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What El Niño has taught us about infrastructure resilience

Irene Portabales González's picture
Also available in: Español
Photo: Ministerio de Defensa del Perú/Flickr
The rains in northern Peru have been 10 times stronger than usual this year, leading to floods, landslides and a declaration of a state of emergency in 10 regions in the country. Together with the human and economic toll, these downpours have inflicted tremendous damage to transport infrastructure with added and serious consequences on people’s lives.

These heavy rains are blamed on El Niño, a natural phenomenon characterized by an unusual warming of the sea surface temperature in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. This phenomenon occurs every two to seven years, and lasts about 18 months at a time. El Niño significantly disrupts precipitation and wind patterns, giving rise to extreme weather events around the planet.

In Peru, this translates into rising temperatures along the north coast and intense rainfall, typically shortly before Christmas. That’s also when “huaicos” appear. “Huaico,” a word that comes from the Quechua language (wayq’u), refers to the enormous masses of mud and rocks carried by torrential rains from the Andes into rivers, causing them to overflow. These mudslides result from a combination of several natural factors including heavy rains, steep slopes, scarce vegetation, to name a few. But human factors also come into play and exacerbate their impact. That includes, in particular, the construction of human settlements in flood-prone basins or the absence of a comprehensive approach to disaster risk management.

This year’s floods are said to be comparable to those caused by El Niño in 1997-1998, one of the largest natural disasters in recent history, which claimed the lives of 374 people and caused US$1.2 billion worth of damages (data provided by the Peruvian National Institute of Civil Defense).

What does a world champion boxer have to do with saving lives in a disaster?

Yann Kerblat's picture
For Project NOAH, flood hazard maps are more “punchy” and effective when they are accessible and easy to read. Shown above is a flood map of the city of Manila during typhoon Ondoy (international name: Ketsana) in 2009.

World Champion boxer Manny Pacquiao is a living icon in the Philippines, his legendary battles are well known and brought him considerable fame. This fame and recognition is being used by the Philippine government (through Project NOAH) to save lives and minimize losses from disasters—where an infographic gradient links flood depth to Pacquiao’s famous height. In other words, to encourage adoption of early warning advisories and make flood hazard projections more interesting, yellow colors on interactive flood hazard maps equate to flood levels up to Pacquiao’s knees, while a dangerous, bright red color corresponds to high flood levels that are taller than Pacquiao himself.

Sustainable Development Gains Require Greater Climate and Disaster Resilience

Rachel Kyte's picture

 Richard Whitcombe/Shutterstock

Average economic losses from natural disasters are rising, despite considerable efforts to better manage risk from natural hazards over the last few decades. Data from Munich Re shows a sharp rise, from $50 billion a year in the 1980s to just under $200 billion annually in the last decade. Population growth, rapid urbanization, and climate change are compounding these losses. Securing prosperity in the midst of growing hazards is an enormous challenge that demands a new approach to development.

The international community is rising to meet this challenge head-on. Last week in Oslo, Norway, I had the privilege of participating in the 15th Consultative Group Meeting for the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), where 75 representatives from partner countries and international development organizations met to help scale up and better mainstream efforts to build climate and disaster resilience in some of the most vulnerable communities around the globe.

With the importance of this effort in mind, I co-authored an article with Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende, in which the minister and I argue that sustainable development gains require a new approach towards mitigating risk from climate change and natural hazards. After the recent days spent with my colleagues in Norway, I’m encouraged by the shared enthusiasm of GFDRR and its partners for the task ahead. It’s time to get to work.