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Peru's Fight Against Climate Change and the Resulting Displacement

By Alex Butler

Although climate change has impacted nearly every state in the world, Peru is particularly vulnerable to increases in global temperatures due to its geographical location and the specific locations of its population. According to the World Bank, 46% of Peru's territory is populated by over one-third of the population, resulting in heavily populated areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change-related weather events.

Even without climate change, Peru's geographical location has caused it to be plagued by severe weather phenomena. Located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common. The OECD writes that seismic hazard zones are concentrated along Peru's coast, where Lima and Callao, two major cities of Peru, are located. These cities make up nearly one-third of the nation's population and produce around 45% of the country's GDP.

The World Bank has recorded that more than 511,000 people lost their homes to natural disasters between 1990 and 2020.

Peru's rugged terrain also worsens certain geological hazards such as mudflows and landslides. Both earthquakes and heavy rain can lead to dangerous landslides, which cause thousands of casualties every year. In Peru's highland region, most climate hazards are related to water, although they also suffer from high temperatures, extreme heat, and freezing temperatures depending on the region.

The biggest ongoing threat in this area is the retreat of glaciers which serves as one of the country's primary freshwater sources. In the rainforest areas of the country, populations are plagued by large-scale floods, droughts, the collapsing of riverbanks, erosion, deforestation, and extreme heat, per UNESCO.

Peru's position on the western tropical coast of South America also exposes it to events such as the El Niño phenomenon, which leads to extreme rainfall, floods, droughts, freezes, hailstorms, and strong winds. El Niño is reportedly the most consequential driver of natural climate variability in Peru. All inhabitants along the coast suffer from droughts, extreme heat, forest fires, and strong winds. According to the OECD, flooding caused by this phenomenon impacts at least 23% of the Peruvian population. France 24 reports that a 2019 research article found that El Niño events have become stronger since the 1970s due to climate change and will continue to worsen over time.

These extreme weather events, combined with the lack of land-use planning, inconsistent application of governmental standards, and the insufficient spread of hazard and risk knowledge in decision-making procedures, have increased the severity of disasters within Peru. Nearly half of the country's population has been affected by floods, droughts, forest fires, earthquakes, landslides, or volcanic eruptions. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the impact these environmental threats have had on parts of the population that are already at a socio-economic disadvantage.

The World Bank has recorded that more than 511,000 people lost their homes to natural disasters between 1990 and 2020.

The loss of livelihood, homes, and uncertainty about the future has caused a significant number of displacements within Peru. The internal migration of Peruvians can be either an emergency response to a disaster or an attempt to adapt to climate stressors, per the IOM. Under the umbrella of adaptation, some Peruvians have adopted strategies to help deal with weather hazards where they live. For example, along the coast, fishermen move around depending on the availability of marine resources, and farmers migrate north during droughts to diversify their income and avoid food insecurity.

In total, there were an estimated 67,000 internally displaced persons in Peru at the end of 2020.

Others are forced from their homes with no warning and are housed in temporary camps. Some who were forced to move have no choice but to resettle in areas still at risk of weather hazards, such as riverbeds, floodplains, and water-stressed hills. Relocation efforts made by the government have been met with little success.

For example, many in Peru have not yet recovered from the flooding in Peru caused by El Niño in 2016 and 2017.

Although the camps were supposed to be temporary, families have yet to be moved from them and are struggling to survive, France 24 reports. The refuges are made up of hastily constructed zinc and straw huts and tents.

There are no shops, and residents rely on wells for drinking water and poorly maintained vegetable patches for food. One in five people displaced by the flooding still have no access to water.

At night, temperatures can drop below freezing, and for a majority of the families, the only heat available comes from firewood. Medical services are practically nonexistent, and the nearest medical care facility is roughly 30 minutes away by car. Since the community schools closed in March 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, children have been unable to follow their classes online since there is no internet available. Almost half reportedly suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other past relocation efforts have placed populations primarily along the coast, the lower slopes of the highlands, and by rainforest rivers, all of which are at high risk for future climate change-related weather events. According to a study done by IOM and PIK, the authorities implementing these relocations ignored land and social issues, neglected to provide livelihood necessities and were careless with the people's attachment to their homes.

There has also been a systematic lack of oversight, financial limitations, and a lack of helpful institutions. Because of these shortcomings, relocation has often led to human rights violations and long-lasting livelihood challenges.

UNESCO reports that between 2008 and 2019, around 656,000 Peruvians were forced to move due to natural disasters. As the frequency and intensity of these events increases, these movements are expected to reach unprecedented levels. In total, there were an estimated 67,000 internally displaced persons in Peru by the end of 2020.

There is still a window of opportunity to combat climate change and reduce its results. IOM suggests this opportunity depends on global emission reductions and well-planned national strategies, both of which are not yet ensured. As it is, displacement will likely increase as climate change worsens weather events. UNESCO predicts that in the worst-case scenario of global warming of over 4 °C by 2100, Peru would face extreme heat stress in the Amazon region, the total melting of glaciers in the Andes, and more intense El Niño events that would ruin coastal areas. These could cause tens of thousands of people to be displaced.

With the potential for such devastation, an international attempt to combat climate change is needed along with more efficient government procedures within Peru itself to handle those displaced by these weather events. Unless a global effort is launched to reduce climate change, generations of Peruvians will continue to be forced from their homes without a clear place to go next.

Photo by Suedehead, Rights Reserved.


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