Nature and Society: The 1997-1998 El Niño in Peru

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Nature and Society:

The 1997-1998 El Niño in Peru

Antonio Zapata

Executive Secretary, Net for the Social Sciences Development in Peru


Six months before the big rains associated to El Niño, we Peruvians knew that the flood was coming. Thanks to it, the last El Niño is a unique case in the history since for the first time international meteorological agencies had advanced this great alteration of nature. This presage was assumed in diverse ways by both Peruvian society and government, which took different measures to mitigate its effects. The major purpose of this essay is to show these answers, understanding at the same time its causation and dynamics.

In the Peruvian case, since June 6, 1997, the official institutions related with the weather issued forecasts about El Niño. Thus, beginning with the National Meteorological Service, Senamhi (in Spanish), the other agencies, as the Sea Institute, Imarpe (in Spanish), and the Geophysical Institute, IGP (in Spanish), warned of the coming occurrence of the warm and extremely humid event called El Niño. By then, the concern of the press and civil society was evident. For example in Piura, as early as May 24, 1997, the CIPCA, a renowned local NGO, organized a first forum to discuss the possibility of El Niño. In addition, on May 28, the newspaper El Tiempo de Piura gathered a group of experts to converse about the phenomenon and published a booklet with their interventions. This early restlessness of the northern society expressed the logical concerns of those who had suffered intensely during the previous Mega Niño of 19831.

Beginning the autumn of 1997, Peruvian meteorologists began to consider the modification of the habitual climatic indicators, perceiving that the heat characteristic of the summer continued. As well, in that same moment, biologists from the Net of Biological Verification of El Niño, Riben (in Spanish), perceived significant changes in the population of benthonic mollusks. They say that the benthonic populations sense the heating first because the ocean connects quicker at the depths and only later do shallow changes in the sea temperature manifest. So, according to the Riben, the first populations that experience modifications are the bethonic that live in the sea bottom. A conference of experts gathered in the University of Piura, UdP (in Spanish), would confirm this point of view, since according to Norma Ordinola, meteorologist at the UdP, this Niño advanced inside the sea, making deeper and deeper the first layer of relatively hotter water, denominated thermocline2.

The scientific community wondered about the magnitude of the coming changes. How strong would the next Niño be? This question opened a polemic that was followed with interest by public opinion. Memories of 1983 were indeed present. On the north coast people feared a flood and wanted to know how much rain would fall and when it would begin. On the south highland, the 1983 event had been accompanied by a severe drought; people there wanted to know if this was going to happen again. On the other hand, the coast people were also interested to know how far southern the phenomenon would extend. That is to say, assuming that the most northern coastal regions until Chimbote would for sure be affected, people were interested to know whether there would be big rains, avalanches and overflows in Lima, Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna.

In all the previous Niños of modern time, the governments reacted facing the emergency, amid the flood, when the situation was already beyond control. This time, much to the contrary, the government had time to act before the facts. The prevention was not only the central government's doing, but also other political and social actors participated, such as municipalities, unions and institutions, universities, international cooperation organizations and ordinary people. All of them have acted to the forecast by carrying out a first stage of prevention. That phase is extraordinarily rich and interesting because it is unique. In fact, it is the first time that such phase takes place, but announces that the following Niños will have a first moment of early alert and following mitigation plans. The Niños of the future, just as the 1998 event will be object of similar forecast3.

Later on came the so-called emergency stage, which extends over the summer of 1998, January to March, when all the variations precipitated onto the national territory. This is a classic stage that occurs in all the Niños. What was special about this last event is that we were prepared for it. Theoretically at least, the food had been distributed to the warehouses, the heavy machinery to assist with the roads had been equally distributed ahead of time and people had had time to take protective measures in their houses. However, time had not been enough. The emergency showed that the lack of prevision rate had been very high and that many works had been badly executed or not been made at all. However, above everything, the emergency showed that the country’s vulnerability was increasing.

