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El Nino soaks northern Peru

By Michael L. Smith

The Globe and Mail, February, 1983

A 12-year-old boy dressed only in briefs wades through a rain-swollen river in the middle of Peru's northern coastal desert. Behind him a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a heavily loaded diesel truck are following his steps on what was once the Pan-American Highway.

A sudden surge of water knocks the boy off balance, sweeping him away. He splashes in the muddy curent and crawls on the riverbank about 100 meters downstream.

A second, smaller boy rushes out to take over leading the vehicles across. When they reach the other side, he is given a 50-cent tip. A tractor stands by incase a truck gets stuck in the crossing.

This scene is repeated daily at numerous spots between the city of Piura, 1,300 kilometers north of Lima, and the oil center and port of Talara. Foour months ago many of these rivers did not even exist. After a storm it is impossible to travel the 80-kilometer stretch between the two points.

"We get a highway open and then more rains wash all the work away," says Luis Zegarra, head of the regional developmenet agency.

Without this effort, Piura would sputter to a complete halt, depriving 250,000 residents of electricity and drinking water. These services are already rationed to four hours a day to conserve diesel fuel. Queues for food and fuel are daily ordeals.

For five months the northern coasst of Peru has been drenched with the worst rains in a century, setting off massive flooding and landslides and directly affecting more than two million people. The Government has provisionally set damages at $650 million but independent sources say it may reach more than $1 billion.

The Piura region normally is an arid coastal plain requiring intensive irrigation to produce its basic crops of cotton and rice. But this year the atmospheric phenomenon called El Nino, named for the Christ child because it usually appears around Christmas, has thrown the climate out of kilter.

El Nino, a combination of warmer waters, low air pressure and slackening trade winds,, has raised ocean temperatures up to eight degrees as far south as Lima. More than 125 centimeters of rain has fallen on Piura since January, 30 times as much as the normal rainfall for a full year.

Merchants, farmers and local officials want a $78 million emergency program just to restore basic services and get one shotrt-season harvest this year.

"All our productive infrastructure, like roads and irrigation canals, has been destroyed," Mr. Zegarra says. "We've been paralyzed for so long that it will be hard to get things moving again."

In Simbila, a small farming community eight kilometers outside Piura, the local co-operative planted sorghum, rice and corn in December, expecting a bumper cros with early rains. But the plants are now rotting in the fields. More than 250 million acres of prime farmland surrounding Piura has become swamp.

Simbila is also know for beautiful, functional pottery, but this industry has suffered too. The clay is too wet to work and there is no dry firewood for the kiln.

Looting has begun in some areas; in the town of Sullana shopkeepers open their doors only to known customers, a few at a time.

Piura, the oldest Spanish settlement in South America, should be celebrating its 450th anniversary. Instead, the city has been turned into a quagmire. The air is filled with the stench of uncollected garbage and broken sewer mains.

Whole neighborhoods are submerged in stagnant water, covered with a green scum. Efforts to drain a district have led to feuds with neighboring areas, as men carrying shortguns watch for signs that work crews are about to pump water into their district.

The mortality rate has tripled, city officials say. Skin infections and dysentery are the most common illnesses. In the countryside, the villagers and farmers depend on infrequent helicopter flights for emergency rations and medicine.

Because of inadequate drainage, Piura's airport tarmac is practically floating on the high water table. At least four planes, including President Fernando Belaunde's private jet, have been caught in potholes.

As if the conditions and lack of effective drainage weren't enough, thousands of flying crickets have infested the region, crawling underbed covers and eliminating any chance of a good night's sleep.

All this has combined to produce hostility toward a central Government which, swamped by the sheer scale of the catastrophe, has become bogged down in bureaucratic bickering. It also has more than just Piura on its mind.

Transport problems and crop failures have sent food prices rocketing and inflation is running at 100 percent a year. Mineral and oil exports also have fallen.

In another sadistic twist of nature, the southern Andean region has been hit by drought, affecting one million of the poorest peasants in Latin America.

The Government is hardly in a positionto rush assistance to the disaster areas. Like most Latin American countries Peru is caught in a financial pinch which required the Government to cut $1-billion from its budget even before the rains started. International agencies are trying to ffer some respite by putting together a $400 million aid package.

Back in Piura, however, one prominent resident says: "We're running out of fighting spirit after five months of rains, especially when we know we will be in for more of the same in December." El Nino is expected to last 15 months.

© 1983 The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved