A flood in Peru that killed 67 people, and forced thousands to evacuate, has officials calling for more robust efforts to prepare for the effects of climate change on the coastal nation.
The flood destroyed 115,000 homes and more than 100 bridges, making it one of the most destructive floods in the country’s recent history. Heavy rain burst river banks, caused mudslides, and forced the closing of roads and schools along the northern portion of Peru’s coast. Heavy downpours even affected Peru’s capital city, Lima, with a desert climate that normally sees little rain. President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski said in an address to the nation on Friday:
“We are confronting a serious climatic problem. There hasn’t been an incident of this strength along the coast of Peru since 1998.”
The flood followed a period of severe drought during which wildfires burned through 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres). Juber Ruiz, from Peru’s civil defense institute, said to Reuters “We’ve rarely seen this kind of rapid and quick change in climatic conditions.”
The flood has been attributed to unusually warm temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, calling into question whether the country is properly prepared for the effects of climate change, to which it is especially vulnerable.
Though rains began to subside in the northern Piura region on Thursday night, meterooligsts expected the rain front to travel inland and south, issuing the agency’s highest-level warning for parts of the Cusco Ucayali and Huánuco regions. Prime Minster Fernando Zavala said that 176 districts had already declared emergencies.
Two months ago, mudslides caused tourists to have to be airlifted from Machu Picchu, after similar heavy rains.
According to Peruvian meteorologist Abraham Levy, the “extremely unusual” weather was caused by “atypical” temperatures in the Pacific off the norther coast, which had warmed by 5 to 6 degrees Celsius, to 29C. He referred to this as “coastal El Niño,” and said the phenomenon had not been seen there since 1925.
“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 even global warming to these events,” said Levy. A spokesman from the Peruvian ministry of environment said it was too early to conclusively link the floods to climate change. Studies have, however, predicted more frequent El Niño patterns as a result of climate change.
Other scientists, such as Ruiz, said rising sea temperatures were likely to be connected to the weather patterns.
Scientists said Peruvian authorities had ignored warnings that countries in the region were facing a severe risk of drought. Opposition parties have accused the government of not responding to forecasts of extreme weather.
Verónika Mendoza, leader of the New Peru movement, said:
“We know the ‘coastal El Niño’ comes from time to time. We know we are a country that is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. We should have prepared ourselves better.”