Six months of advance are not enough to solve risks that have accumulated during decades. For example, the development El Chilcal de Piura is located over a land that flooded both during 1983 and during the previous Mega El Niño of 1925. After 1983 it did not only stay in the same place but another neighboring development denominated Ignacio Merino was built onto an even lower floor. No appropriate drainage system was planned and consequently the whole area was submerged during the emergency. Well then, Ignacio Merino received municipal permission for construction and diverse public offices completed the urbanization. The end of the story is well known: Ignacio Merino and El Chilcal stagnated to the degree that the damaged neighbors had 1.5 meters of water in their houses for almost four months. The prevention measures taken before this Niño's rains were insufficient because the problem is of a great dimension. It has to do with the structural design of our cities and it cannot be corrected with a few months advance. This Piuran example is nothing else than one of many points that illustrate how vulnerability is the bottom issue, and that an early alert is useful, but only partially, being insufficient to solve structural problems that respond to the long run of social organization in the country.

Following we have had the reconstruction stage. This in fact is not over and continues ahead. This fact hinders the interpretation task because we still lack definitive results. Nevertheless, something ought to be said in advance, since this reconstruction phase should have been, precisely, the most organic, in order to avoid the accumulation of structural problems for the future. However, it is being the laxest stage, it lacks defined plans and, has not the great difficulties and definitions that featured the two previous phases. There is not goal, no schedule and even less definitive budgets. Much to the contrary, works are announced suddenly without consensus with the beneficiaries or presentation of structured plans to the Congress. Regrettably, in Peru we have a quite negative last experience, since most of the works performed after the Mega El Niño of 1983 have collapsed again during the last event. For example, in the department of Lambayeque, four of the five bridges that collapsed during the event of 1998 had been reconstructed after 19834.

There have been many actors in this story. As we saw, it was the State scientific institutions’s task to issue the forecast announcing El Niño's arrival. The early alert allowed the society and the government to react with certain advance, applying plans dedicated to mitigate the effects of the natural event. In the first place, the executive power took the initiative by executing most of the forecast actions, using of 94% of the Republic’s budget, which it manages, and engaging 450 million dollars of international credit5. We will be seeing the plans elaborated by the executive. Our interest is to present their explicit goals and to meditate on their objectives. As well, we will review how and why the executive carries out its work in an isolated way, ignoring both the municipalities and the civil society institutions. We will also review the internal structure of the executive and its efficiency before the emergencies; the number of central power institutions that intervene in the emergencies and the coordination degree among them.

However, the executive power was not the only to act. The second great actor of the process has been the municipal governments, which by being elected constitute the only other power independent from the executive. Their economic accomplishment power is very modest because they hardly receive 3.5% of the budget of the republic. Nevertheless, beyond the reduced municipal revenues issue, it happens to be the only other local power elected by citizen vote. Therefore, the source of its genuineness is electoral, just the same source that supports the executive, unless otherwise expressed exclusively at base level. Besides, the municipal power registers historical antiquity in Peru, since the institution was founded by the Spaniards when the Iberian conquest. Nevertheless, few times has it had real independence from the executive. Most of their republican history, municipalities have been designated by the central power and the mayors have been subordinate authorities. However, since 1980 municipalities enjoy free elections and a level of mayor house institutionality has been settled.

As well, we will enter into the analysis of civil society. We will wonder about the type of the involved institutions, attempting to watch the differentiated dynamics of the producers associations regarding those of the professional boards, universities and NGOs. To begin with, it seems that the producer social organizations, starting with the Boards of Irrigation Water Users and the Irrigation Water User Commissions, were very close to the prevention plan applied by the executive. Meanwhile, professionals and academic institutions headed together, along with some municipalities, an open concertation posture between the central power and the local forces that the executive ignored. The conflict between the centralism and the decentralization forces was very intense during El Niño and it is this work’s intention to take it to the light.

The fundamental questions of this study are: how do the state and the society react before a natural threat, what type of plans are executed, who makes the decisions, what are their approaches, what long term perspectives are glimpsed? The analysis’ comparative advantage lies in that natural catastrophes - just like wars - bring quickly to light political tendencies that would usually take half a decade in being revealed.

