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Latin America’s problem child

by Claes Amundsen
Countries 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 my roof.”

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 people.

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 Office (ECHO).

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 mass starvation.

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.




Gone 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 their house.

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 disaster scene.

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
Claes Amundsen is a Federation information delegate based in Buenos Aires.

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