Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Discovering Piura and surroundings

Sooner than I had hoped I got to travel up north to Piura. Piura lies inland, about an hour’s drive from the coast. But there's a big river flowing through the city, and because of its proximity to the coast it also sees a lot El Niño rains and subsequent flooding. Speaking of flooding: there has not been heavy flooding here since the last big El Niño in 1998. In the March rainfalls, which caused huge landslides and subsequent flooding in Chosica, only small areas were lightly flooded. But there is loads to do all the same:

It is quite apparent that there are many problems here. It strikes me from the beginning that there is garbage lying around all over the place. Alcides, the local Practical Action Project Manager, explains that half a year ago a new government was voted in. And as so often happens when a new government comes to power, first of all ministers are exchanged, as a new president brings along his own ministers. Once this is done he sets about changing everything - especially everything implemented by his predecessor (no matter if it was a success or not). So this new government in Piura decided to change the whole - very well working - garbage system and to fire all people working there. Alcides tells me that this is nothing compared to a couple of months ago, things have already got a lot better. Hard to imagine for me. But apparently there are coming to collect garbage again - at least from time to time and in some areas.
Oh but instead of bothering about things like cleaning up the city the new government is busy! It has just issued a law saying that all motorbike helmets have to be open, a protecting glass shield is forbidden as it lets people hide their faces (and delinquents subsequently get away with their crime) the latter seems sensible enough - but to issue a law about that, provoking demonstrations? So you see, the government is busy.

One area we visited was the community of Polvorines. It’s story is really devastating. It’s basically an illegal settlement on the outskirts of Piura, although Alcide calls it “semi-legal” as they some parts do have electricity, but do not have running water. Polvorines is located in a very low area of Piura, and this is the main reason why it is so heavily effected by rains. All the water runs down to the area of Polvorines and collects there. Alcide tells me that they will now show me the “lagoon”. Already beautiful pictures of lagoons come into my mind. But what actually awaits me is even worse than what I’ve seen so far: in the lowest part of Polvorines all water, waist and so on collects, creating a huge waist area. 

The lagoon in Polvorines

Now you would expect people to keep away from an area like this, as this is where mosquitos and Dengue breeds. And also because this is the very first area flooded when it rains, this is a high risk zone. But no: when we arrive there are people building houses there, just a couple of meters away from the waist area with water and garbage. The Director of this community, Jhoans Rodriguez, tells me that the people building the houses here afterwards sell them for 3000-5000 Soles (1000-1500 USD) – to poor families who are not able to pay more and thus end up living in an area like this.

A house being built

He himself lives in a simple little house in Polvorines, in a medium risk zone. In the last big floods in 1998 his house was  flooded too, but only until his knees, he tells me. “Imagine, in this zone the water stood at almost 2 meters!” he explains. And yes, here people live. The problem is really that nobody should be living here, because the water will automatically collect here as it has nowhere else to go. There is no river here where it can flow into, so it all collects in this lowest area in the lagoon. But houses are being built here constantly, and the government, as this is anyway an illegal settlement, doesn’t care (they probably don’t even know that this is happening). Jhoans points do a certain section of the lagoon: “A year ago there weren’t any houses here, now more than 100 people live here!”

Another section of the lagoon

The people living in Polvorines have various problems: a current big problem is Dengue. Here Practical Action is teaching and encouraging people to make and use a very simple system, made out of an empty plastic bottle filled with water, yeast and sugar, and covered with black paper, to attract mosquitos and keep mosquitos away from the people themselves. 
In the dry season the problem is the water supply, Jhoans tells me that because there is no running water, everyone has to buy water, for washing, cooking etc. In the dry season water gets very expensive: “Then they sell one liter of water for 1 Sol!” “They”, that’s guys riding around on a motorbike with a whole lot of colorful cherry cans on a cargo area at the back. It is not even drinking water what they are selling. And one liter is nothing for a family of 5-6 people.

Key in this area is to be able to evacuate people fast enough and thus to save peoples lives, Jhoans tells me. Vital to this point are the “Simulacres” they do. These are simulations of real situations, so that people learn how to react when a flooding alarm comes in, for example.
Another thing to keep the rest of Polvorines as safe from floods as possible are drains. But all the main drains are clogged up with garbage and other waist at the moment. Meaning that the water can’t even flow down to the lagoon but instead starts flooding much earlier on. Jhoans estimates the number of inhabitants of Polvorines at about 7000 people – growing daily instead of shrinking, as one would expect in a high risk zone. He explains that people have nowhere else to go, and don’t want to leave their house either. Even if it gets flooded, they return. He also, living in a medium risk zone, does not want to leave his house, he has lived here for so many years and it is his home, he explains. So the only thing to do is to make sure that people know how to react when a flood alarm sounds, that they can be saved. But this also presents a problem: the “safe zone” in Polvorines is actually not big enough for all the people living there. It actually has hardly any “safe zones” at all, being the lowest point of Piura.