1. - Prevention

The Executive

The first outstanding characteristic of public action was its dynamism. It is not usual in the Peruvian state to carry out quick and sustained efforts. Hence, the first question is the reasons of such velocity. The political class still happens to remember El Niño of 1983’s consequences. That year, a very intense El Niño inclemently punished the north coast with a huge flood, accompanied by a severe drought in the south highland, outlining a scenario of national catastrophe. Since El Niño, architect Fernando Belaunde’s second government was seriously damaged. It never recovered neither the prestige nor the legitimacy it previously had. This topic was still present in the Peruvian state.

The memory of the nightmare during Belaunde’s government was an incentive for the president to show the efficiency and authority of his government style. Alberto Fujimori is a major character in this story because he decided to lead the ship of the state directly. He took advantage of the occasion to advertise his image, for the sake of the possibility to attempt a third term. He appeared in all unimaginable dimensions; he was heavy machinery driver, government spokesman, great strategist and resource manager, carrying out one of those activity rushes to which he has made us used to. Their partisans have seen his performance as superior to a postgraduate degree course in the best university abroad6. His critics have denounced his political intentions and the unduly use of both the funds and the anguishes arised by El Niño to prepare his presidential candidacy for year 2000.

Nevertheless, these are situational factors; it is also necessary to consider other structural elements that are related to the essential functions of the entire state. Indeed, one of the government political roles is to offer security to the citizens. Initially there was an exclusively military notion of security, but later on the concept was elaborated. Since the thirties, there exists the concept of the civil defense in the country. This conception has suffered a difficult evolution on its way through the institutional scope of the state, including some advances and more than one setback. Finally, in 1972 the Decree Law creating the civil defense system in the country was sanctioned. This was modified in the eighties and again in the nineties, but it remains as the state’s permanent policy base facing disasters7.

The civil defense system was created as a part of the national defense, with the purpose of protecting the population in the event of disasters by providing opportune help and assuring their rehabilitation. Its mission defines its virtues and limits, since its option is assistance rather than prevention. The system must get to the place of the events and help, but it does not assume that it should be ahead of the facts. If the word prevention takes part in its conception, it is as a part of the logistics, as part of the storage and cellar functions. Within this conception frame, the population's education in risk reduction prevention is a task of the Ministry of Education. Thus conceived, the national civil defense system has not had a very prominent role within the executive power.

The transformations undertaken by the state during the nineties did not change meaningfully either the role or the position of the National Institute of Civil Defense, Indeci (in Spanish). This institution heads the whole civil defense system and is part of the Presidency of the Minister Council. Its chiefs have always been generals of the Peruvian Army, sometimes in activity and many times retired officers. A permanent small civil bureaucracy has its headquarters in the Lima district of San Borja, where a group of colonels has the responsibility of directing the departments and offices of Indeci. In the provinces, a similar structure depends of the respective Transitory Council of Regional Management, Ctar (in Spanish), which is in control of the executive power in the departments of Peru, for the regional elections contemplated in the 1993constitution have not taken place.

This central structure dependent of the diverse Ctars is not the only one contemplated in the civil defense law for Peru provinces. At the same time, a regulation for the law issued in 1988 establishes that local governments should constitute civil defense offices for their corresponding jurisdictions. This is one of the greatest incongruities of the system. On one hand, there is the central bureaucracy composed of military chiefs. In the provinces, this sector depends on the Ctars. On the other hand, there are offices that depend of democratically elected mayors. The first ones are the very representatives of the executive, while the second ones often stand for the local powers. The habit of common work is scarce between these two power components in Peru. Consequently, a system based on the passive and subordinate collaboration of majors with military officers cannot run smoothly. This explains why their operative inefficiency is high and why by the eve of El Niño, less than 50% of its offices were at least formally settled.

On the other hand, it is regrettable that the army would not have a specialty in civil defense. This is why the officers that come to Indeci have no specific preparation for their new tasks. Two years later, these officers are changed to new destinations and a new unprepared personnel comes in. The chiefs’ scarce experience in the matter generates a high institutional instability, which has become a structural characteristic of Indeci, in spite of the long continuity of the army in its control - being the Army one of the most solid institutions of Peruvian state. Thus, Indeci is a not very visible, low profile institution within the always-flowing institutional panorama of the Peruvian state.

