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Real Consequences of Climate Change in Peru
People and wildlife suffer when climate science is denied
On a trip to Peru in March as part of NWF’s International Wildlife Conservation Team, I visited the place I called home for two years while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer – the Pomac Forest Historic Sanctuary. This protected area is part of the Equatorial Dry Forest ecosystem home to several endemic, rare, and endangered species, including the Pampas cat and sandy pygmy rice rat – both on the IUCN Red List of endangered species. It’s well-known as one of the only areas where bird watchers can glimpse the elusive Peruvian plantcutter, Tumbes swallow, rufous flycatcher, or black-faced ibis.
In a normal year, less than 2 inches of rain will fall, but the flora and fauna here are adapted to the hot, dry climate. The mesquite trees that dominate the landscape have ancient taproots to find groundwater or can also go into a dormant phase. The landscape has a unique beauty – a forest in the middle of a desert. It’s no wonder the local pre-Incan cultures built their pyramids here.
I took a hike up to a lookout I’d been to many times before and saw an alien view: bright greens and yellows dominated the landscape, and trees I’d never seen with leaves were brimming with new growth! There was a lagoon where I was used to seeing dust! The unfamiliar view was beautiful, but also scary given the cause. Climate change threatens this unique place and its inhabitants with extreme weather – both severe droughts and rainy seasons – and this year the dry forest has received 10 times more rain than normal.
I stood there wondering: Has climate change has altered this view forever? As the temperature rises and precipitation swings to the extremes, new flora and fauna will take over. The amazing wildlife that have called this forest home for centuries will be forced to find new places to call home… if such places still exist. And how many natural disasters – like floods and mudslides – will my friends who call this place home suffer at the hands of climate change – their lives and livelihoods shattered? The forest, animals, and people all need us to take action to protect these natural treasures against the threats of climate change.
People and wildlife suffer when climate science is denied
My experience in the dry forest was only a small part of my first hand experiences with the real costs of climate denial: extreme rainfall events in Peru since January 2017 have severely damaged infrastructure, crops, and wildlife habitat across the country, leaving over 100 dead and estimates of 700,000 homeless. While attending meetings in Lima, the news of devastating floods and mudslides added a very real reminder of the urgency of our work to protect our climate and end tropical deforestation (one of the top sources of global carbon emissions).
I visited Peru during what has been one of its wettest rainy seasons on record, which is coming on the heels of one of the driest years in recent history causing a “weather whiplash” – or back-to-back opposite extreme weather events. Climate change models for Peru predict an increase in both extreme rainfall and drought conditions, which also increases the risk for the kind of severe flash flooding that has rocked the majority of the country over the past several months.
The recent extreme rainfall has been caused by atypical warming of the water off the Pacific coast of Peru, similar to an El Niño event, but with localized rather than global effects. The warmer seas and atmosphere mean that Peru is seeing many more rainy days than normal, and the rain is falling more intensely than usual. In the past three months, Peru has recorded 10 rare “extremely rainy” events – which occur less than 1% of the time – stretching from the southern state of Cusco to the northern states of San Martin and Cajamarca.
The torrential rains have not only affected Peru, but have also caused damage across Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Over 250 people died as the town of Mocoa, Colombia was buried by a landslide on March 31. The downpours have caused mudslides and flash floods, as the water falls on normally bare mountainside and rivers break their banks, washing away homes, roads, bridges, and trucks.
Poorly planned growth and development in Peru means the damage is concentrated in areas built on mountainsides, riverbanks, or floodplains, but urban and rural areas have suffered alike. Several of the biggest cities have experienced almost-daily flooding. Cosmopolitan Lima was cut off from water during our trip, and people all over the country have been stranded without relief. Traditional Peruvian homes made from adobe (mud) bricks have had no chance of withstanding day after day of rain.
The devastation in Peru is especially hard-hitting for me, as my friends and former neighbors and work partners are struggling to get by. Some have lost everything. During my visit, the impacts were stark. The rushing water, mud, and debris have ripped giant craters through places I once tread daily. Some old work colleagues distributed food and clothing, but it will take years for my community to recover from the damage wrought by the rain and flooding.
At the same time I was seeing the reality of climate change disaster in Peru, the Trump Administration was getting ready to issue its Executive Order on climate, flying in the face of science, public opinion, and the reminders that climate change is impacting people and wildlife every day. NWF highlighted in our recent blogs how these climate policy rollbacks will create disasters for people and wildlife across the United States – but they will also be felt around the world. Without action, these consequences will only continue to cause irreparable loss to wildlife and communities least-able to afford it.