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.

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