As we had advanced, Alberto Fujimori's government has produced state meaningful modifications during the nineties. In the first place, its resources have multiplied. The 1992 budget was of five thousand million Soles, while the 1999 budget exceeds the thirty-two thousand million Soles. In mathematical terms, the state has triplicated its revenues during the nineties, happy goal that most of its citizens have not been able to achieve. So, the state continues being a great economic agent; it ceased to work through public companies, as it was usual during the previous decades, and has returned to the condition of great contractor, whose requirements energize quite some group of companies and sectors leaders of the national economic activity.

As well, the executive power has undergone a process of internal restructuring. New organisms that control most of the investment resources have been conformed. Several of these state new institutions group under the Ministry of the Presidency, Mipre (in Spanish), although some of them are also in other ministries. However, the point is that the investment money is given to new agencies, while the old and traditional ministries are rather diminished. For example, the Industry Ministry managed 0.2% of the budget in 1998 while that same year the Fishery Ministry had 0.4%, both minimum quantities that hardly allow a quite reduced activity. On the other side, the Mipre appears as a super ministry since 1999 it controlled one third of the public budget. That is why the Mipre intervenes in all functions of the state and its works overlap the specialized areas of intervention of the other ministries. For example, the Mipre pays the payrolls of all the public employees in provinces, thus carrying out a greater centralized control of the executive's dependences through the Ctars. Consequently, inside the central power the key actor of this story is the Mipre and, behind it, the new institutions that manage the greatest part of the investment public budget. Next come the diverse Ctars, which carry out a very visible role of state conduction in the provinces.

During the first days of September 1997, the by then Minister of the Presidency, Daniel Hokama, informed the Congress about the prevention measures adopted by the executive since June of that year. The minister declared that the government had gotten ready for the worst possible scenario, discarding optimistic visions that claimed that El Niño would be light or, at the most, moderate8. That scenario was a repetition of the 1983 Niño. As we saw, the government assumed that it would be identical to the previous one and that simplism had disastrous consequences for certain Peruvian provinces, which were hardly affected by the previous Niño but were indeed strongly hit with the current one. As well, the minister informed to the national representation one of the government's slogans during those days: for each dollar invested in prevention, ten dollars would be saved in reconstruction. That calculation would turn out to be too optimistic and deceiving9.

The goal of the government plan was to facilitate the drainage protecting the cities to avoid its flooding. The logic was simple: if one expects an extraordinary increase of the rivers, their evacuation should be facilitated in order to make it get to the sea. It may seem too simple, but it was precisely its simplicity which made it an effective goal. It granted coherence and direction to the government plan. In this outline, a first priority was the cleaning and clearing of the watering and drainage systems, which had been neglected for years and bore great accumulations of trunks and mud. The construction of riverside defenses that would avoid the flooding of the cities was also undertaken. Finally, the government bought pumping cameras to evacuate the waters that would inevitably accumulate in the lower parts of the cities. All these priorities were correct, although when being executed some of the works were very deficient.

On the other hand, the government plan recorded a sad gap. The government faced its responsibility by carrying out a great work of civil engineering that would protect the population. However, it did not see for the people's economic conditions. Every sign of direct support to the producers was found as synonym of stale populism. It was for this that many economic opportunities were lost. For example in the fishing, it was a known fact that the anchovies would disappear and that they would be replaced by other species of warmer waters. To extract those new species massively new apparels, including new nets were required. Obviously, the fishermen needed special credits for that purpose. However only thirty thousand dollars were destined for them. That is to say, almost a drop of water in the desert. Thirty thousand dollars is a very scanty amount for a part of a prevention program that by September 1997 had spent 421 million Soles. In general, the government was very reluctant to manage extensively the taxes and credits to favor producers of the affected areas.

