted and executed under suspect circumstances. The fact that the regions affected by flooding contain some of the world’s driest desert terrain increases the urgency of disaster prevention measures. Investments in long-term and contentious hydroelectric projects like Alto Piura and Olmos in Lambayeque have not been accompanied by a degree of flood control that can protect lives and livelihoods. Katherine Valdez Zapata, the public official from Tumbes, also emphasized that reforestation activities must play a central role in protecting the land from erosion and flooding. In certain cases, inhabitants of drier parts of Piura and Tumbes can take advantage of wetter years to recuperate more of the region’s natural forest cover.

In Peru, it will ultimately be small-holder farmers who will pay the highest price, as the infrastructure that allows them some measure of protection as well as export market access crumbles. Rural residents will be hard-pressed to avoid further entanglements with extreme weather should they choose to move to asentamientos humanos or pueblos jóvenes (as the informal settlements on the outskirts of Peruvian cities are called). The lack of serious attention to these areas in Peru’s current course of economic development will only further erode exposed areas like the north coast and peripheral Lima. Ecuador thus emerges as a positive point of comparison, though its inability to overcome the extractivist model also presents problems, both for long-term economic as well as environmental sustainability.

While disaster economics in Andean countries has emphasized the primacy of the private sector, large-scale multinational investment and sparse regulatory practices, it is very much in the public interest that the state not only promote and provide disaster prevention, but also that it does so in close consultation with the most affected populations. Balancing the political ecology of environmental catastrophe will require going beyond the creativity employed in the case of Ecuador in recent years. The fact that extreme weather stemming from climate change will become more frequent and less predictable makes this rethinking even more urgent.

Douglas McRae is a PhD candidate in History at Georgetown University, where he also received an MA in Latin American Studies. He is currently researching the environmental and social history of urban water and sanitation services in the city of São Paulo, Brazil. He served as a Community Health Volunteer with the Peace Corps in northern Peru and in Lima from 2008 to 2011.

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