By: Kouros Maghsoudi
“Pachamama es la dictadura” (Pachamama is the dictator), an indigenous, eye-sunken, Peruvian mother mumbled under her breath as she swam passed me in the cloudy floodwaters, loosely dragging her unfazed child behind. Pachamama, an Andean indigenous term meaning Mother Earth, was used ubiquitously throughout South America in a positive light, usually in gratitude towards the seemingly endless generosity and resources Pachamama offered to those who live symbiotically with la tierra (the land). This March, the term Pachamama has been whispered throughout Peru with fear and apprehension. Regardless of one's lifestyle, the paralyzing coastal Peruvian floods overwhelmed Peruvians of all backgrounds, provinces and income-levels.
Awoken by a sobbing German backpacker seated next to me on the 11-hour bus ride, I arrived to Piura, Peru with news that all terrestrial transportation in the northern half of the country was suspended due to the fatal torrential rains and flooding. Piura, the tiny yet bustling capital of one of Peru’s northernmost provinces, was one of the locations most affected by the record breaking floods of late March 2017. Rain boots and drenched bathing suits developed into the latest streetwear fad. Wet footprints dotted the city, trailing to the nearest urban floodwater pool. Neighbors sitting on plastic lawn furniture watching, like a spectator sport, as crowds of Piuranos slowly swam across the floodwaters.
Neighbors sitting on plastic lawn furniture watching, like a spectator sport, as crowds of Piuranos slowly swam across the floodwaters.
Although Peru only contributes to 0.01 percent of the global CO2 emissions, the Inca country is unfortunately one of the strongest victims of anthropogenic climate change. With severe droughts sweeping the biodiverse country shortly before devastating floods, Peru’s recent climate leaves many experts perplexed. With 70 percent of the country's population and the majority of its economic activities occurring on the coast, the country is exceptionally vulnerable to economic and national security collapse from rising sea levels and other climate change phenomena. Many experts attribute the recent floods to global rising sea levels and increasing sea surface temperatures, which lead to more frequent evaporation and precipitation, expanding waterfronts, intensified el niño events and drastic tides. Although the implications of rising sea levels and melting Andean glaciers in this coastal South American country are obvious to many, the implications on individual Peruvians are hard to grasp for those living elsewhere. While in Piura, I had the opportunity to interview several Piuranos, providing an insight on the direct effects climate change has had on its victims.
Yesenia, manager of a quaint tourist shop located within Piura’s two-gate airport, witnessed a transformation within airport operations during the widespread flooding. Flights are consistently booked at capacity, a rare occurrence for this small town. The overheated airport lobby is full of standby passengers fanning themselves with loose papers. Closed banks across the city cannot permit withdrawals, making this a difficult time to manage a gift shop, says Ysenia. She repeatedly turned down multiple customers during our interview because she did not have change to break the customer's bill. Small change during this time evolved into a commodity for business owners. Pointing to her vacant beverage fridge, Yesenia explains that with broken bridges throughout the ever-important Panamerican highway, Peru’s silk road, the flow of goods has come to a complete halt, leaving businesses frozen and consumers dry. As the interview concluded, the electricity in the airport flickered and disconnected, resulting in a communal sigh sweeping the over-filled airport lobby.
"If we continue with obtuse climate ignorance and tepid international action, then unaffordable resources, vacant pantries, overwhelmed hospitals, mass migration, frozen economies, and standstill transportation will undeniably become the new normal."
Manuelo Antón, the young director for Centro de Reposo de San Juan de Dios, one of Piura’s largest hospitals, dragged me through crowds of ill Piuranos to his private, poorly lit office. Antón defined the last two weeks with the repeated word falta, meaning “lack” in Spanish. He explained that within the past few days, the amount of incoming patients has increased three-fold, and they significantly falta faculty, falta medicine, and falta equipment. Antón explained that waterborne diseases have exploded through the region, primarily due to the sewage system collapsing. He claimed that flood waters, which are crossed by hundreds of Piuranos daily, have mixed with the toxic waste and sewage water, resulting in an uncontrollable spread of waterborne diseases like dengue fever and leptospirosis. Due to the collapsed sewage system, Piuranos are also experiencing restricted water usage, with the tap water shut off for up to 12 hours a day, and unfortunately, Anton’s overwhelmed hospital is no exception to the province-wide water rations.
Anonymous mother and son, owners of a local (a lunch-only restaurant) about a kilometer from the epicenter of the flooding, described how the rainstorms have not only affected the culinary industry in Piura, but how the impacts of the northern weather events have echoed across the country. With the majority of the crops coming from the Mountainous center of Peru, also know as the Sierra, many roadways and bridges have crumbled, leading to a complete shutdown of the previously continuous flow of food. Food prices throughout the country have increased remarkably, causing an economic ripple effect from farm-to-table. “The other day, a kilogram of limes costed us 3 soles ($0.90 USD). Today, it will cost over 50 soles ($15.45 USD) – if the market has them in stock, that is”, the head chef claimed. Unfortunately, this phenomenon was seen throughout Peru as many of the city-to-farmland arteries were inundated, forcing Peruvians to get creative in the kitchen with the mismatch food left in the supermarkets, resulting in a hodgepodge of dishes.
Spanning two weeks, this state-of-emergency-triggering event is a microcosm of what a global future could look like under climate change. Peru, a relatively developed and stable South American bubble, exemplifies the gravity of climate change resilience and preparedness. If we continue with obtuse climate ignorance and tepid international action, then unaffordable resources, vacant pantries, overwhelmed hospitals, mass migration, frozen economies, and standstill transportation will undeniably become the new normal. As a (sometimes irritating and excessive) climate change advocate, witnessing the troubling destruction and helplessness from a escalated weather event cements my already crippling climate anxieties. Regardless of our ability to configure and alter the natural environment to our comfort, “Pachamama [always] es la dictadura.”