A woman fills buckets with water from the drums installed by Action Against Hunger, in the town of Mocara, department of Piura, Peru, 19 September 2023. EFE/Paolo Aguilar

Domino effect of El Niño in Peru

Paula Bayarte

Piura, Peru, Sept 19 (EFE).- “Dengue kills,” reads a large sign on the cemetery doors of a small settlement in the Piura region in northern Peru. Deaths from this disease have multiplied by five in 2023 compared to 2022, and they are just one of the consequences of coastal El Niño, a phenomenon that makes the poor even more vulnerable.

Old sandbags with discolored bottoms accumulate next to the walls of buildings in Piura, a painful reminder of the heavy rains that have affected the region.

Coastal El Niño, a rare phenomenon caused by rising sea surface temperatures off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador that intensifies and extends the rainy season, has historically affected thousands.

It is so rare that its most recent records are from 1925 and 2017, which is why scientists are intrigued that in 2023, just six years after the most recent record, coastal El Niño is back.

In early 2017, it devastated Piura, causing heavy rains that damaged homes, raised food prices, destroyed jobs, ruined crops, and spread disease.

“We suffered a lot because we didn’t think that such a heavy rain would come, it affected our houses and the animals we raised ourselves (…) we lost everything and work became scarce, food went up, and there was nothing to buy, everything was too expensive,” Elsa Cheros, a neighbor of Mocará, told EFE.

With watery eyes, she recalls how water entered most homes in March due to leaks and how a nearby river overflowed, affecting the town.

She regrets what has been lost, but also, along with other local women, she claims that aid never came and they can’t afford the repairs on their own. Authorities promised them help months ago, but it has yet to come.

These repairs are necessary to face El Niño, expected to hit even harder in late 2023.

“Public investment projects are necessary,” says Josué Porras, an Action Against Hunger’s water and sanitation technician, standing in front of giant drums that the organization installed to guarantee access to drinking water.

Neighbors line up to fill their buckets from the new drums, set up for times of climate emergency and to reduce economic vulnerability.

Porras also points to a plan to clean basins and drains to prevent water from accumulating and to guarantee the freshwater supply.

A range of vulnerabilities

Children carry buckets to fill them with water in the drums installed by Action Against Hunger, in the human settlement of Mocara, department of Piura, Peru, 19 September 2023. EFE/Paolo Aguilar

“When it rains, the crops are affected, the farms are flooded, and the population needs basic food because there is no production,” says the technician.

The rain affects families who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. It damages crops used for subsistence and small-scale sales, reducing the local’s food intake and income.

In addition to the economic impact and food insecurity, El Niño multiplies rain-related diseases such as dengue fever and gastrointestinal problems due to stagnant water.

In communities without running water, neighbors also take advantage of the rains to store water, which, when done improperly, favors the reproduction of the dengue mosquito (Aedes Aegypti) and harmful viruses and bacteria.

“Unclean water contains pathogens, bacteria, and viruses. In an emergency, the population may find it necessary to drink untreated water, and by consuming it, they can easily contract respiratory, gastrointestinal, or skin diseases,” says Porras.

The impact of dengue

Patients with dengue receive treatment at the Catacaos health facility, in the department of Piura, Peru, 06 September 2023 (issued 19 September 2023). EFE/Paolo Aguilar

According to the latest figures from the Peruvian Ministry of Health, 419 deaths from dengue were recorded in 2023. Last year’s record for the same period was 71, and 28 for the year before (2021).

“The patient load was terrible. We were not enough. Now it has decreased a bit, but complicated cases continue to arrive,” says Julia, a nurse at the Catacaos health facility in Bajo Piura, as she applies a thermometer to a child with dengue symptoms.

She recalls that a few months ago, they received more than 130 cases daily.

Mario Mendoza, director of the health facility, explains that in April, at the peak of the cases, they had to urgently create an area for patients in the middle of a corridor.

“The situation is expected to get worse, so we insist that the population be aware and that the state provides the institutions with more equipment and personnel to fight this endemic disease better,” he says.

Sitting in the modest center, he emphasizes that they are still waiting for government help because “there should already be a specialized dengue unit.

Just as Mendoza is waiting for resources to respond to the wave of dengue cases predicted with the arrival of a new coastal El Niño, the population is still waiting for any assistance so that the rains do not worsen their precarious situation. EFE