What El Niño has taught us about infrastructure resilience

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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).

While flooding occurs primarily along the north coast, the central coast and the capital, Lima, have also been affected this time. Since they started back in December, the recent huaicos and floods have taken a huge toll on the country. Peruvians have united under the motto #UnaSolaFuerza and the National Emergency Operations Center has coordinated all the efforts coming from the government. According to the latest estimates, some 158 people died, 467 were injured, and 18 disappeared. Around 300,000 people have lost their homes, while 179 schools have become unusable. In total, more than 1.5 million people have been impacted.

Transport is one of the economic sectors that has been hit the hardest. The numbers below speak for themselves.
  Total Destroyed Damaged
Roads 26,436 km 4,793 km (18%) 12,064 km (46%)
Rural paths 138,935 km 6,081 km (4%) 38,327 km (28%)
Bridges - 433 759
Sources: Provias Descentralizado (Total Km) and INDECI (Affected Km)
For several months, access to certain rural areas or even entire cities remained either impossible or severely restricted—making it difficult to reach affected communities and supply basic products. Lima has not been spared by these events. The two main rivers overflowed, a rare occurrence in the city.

The experience of the past few months has also highlighted the role of public transport systems in emergency situations. In this case, Lima Metro line 1 was key to maintaining connections between some districts, being one of the few transport links to remain relatively untouched. The schedule was extended to account for the emergency, which allowed line 1 to carry an additional 17,000 passengers during the worst of the flood.

As stated by the authors of a previous post in this climate resilience blog series, damage to the transport infrastructure usually makes up a significant proportion of the economic impact of natural disasters. And we know climate change will only increase the frequency and intensity of these events. That’s why resilience needs to become a key consideration in the way countries design, build, maintain, and operate transport infrastructure.

Adequate maintenance will play a critical part, complemented with the implementation of preventive measures such as early warning systems. Together, these interventions can help keep roads in acceptable condition and significantly mitigate the effects of extreme weather events.

It is also necessary to raise awareness about the need for appropriate land use and urban planning, especially to limit development in disaster-prone areas.

Natural disasters call for a joint response by all stakeholders. Building on that principle, the Peruvian government and the World Bank are currently looking at ways the can collaborate in order to mobilize the resources, knowledge, and experience that will be required to build back stronger transport infrastructure across the country. 


Irene Portabales González

Urban Transport Specialist, World Bank

Montserrat Bordas Geli

Consultant, Transport and ICT

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