Latin America’s problem child
by Claes Amundsen
in Latin America are facing a common challenge. Across the continent,
the meteorological phenomenon known as “El Niño”
is causing havoc, with floods in some parts and drought in others.
Red Cross relief workers are busy helping the thousands of victims
to cope with the consequences of this extraordinarily unfriendly
weather. At the same time, efforts are being made to prepare
the local communities for worse.
Luis Horacio Vidal lives 30 blocks from the river. A few
nights ago it ran through his living room. Inside his modest
house, small pools of water still remain on the floor, like
the marks of an unwelcome visitor. Apart from that, the house
is practically empty since Luis has taken his most precious
belongings with him and moved in with his grown-up son a few
streets away. The rest of his furniture is in a warehouse
owned by the municipal authorities — or so he hopes.
“This has happened to me several times now,”
explains the 51-year-old man. “Each time, I lose everything
I have. What is not destroyed by the floods or in the warehouse
is stolen by thieves. This time they got away with part of
Sure enough. Where the corrugated iron sheets used to be,
you can now see straight through to the sky, still threatening
rain and more floods. Villains have taken advantage of the
situation and sailed into the flooded area in boats on a raid
for valuables left behind in the deserted houses. It’s
no wonder that many people have resisted evacuation and tried
to stay in the neighbourhood if at all possible.
A dangerous phenomenon
Señor Vidal lives in Concordia, a city located in
the flood-prone La Plata Basin approximately 440 km north
of the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires. He is just one of
Latin America’s many victims of a weather phenomenon
known as “El Niño”, which has been blamed
for most of the recent natural calamities across the world.
From Indonesia to Nicaragua, it has destroyed crops and fishing,
made vast areas uninhabitable and obliged the Red Cross and
other humanitarian organizations to set up evacuation centres
for the affected populations.
While “El Niño” is really a world-wide
plague caused by a shift in warm sea currents, it was the
people of Latin America who first identified a pattern in
the strange climatic behaviour. Peruvian fishermen noticed
that extraordinarily warm waters would reach the coastline
of the country in the weeks around Christmas, and they baptized
the event with the Spanish word for the Christ Child. They
soon found out, however, that it did not come accompanied
by gifts and blessings, but by destruction, and that it would
return every four to seven years. The worst season so far
was that of 1982-83 which claimed at least 2,000 lives and
cost an estimated 13 million US dollars world-wide. The big
fear is that El Niño of 1998 may behave just as badly,
and the Red Cross is preparing for the worst.
The warning signs indicating that this season could become
one of the worst ever started occurring months ago. In October,
the sea temperature along the Peruvian coastline was five
degrees Celsius above the normal. Fishermen knew something
was wrong when they found lobsters in their nets; the water
in this area would normally be too cold for the creatures.
In Honduras, Panama, Ecuador and Peru some 80,000 families
are now dependent on food rations distributed by humanitarian
agencies as a result of El Niño, and a recent appeal
launched by the International Federation aims to assist these
In total, the appeal asks for nearly 14 million Swiss francs
which will also cover emergency supplies to be stocked throughout
Latin America in the areas most at risk. If funding permits,
a total of 8,000 tonnes of food, 120,000 blankets, roofing
material for 20,000 houses and other relief items will be
in place when the disasters occur, thus allowing the Red Cross
to take action immediately rather than having to wait painful
days or weeks before the aid arrives.
Finally, the appeal states the necessity to prepare the local
communities for the disasters. The Red Cross has already carried
out disaster preparedness training in ten Latin American countries
thanks to funding from the European Commission Humanitarian
From north to south
One country punished by El Niño this year is Nicaragua.
Drought has hit nine of the country’s 16 districts,
and an emergency appeal had to be launched in October to prevent
The Mexican Red Cross also had to take action when hurricane
Pauline devastated part of the tourist resort of Acapulco
and other coastal areas. Several hundred died and at least
10,000 lost their homes. Now, the Mexican Red Cross has embarked
on a reconstruction project for 2,000 houses for which it
is receiving funding from various European countries.
At the other end of Latin America, Chile has had a run of
bad luck. In June 1996, three years of drought were interrupted
by unusually heavy rains leading to floods and evacuations
in large parts of the country. A huge relief operation had
only just ended when an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter
scale struck central Chile, destroying an estimated 5,000
houses and damaging at least 10,000 others. Ironically, the
rain contributed to the damaging power of the earthquake as
houses constructed with sun-dried bricks had been weakened
and were unable to resist the tremors. The Red Cross undertook
emergency relief distribution and is looking for ways to rebuild
Chalinga, one of the villages levelled in the quake.
with the waves
Back in Concordia, the Argentinian Red Cross has been busy
for the last couple of months caring for some of the 7,000
people affected by the floods. Six evacuation centres are
run by Red Cross volunteers in cooperation with the local
authorities. The centres have been set up in warehouses and
other large structures, offering each family a small one-room
“apartment” separated from the neighbours by mobile
walls covered with black plastic. Many have brought all the
furniture they had time to save before the river washed into
Children account for over half of the people staying in centres,
so improvised classrooms have been set up for those who cannot
attend their normal school. Among them is 12-year-old Yamila
whose house lies only half a block away from the river. “Today,
there is water all the way up to the roof,” she explains.
There is no saying how long the children will have to stay
here. The water level has started to lower, but El Niño
may last for several months more and bring further floods,
and having to evacuate twice is not an option.
Food is brought in by the army every day. The Red Cross takes
care of the health services in the centres, and a vaccination
campaign is under way. Luckily, there have been no outbreaks
of disease or epidemics so far (in 1982 malaria killed hundreds
in Peru and Mexico following the floods).
If the situation appears under control inside the centres,
there are greater problems elsewhere in the city. Says Eduardo
Taubas, the President of the Red Cross branch in Concordia:
“Many people are poor and basically live on what they
can earn on the bank of the river. They have refused to be
evacuated and are living in dismal conditions, either in their
own homes or in makeshift houses. Some come to the Red Cross
for help, but we have to go and find the others ourselves,
and it can be very difficult to reach these people.”
A few kilometres away, a young woman bears witness to this.
She has just given birth to a child, but the home where he
will spend his first months could not be called safe: a hastily
built shed with walls of plastic sheeting, lacking the basic
hygiene facilities. This structure forms part of a small camp
set up by a handful of families on what appears to be an empty
construction site. It is not difficult to imagine how diseases
can emerge and spread in a place like this, and the visit
by the Red Cross offers only some consolation. If needed,
the people can come to the office and collect some clothes,
maybe a bit of food and a blanket. But as long as El Niño
continues to haunt Latin America, these people live in danger.
The next flood or storm could turn the camp into yet another
Meanwhile, Red Cross volunteers in Concordia and elsewhere
are hoping that the worst meteorological prophecies will not
be fulfilled. Even without the storms, floods and droughts,
there are plenty of things they could do for the vulnerable
people living in Latin America, and they would like soon to
return to the everyday tasks of public health education, first-aid
training, disaster preparedness and so on. El Niño
permitting, as they say.
Claes Amundsen is a Federation information delegate based
in Buenos Aires.
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