The government’s priority was not in the production sector but in the civil engineering one. This is not a very solid program, since it lacks one of their fundamental support points. Nobody has anything against civil engineering, much less by then. However, the support to production was indispensable to avoid economic recession and generalization of poverty. The very United States of America confronts every natural disaster with packages of economic help to the citizens. The difference in the policies is not due to the contrast between a rich country’s economic capacities as opposed to a poor one’s as ours. It is a problem of concept, actually. What the citizen and producer's position is within the government's plans. In the USA the government’s objective during the emergencies is that the economic machinery does not stop, that it keeps working and that people are not unoccupied but earning, saving and investing. Among us, all there was absolutely no concern to stimulate the good pace of business, what would have saved the ordinary producer from the ruin10.

Now then, moving on from the what to do to the how the works were executed, there is a set of failures that were source of great tensions. Many works began late and such delay was the reason for its practical inefficiency. The president set himself on foot very quickly, but even for him it is difficult to start the gears of the executive. For example, in Piura the works for the new drainages that were built for this Niño did not begin until August 9, when the Ctar president, general ® Alberto Rios, prepared its immediate start attacking five fronts simultaneously. Seven weeks had already gone by since the beginning of the emergency and the high-priority works had not yet been initiated in the department that was known to be the El Niño focus. Other works conceived as part of the drainage system were not finished until the rains began and consequently they became dikes that dammed the water causing big overflows. So happened in La Libertad, where the Mampuesto canal was re-made by the Ctar late and badly. The work was eventually what caused the river entrance to Trujillo’s Plaza de Armas11.

The political process opened up by El Niño revealed a very high level of centralism. All the budgets, transfers and important economic decisions were adopted in Lima and the operative autonomy of the very Ctars was very scarce. Ctars happen to be offices where province employmentcracy’s salaries are paid; the money they manage is, basically, for regular expenses. The money for investments is, as we saw, concentrated in those new agencies centralized in Lima that were created during the nineties. For example, 90% of Ctar Arequipa’s budget is dedicated to regular expense. That is why Ctars’ presidents had to travel to Lima in order to negotiate the transfers that would allow them to fulfill the prevention work plan12.

The local political tensions were channeled towards a difficult reconciliation during the prevention stage. The central government's apparatus, the social institutions and the municipalities got to some agreements during this second part of 1997. For example in Piura, an Inspection Committee was constituted to take care of the complaints against the works executed by the government during the prevention. That committee was presided over by the archbishop, monsignor Óscar Cantuarias and integrated among others by the rector of the UdP(), Antonio Mabres. The Inspection Committee made it possible for bridges to exist between the central power and the regional society13. It was also possible to have these bridges laid down in Chiclayo during the prevention stage by establishing coordinations between the central power and the regional society. Though high levels of harmony were not achieved, the agreement between the state and the society had its best period during the prevention14.

The Indeci carried out a Niño's simulation between August 10 and 16. The results were poor; 80% of the population did not know how to confront the risk. Hence, the diffusion task became very important for a series of local actors. In some departments it was not possible work coordinately as it was the case of La Libertad and Lambayeque. However, in Piura the Ministries of Education and Health were capable of conforming a commission of NGOs - such as Itdg and Care -, the National University of Piura, Sencico and Civil Defense. This commission worked in a very concerted way and covered the whole department with training days directed to social leaders coordinated with the local municipalities. They were also able to produce good level educational material, thus becoming a significant example of fertile understanding between the state and the society during the prevention stage.

On the other hand, going one step down and watching attentively the executive’s institutional scope, there is a high degree of responsibility dispersion. Indeed, the public intervention areas are neither well defined nor granted to permanent and stable institutions. On the contrary, there is a great overlapping of responsibilities and a lot of institutional mobility. It occurs that public institutions are not cancelled when new ones are created; they rather remain half asleep waiting for better times. The state machinery is centralized, but also disordered and dispersed inside. We Peruvians suffer the disadvantages of centralization in the sense of autoritarism, but we do not enjoy its potential advantages in the sense of order. The political tradition in Peru leads to the exchange of works for loyalties and so, the basic principle that guides the authority seems to be its desire for the reelection15.

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