Jhoans (on the right) talking to a local

In order not to prolong this blog too much I will stop with this. In a later blog a will tell you more about the work Practical Action does in these various communities.

And just to make you jealous (and to show you that yes, there are beautiful parts of Peru a mere 2 hours away from Polvorines) I have attached a couple of photos of the beach of Vichayito where I spent the weekend.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A visit in Chosica

As mentioned in my last blog I got to visit one of the areas where we are active last week. To say the least: it was fascinating. But let’s start from the beginning: the day before going I spoke to Miluska, a lovely woman from Practical Action who is part of the “Zurich team” here. Her first question was: do you speak Spanish? (in Spanish of course). Her eyes lit up when I answered with a yes, because she then confessed that she doesn't speak a word of English. This is no isolated case, it’s quite usual in Peru.

It’s about an hour’s drive from here to Chosica (in normal traffic – in heavy traffic on the way back it took us almost 4 hours (yes, quite right, traffic in Lima is CRAZY!)). All the way there Miluska explained the various areas where our flood resilience program is in place, how it works and what the problems are. In the area around Chosica we work with 9 communities, each has a “Director” who’s the contact person for Practical Action. Each of those communities have different needs and problems, and often much more than “just” the risk of being flooded. “People in this area live with the river, but not from the river”, Miluska explains. And this is the big difference to Piura, for example, the area up north where we also have a project going. The people there, in contrast, live from the river. The people here in Chosica however do not see the river as a useful resource, but rather as a necessary evil of the landscape where they live. This means that they try to adapt the river to their needs, meaning that they fill it up with sand or stones if they need more place for living, through which they change the course of the river. This might help their community, but it results in huge trouble for other communities further downstream, who then all of a sudden find the river flowing directly in the direction where their village is, eating its way into the river bank. This might not be that much of a problem if some houses weren't built so close to the river bank. In 2004 a law saying that houses need to be built at least 50 meters away from the river. But so many houses were built before this law was passed, and thus stand much too close to the river bank. Their owners of course would never think of rebuilding their house in a different location, and the government is simply not interested either in helping them or to really enforce the law. This is where Practical Action comes in: they educate the people, explain why it is important that the village is built at a certain distance to the river, and to make sure that no new houses are built too close, a park area with trees is built between the village and the river. But of course houses are still built too close to the river. Miluska shows me a house which was built just 9 months ago. Back then it stood about 5 meters from the river bank. Now, through the changing of the rivers course by upstream communities, the river has eaten its way into the river bank and the house now literally hangs over the river:
This house once used to be 5 meters from the river
But this is not the only problem in this area: the other big problem in the village of Chosica are landslides, which are caused through heavy rain falls. Locals tell me that this actually happens every year. But “the government leaves us alone with this problem, they don’t help us”, says Señor Dueñas, a close associate to the Director of the community. He himself has lived here since 1951. Nobody has ever helped them, he tells me. “But now Practical Action is here and is helping us, we are so happy!” he says, with a big toothless smile. He then shows me photos of the installation of some water pipes which they had installed with Practical Action’s help, these are necessary to control the waters flow. 

Señor Dueñas

When there is a landslide first of all a whole lot of rocks, sand, mud and stones come down into the village, destroying houses as they go (many houses are built on the hill). All this then jams up at some stage, and the continuous rainfalls then cause flooding. So after the people have been hit by a huge landslide, they are then flooded – and this is happening every year. Not every time as bad as in March this year though, where there even were 9 casualties.
Miluska tells me that the important thing in Chosica is to make sure that a landslide has a path to go, to avoid more damage than necessary. Otherwise is will look for a path, causing damage and casualties on its way. But people don’t understand this, and thus keep on putting up new buildings or walls where they actually should be leaving the space free.
Road cleaning is ongoing

The huge landslide and subsequent flooding of March is now almost 2 months ago. But you still see definite traces: streets are still being cleared, and sandbags still lie by the roadside where they were once put to protect houses from the nearing masses.
Sandbags on the roads in Chosica

So many houses still lie in devastation, and where they were not destroyed you the traces the water, mud and rock masses left on the walls, on the doors, in the streets. Miluska points to a big blue building up on the hill: “That’s the school of Chosica. It’s still closed”.

The school in Chosica

There’s so much more to tell, but I would definitely be stretching your patience if I do so. I have attached a couple of photos (unfortunately it wasn't a very bright day, it was the usual Lima gray in this time of the year).

