Now we know

By Chris Hufstader
Jose Francisco Baldera, president of the civil defense committee in his town, show visitors a map indicating flood-prone areas and evacuation routes. Photo: Percy Ramirez / Oxfam America

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“Thanks to the training, we’ve won the trust of the people—but also of the authorities,” says Nelson Manayay.

Manayay lives in the Peruvian Andes and is among a number of people who have received civil defense training funded by Oxfam. Thanks to him and others living in far-flung communities, the entity that’s responsible for protecting and aiding citizens—the regional government—is finally stepping up and doing its job.

Early warning

On Peru’s north coast, near the city of Chiclayo, the Pan-American Highway spans the Rio La Leche. “In 2008 this bridge was almost swept away,” Rosa Rivero tells visitors, standing near the concrete bridge, as trucks thunder past and her hair whips around in the wind. Rivero is the project chief for an organization called CEPRODAMINGA (a Spanish acronym for the Center for the Promotion of Andean Development), which has been trying to get the regional government to institute a system to help alert citizens to imminent flooding.

Rivero points to a scale painted on the concrete support beneath the bridge: bold green, yellow, and red bands progress vertically toward the roadbed. This deceptively simple scale is an essential public safety tool. When water level rises from the green zone to the yellow or red, it signals danger. “We want the government to put these scales on all the bridges in the area,” Rivero says.

Surviving in La Leche river valley

The La Leche river runs from the mountains, soaring over 12,000 feet, down to the valley and coast of Lambayeque. The river valley is home to about 174,000 people—the majority of whom live in rural areas and are subsistence farmers, cultivating potato, maize, soy, beans, rice, wheat, and peas on their own lands or as day laborers on large farms.

In early June, the river flows tranquilly in its rocky bed. It hardly seems threatening; but in rainy times the La Leche assumes an entirely different character. “It looks nice, but when it floods, it takes everything, says Rafael Burga, who works with CEPRODAMINGA. “We call it the 'crazy river,' because it just goes everywhere.” The north coast of Peru sees a lot of rain, especially when the El Niño phenomenon sets up in the Pacific Ocean.

Nelson Manayay, 38, is the civil defense technical secretary in the highland community of Incahuasi. He’s held the post for three years, and has benefited from the training provided by CEPRODAMINGA. “Without this project, we would not have set up any village committees,” he says near his office in the municipal hall. He is responsible for six villages of Quechua-speaking indigenous people, home to about 9,000 families.

People in Manayay’s community report that the climate has been changing—the rains are less predictable—and severe weather makes an early warning system critical. In 2009, heavy rains and landslides hit one community. “When I saw the damage from those rains,” Manayay says, “I felt as though my own family had been affected.” Thanks to the warning system, “we were in immediate [telephone] communication with other areas to alert them,” says Manayay. He walked more than six hours to reach the affected area, did an assessment of the damage, and got the regional government to supply aid to help people with food, shelter, and medicine for sick children.

Las Juntas Parte Alta lies farther down the valley than Incahuasi. The community—near the coast and a half mile from the La Leche bridge—is low-lying. José Francisco Baldera serves as president of the local civil defense committee. When the river floods, Baldera explains, “We are the first people to be affected.”

The people of Las Juntas Parte Alta have mapped out evacuation routes, identified homes at greatest risk, and set up a community radio station to broadcast alerts to the community. “Now we know the risk factors, and where to go," Baldera says. “We’ve had drills in the community, and in the schools. Before, we had no system. Now we know more.”

Modest investments produce big results

Beginning in 2007 with a grant of $38,000, Oxfam has invested $136,000 in CEPRODAMINGA’s efforts. The organization helped to integrate local government appointees called civil defense technical secretaries—like Manayay—into communities by organizing local civil defense committees to evaluate risks in villages and carry out emergency simulations. The committees identified households susceptible to landslides, mapped out those most vulnerable to floods, and identified evacuation routes. To date, they have trained 14 technical secretaries and there are now 50 civil defense committees.

At the same time, CEPRODAMINGA has been encouraging the Lambayeque regional government to require all communities to establish civil defense committees and fund their activities. The organization showed the government through studies and sustained advocacy efforts that simple early warning systems will avoid unnecessary suffering and loss of life in flood-prone areas.

In early June 2010, the regional government passed an ordinance that creates new public institutions to oversee early warning systems in all the river basins in Lambayeque. This ordinance institutionalizes the local committees that CEPRODAMINGA has pioneered and will establish ways of monitoring river levels (e.g., bridge scales), will develop new and better communications systems to spread alerts, and will foster collaboration between local governments and local civil defense committees that will now be supported with public resources.

Lambayeque is the first department of Peru to take this step. “We hope that other regions in Peru will adopt similar ordinances,” says Elizabeth Cano, Oxfam’s humanitarian program officer in Peru.