Residents are working around the clock to hold back the rising water and reinforce their homes, but official aid is urgently needed and nowhere to be seen.
Written by Cecilia Niezen, Institutional Communication and Media Officer.
Batangrande, in the district of Pítipo and Province of Ferreñafe, Lambayeque, is one of the areas of Peru that has been hit the hardest by the "Coastal El Niño" phenomenon. Located near the midsection of the La Leche river watershed, which overflowed its banks as a result the intense rains that are pounding the region, Batangrande appears to have been forgotten by national humanitarian efforts. To judge by the testimony of the people we have met and everything we have seen in our visit, aid to the area thus far has been minimal.
Local residents in this area that has experienced successive flooding events say they can no longer fend for themselves, as they had been attempting to do up to this point. They do not want food donations; they are asking for sandbags and plastic sheeting to protect their homes, most of which are built from adobe mud bricks and have been soaked with torrential rains. Some homes have collapsed, while others threaten to come apart imminently. They need shovels, pickaxes, and wheelbarrows to dig canals or remove rubble.
"I ask that you do not forget this place", says Violeta Antón, the coordinator of the Community Civil Defense Committee for the town of Batangrande. Antón recalls that her committee and other local groups and organizations have been requesting greater investment from local authorities for disaster prevention for well over a year. "We had been expecting this phenomenon for over a year, but we are still not prepared".
The impacts of the torrential rainfall and lightning in February and March can be seen throughout the region: loss of life, thousands of people left without homes, adobe shelters in ruins or rapidly melting away, standing floodwaters on the streets, infrastructure in danger of collapsing (including schools), roads blocked by rocks and mud, and hundreds of hectares of cropland flooded.
The rural area, dotted by towns and villages which have been difficult to survey, has been hit the hardest and is the least accessible. On our way toward the El Algarrobito bridge (which has collapsed), we came across the village of Puchaca, where residents are busy reinforcing their homes as they brace for a new wave of rainstorms. But we also encountered many confused faces.
As we traveled through the village of La Paz, upstream from the La Leche river, we met Antonio Herrera, who for all intents and purposes has been held hostage in his own home by the floodwaters. A pile of sandbags two meters from his doorstep serves as a containment wall against any further advances of the river. On the other side of the sandbags there is a lake of rainwater and river water.
"We were digging a channel to drain the water, but the machinery broke down and the rains came. It is important to keep digging the canal,” he explains. The machinery is stuck a few meters from his home. His expression is one of deep frustration. "Please tell someone about this, so they can help us. If any more heavy rains come, our houses won't hold up.”
Further down the trail toward the El Agarrobito bridge, we stop in the village of Mochumí Viejo, in the District of Pítipo, and we can go no further. The torrential rains are back, and if we cross the river there is no guarantee we'll be able to make it back. The bridge has collapsed and cut off the District of Incahuasi, in the highlands of Lambayeque. In Mochumí Viejo, a rockslide and swollen stream have stopped our vehicle in its tracks; the road has been partially destroyed. Proceeding on foot is too dangerous, and there is no telling how the river might behave.
No end in sight
In Lambayeque, one of the departments of Northern Peru heavily hit by torrential rains and flooding, the emergency continues full force. Official forecasts predict more rain, and people are getting prepared, but it is clear that official aid is needed to respond to this emergency and prevent loss of life in this already soaked area.
Rosa Rivero, the coordinator of CEPRODA MINGA, a non-governmental organization in Lambayeque specializing in prevention, believes that if there is going to be continued population growth along the riverbanks, it is essential that communities improve their early warning systems. Community experiences from other areas across the La Leche river valley demonstrate that early warnings can save lives in flooding events, such as in the case of the District of Íllimo (Lambayeque). No deaths or missing persons were reported despite the recent flooding in that area; as soon as the warning sirens sounded, the population was able to organize an evacuation, led by the community civil defense committees. Sadly, local government support and investments in early warning systems have dried up, despite being accounted for in local ordinances. "The way that people organize and make decisions in a flooding emergency can save lives and reduce damages", Rivero concluded.
On this tragic day, the sense of what could have been done but wasn't, is overwhelming.
"If the drainage canals and floodwater derivation systems for the Motupe and La Leche rivers had been rebuilt, the social, human, and economic costs would have been far less," Rivero explains. Sadly, the authorities chose to make smaller investments only, cleaning causeways and reinforcing some of the riverside barriers, only to see them washed away with the first flash-floods. This system of floodways, built during the El Niño event of 1997-1998, diverted waters into the Morrope desert and away from the district capitals. The system was able to reduce the impact of flooding in that event. Failure to rebuild the floodwater derivation and diversion system - Rivero explains - has put six districts directly in the path of high floodwaters this time, as occurred during the El Niño events of 1925 and 1983.
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