Thursday, May 14, 2015

I've just been here for a couple of days now, but it seems like much longer. The first two days Google Maps was my best friend, now I'm navigating my way round the city (at least the small part around where I work and live) without any technical help. Knowing that, if I should get lost, I'm sure to find a friendly helping hand rather sooner than later. I guess that's the first lesson learnt, and it's a nice one too: Peruvians are very friendly and helpful. My very first experience to this extent was actually quite a funny one: I arrived on Mothers Day. In Peru, Mothers are the most important thing here. So I walk into a supermarket, quite lost in thoughts, when a voice, right next to me says: "felicitaciones!" I get such a fright that I just stare at the friendly smiling man who had said this. He carries on saying: "Feliz dia de madre, hoy es su dia"! (Happy Mothers Day, today is your day!) I still have not found my words so continue to stare at him, whereupon he says, a bit less sure of himself this time: you are mother, right? I just shake my head and stutter something to the extent that no, I'm not a mother. Whereupon he says, equally enthusiastic like before: "eres extranjera!" (You're a foreigner!) It's not a question, its a statement. I just nod again. He then proceeds to grab my hand, shakes it enthusiastically with both his hands and says: "Bienvenida"! After asking me how long I'll be here for (2 months is "muy poco, que pena), he finally lets me go, wishing me all the best and a lovely stay. Quite overwhelmed, I get on with my shopping.

I've got a couple more anecdotes just from the first days here:

- when you want to cross the street here do not wait for a car to stop for you, or you'll never get across. Just run for it. Maybe you might get a car flicking its lights at you, but without slowing down a bit. This also means: I've seen you but I won't slow down, so run, now! The rule on the streets is quite easy: be biggest and strongest always gets right of way.
- it's normal that security men, police men or other workers standing on the street greet you with a friendly "buenas dias" when you walk by. By day three I am greeting them before they get to greet me :-)

And now a couple of anecdotes from my working life: 

- you think our internet is slow? Actually it is fast! Oh and the EuroSDS is getting on your nerves? After a couple of days here I love it! Practical action does not have any common server or folder for all its documents or pictures. Everything sits on the intranet. And because the internet is sooooo slow it takes you about 10 minutes to look at 5 pictures, and then half an hour per picture to download them. Oh yes you learn patience here!
- I noticed that, on their website, Practical Action (here they are called "Soluciones Practicas") does not have a page dedicated to their flood resilience project, rather all the documents are scattered over the whole website. As flood resilience is one of their key projects I was rather astounded and asked for the reason. Well, 10 minutes later we had discussed where the flood resilience page should be and what it should look like, and half a day later we had it! Wow no legal feedback needed, no long approval rounds. If everything goes so fast here I'll get a lot done ;-)

Tomorrow I'm going to the "field", I'm going to Chosica, a place in the greater Lima area which was very badly effected by the heavy rain falls and subsequent flooding in March this year. My job is to speak to people and take photos - that sounds right up my alley :-)

Apropos photos: I know, I know, I still haven't posted any here, But I plan to take some at the weekend and then you'll soon see where I work and where I live. But a couple of words to where I live: it's a beautiful little guest house with 3 rooms and 2 studios. In the top part, where I live, we have our own kitchen and living room area. I share this with a German girl (who's been here for 2 years, which is most useful I can tell you) and a Swiss guy (who's also been here for almost 2 years). Both very nice and very sociable - and after speaking Spanish the whole day at work I am quite glad to be able to speak my "own" language in the evenings.

Oh no - I have written so much again! Well I'll stop now :-) But you'll here from me again, next time with photos!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Just a couple of days to go before leaving to Peru. Although it's so close, and people come to me constantly (or at least that's what it feels like), asking things like "are you all packed for Peru"? Or: "have you prepared everything for your trip"? it still feels so far away because I'm still so taken up in my life here. And no, two days before leaving I have not yet packed, and, well, if you call flight booked, accommodation booked and Lonely Planet bought prepared, then yes, I guess I am prepared :-)
But to be fair enough, I feel "ready" just because I have already been to Lima and know the neighborhood where I'll be staying. Of course living there will be completely different. But as I have lived in various places I don't really feel worried about that either - plus this time everything feels so organized: when I decided to live in Madrid I went there without knowing a word of Spanish or having accommodation or a job. And now I know the language, have a place to stay and something sensible to do - so wow - I guess I'm ready :-)
Another question everyone asks me: "Are you going to see Lamas"? To tell you the truth, I've only become obsessed with Lamas since everyone is asking me this question. And, although this might disappoint some of you: during my previous stay in Peru I did not see any Lamas in Lima - thinking back I actually only saw some on Machu Pichu (the "lawn mowers" I called them, as they did an excellent job keeping the grass short - and they looked so picturesque doing so too! In Mexico at the pyramids they had people hand cutting the grass with huge scissors - who, although colorfully dressed, felt less "authentic" than the Lamas at Machu Pichu). So, back to my Lamas: after leaving Machu Pichu I only recall to have seen Alpacas, but no more Lamas. So, although Lamas seem to be Peru's national animal (at least to us foreigners), you don't see them walking through the street in every town...
But let me say a few words to my real cause in Peru: ever since I started supporting our flood   resilience program through Social Media activities I was fascinated by it and felt really enthusiastic to  be part of such a worthwhile cause. And now I get to work for our partner Practical Action myself - in Lima! I am so much looking forward to learning more about their work - to not only help their cause but also to be able to communicate much more effectively about Zurich's work in these flood prone areas.

As I don't want to bore you before I've started I'll stop now - but this won't be the last time you've heard from me :-)