The Guardian, 26 Oct 2015
Peruvians should be better prepared for a phenomenon which they know well, since it all started on their coasts, says local historian Lizardo Seiner in an interview with El Comercio
Ever since the Spanish landed in Peru in the fifteenth century the magnitude of each El Niño event has increased, according to Lizardo Seiner Lizarraga. The northern coasts are especially in danger, said the history lecturer at the university of Lima, and specialist in the social and environmental history of risk.
Lizarraga’s scientific research begins in 1925, one of the three worst years hit by the weather pattern. 1983 is classed as the worst, but the phenomenon goes back way back. As he said in the following historical extract from one of his articles, “The El Niño phenomenon in Peru: reflections in history”:
“In 1579 Alonso de Lucio, defendor of the Indians in the Viceroyalty of Peru, filed a suit before the Royal Audiencia and Chancery of Lima, a superior court in colonial Spain. He made the case that different owners (“encomederos”) of Trujillo, a city on the north-western coast, continued to tax the native population despite the harsh situation people were in. Torrential rainfall had lashed the northern coast in 1578, destroying crops (including cotton, wheat and corn), and homes in the lowlands. People could not meet their fiscal obligations”.
We look set to have a repeat of these torrential rains by the end of the year, and they will probably continue right into 2016. The El Niño weather pattern tends to occur at Christmas, which is why the Peruvians named the phenomenon “the Christ’s child”. Peru’s lack of adequate preparations in advance of such an event proves we haven’t learned the lessons from El Niño, even from centuries ago, said Lizarraga.
El Comercio: Lizardo, not many know that Peru was the first place where El Niño struck.
Lizarraga: The story is only now becoming interesting for historians and investigators, and is being told from its colonial beginnings in the context of the current impact on us. How else do you understand a major climate event with so many characteristics, except to delve into its history?
El Comercio: Shortly after El Niño first happened, the Spanish colonised Peru. How has the phenomenon changed in the five centuries since?
Lizarraga: We know that in 1578 there was a plague of rats – although we don’t know in detail what kind of epidemics this caused. It had a huge impact on the population. Historically, humans and the environment have always had a difficult relationship.
El Comercio: Yet historically the authorities were not well prepared to handle such a weather pattern either.
Lizarraga: It’s important to know about the phenomenon from a historical perspective especially since it minimises that vulnerability. A society learns and can be more prepared for the next time, which is the situation we are currently in. One problem has been that El Niño in this country has become associated primarly with the north-western region of Piura, which was most affected by it – people must know that the event will have repercussions on the whole country.
El Comercio: So will we able to handle El Niño when it comes around again this year?
Lizarraga: Unfortunately we haven’t learnt our lesson. People keep settling where there were once the riverbeds of ravines and gorges. One of the most common expressions you’ll hear people saying is that “the river escaped from its mother”. Of course, they mean that the river changed course. They know perfectly well that rising water levels will have something to do with people who have settled where an ancient riverbed once stood. The local authorities are also complicit in this knowledge. Not only are the mayors responsible for allowing this to happen in zones which are risky to live in, but they are actually standardising the process. The authorities need to lay down a set of technical standards which would serve as a foundation for new territorial laws.
El Comercio: Around 25,000 families will need to be relocated. Is there some hope in preventing future such cases?
Lizarraga: The state’s response service has definitely improved. Today they work with simulations of future phenomenons. There was even a warship, the HNLMS Amsterdam (which became known as the BAP Tacna), which carried material for humanitarian aid. We can monitor events far more carefully these days; that wasn’t even possible in 1982.
El Comercio: In terms of planning, would you argue that much more needs to be done?
Lizarraga: Yes, El Niño is a recurring phenomenon. Peru should be on a par with Japan in terms of how the latter prepares for any seismic activity. We still have enough time to handle whatever will come next.
Other facts and figures
… stormy events were officially caused by El Niño between 1567 and 1998. In this period a quarter of those were recorded as very intense.
… of a chance that El Niño will continue into 2016. According to Peru’s national El Niño research agency (Enfen), there is also a 55% chance that this year’s phenomenon will be bigger than the last.
According to the latest reports, the average anomalies of sea surface temperatures in August was 1.8 degrees Celsius on the northern and central coast. In Paita (in the north-west) and Chimbote (in the north), it rose to 2.2 degrees Celsius above average. Minimum air temperatures registered an anomaly of 1.3 degree Celsius, with the maximum at 1.8 degrees. This summer was most similar to that of 1998 (1997 was the strongest El Niño on record)