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We act fast, and we can save lives

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“When there’s an earthquake, people who live in the communities can lead evacuations. We can rescue people who are trapped, and make sure everyone has food and water and shelter. We can apply a tourniquet and splint a broken leg with a piece of wood.” – Sara Torres, community leader in San Juan de Miraflores Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

On the coast of Peru, an earthquake could happen any minute. Oxfam is supporting the efforts of local partners and grassroots leaders to ease the risks.

The district of San Juan de Miraflores is where the Lima’s urban sprawl meets the coastal mountains and begins to climb. It is a frightening place to live. Here, people who have no money to pay rent have built makeshift houses on slopes so steep they are considered uninhabitable. And the land is unstable: It sits within an earthquake fault zone, which means in the blink of an eye, thousands of homes could collapse or go crashing down the mountainsides.

To live here, you’re likely to be very poor and very brave, and also a little hopeful. “Welcome to New Millenium City,” reads a battered sign at a crossroads halfway up a mountain. Farther along, they’ve named their windswept neighborhood “Beautiful Vista.”

But everyone knows the risks are real.

Local leaders at the ready

“Well-trained community members can be just as effective in emergencies as international organizations. What’s more, they understand the context.”– Hector Falla, who works for the Civil Defense authorities in San Juan de Miraflores. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

“In a big emergency, I’ll be there,” says Sara Torres, who sells home-cooked lunches for a living and who for years was the head of her neighborhood board of directors. “I’ll bring my big pot and my big spoon and I’ll make a big pot of chicken soup and rice and give it out to everyone. I will do anything necessary.” She brandishes a gigantic wooden spoon playfully, but she really isn’t joking. Torres is a fiery and committed leader, and when she turns her attention to people in need, things get done.  In emergencies, she says, “We act fast, and we can save lives, especially if we have training and support.”

Oxfam partner PREDES has been providing that support.

“PREDES started working here in 2009,” says Torres. “They trained leaders in how to handle disasters like fires and earthquakes, and the leaders passed their knowledge on to the rest of the community. We learned how to use fire extinguishers and administer first aid, and how to prepare emergency backpacks with documents and water and non-perishable foods. Oxfam and PREDES gave us first aid kits and stretchers and orange vests. They helped us create contingency plans and learn how to evacuate communities to safety. And they taught us a lot about water and health.”

Like many local leaders, Torres brings more to disaster response than the skills you can learn in workshops on disaster preparedness: She knows the lay of the land. She knows every one of the thousand or so residents of her neighborhood—who lives where and what all their children’s names are. She knows which elderly people can’t get around very well, and who is about to give birth. She knows, in other words, what only a local can know: how to be sure no one gets left behind.

PREDES’ earthquake preparedness programs are reaching 25,000 people in San Juan de Miraflores and two neighboring districts; now, they are launching a new initiative to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and Zika.

They never try to go it alone.  For locally led disaster management to succeed, there need to be strong connections among all the actors, so whenever possible, PREDES works with local authorities, like Hector Falla, a risk management trainer who is part of the Civil Defense system in the San Juan de Miraflores municipality. Falla is a dedicated civil servant who leads trainings and simulations in at-risk communities and will have a lead role in any local disaster response. “Oxfam and PREDES have been a big support,” he says. 

Spotlight on water

“Now we have the coordination we need to act quickly in an emergency,” says Claudia Salas, who works for Lima’s Department of Health and leads the water and sanitation roundtable. "People know what they need to do, and that will help save lives.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

Back in downtown Lima, another effort is underway that could one day make a difference to this community.

San Juan de Miraflores is part of the greater Lima metropolitan area. Water and sewer systems in the informal settlements are almost non-existent, but even in downtown Lima, much of the network is old and poorly maintained. In all, more than 1.5 million people in Lima lack water and sanitation services.

“We have been able to convince the authorities of the importance of water, sanitation, and hygiene in emergencies,” says Rosario Quispe, who is the vice president of PREDES and coordinator of their projects related to water, sanitation, and hygiene.  “In the past, they didn’t pay attention to these issues.”

“There are 20-story buildings sitting on top of decrepit water and sewer pipes that could collapse at any minute,” she says. “There are pipes of all sizes fitted together. There isn’t a plan anywhere that shows where the pipes were laid, so it’s hard to diagnose problems. In a city where the earthquake risk is high, this is very dangerous.” 

Working side by side, Oxfam and PREDES have helped create a roundtable of key organizations and government agencies to coordinate around the issues of water, sanitation, and hygiene in emergencies, explains Oxfam’s humanitarian coordinator Elizabeth Cano, and together they’ve developed a protocol to clarify what leaders at the national, municipal, and community levels need to do when disaster strikes. 

We are the ones who live here

Oxfam’s work in Peru is part of a larger effort to strengthen the ability of disaster-vulnerable countries to manage all but the most catastrophic emergencies without outside intervention. From at-risk rural communities to capital cities, we are tapping into the energy and commitment of local partners and leaders—including government agencies—and sharing all the knowledge and resources we can.

“We are the ones who live here,” says Quispe.  “When a disaster happens we need to be able to respond and create resilience to future disasters. We need to have the capacity to respond immediately in emergencies rather than rely on international saviors. Outside agencies can be effective, but to have them intervene, save us, and leave is not sustainable, and it promotes an attitude of dependency.”

Plus, says Frank Boeren, country director for Oxfam in Peru, “There’s no way that Oxfam and other agencies like it can lend a hand in every emergency around the world. Climate change and armed conflict have already stretched the international humanitarian community beyond its limits. What we can do and must do is help countries and communities become better at managing disasters themselves.”

And we can make sure to work with local organizations as true partners rather than hired contractors whose job it is to carry out Oxfam’s agenda. PREDES thinks that’s going well.

“With Oxfam, we create programs together,” says Quispe. “We analyze together, advocate together, train people together, and monitor together. We work arm in arm. Oxfam is part of the team.”

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