Direct Relief sends $32 million to Colombia, Peru amid catastrophic flooding

Families in Huachipa, Peru, receive Direct Relief hygiene kits, which are filled with basic items, like soap, toothbrushes and other essentials. Many were displaced from their homes in the wake of the flooding. (Photo by Andrew Curtis/Hitchhiker Pictures)

Direct Relief has contributed $32 million in medical resources for Colombia and Peru, where historic flooding and mudslides have killed hundreds of the region’s most vulnerable people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

The charitable nonprofit, which delivers medical resources to more than 80 countries, previously sent several emergency air shipments of medical aid totaling $7.8 million and 38 tons.

“People in Peru and Colombia are facing severe risks in the wake of devastating storms, and Direct Relief is extending support to our capable partner organizations providing frontline care in a still unfolding, complex emergency,” Direct Relief President and CEO Thomas Tighe said in a statement yesterday.

Since the beginning of the year, the flood-affected regions have received hundreds of tons of aid from countries across South America and the world.

Last Friday, Peru’s Transportation Minister Martin Vizcarra told Reuters that flood victims will need additional aid from abroad for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in need of bottled water, canned food, tents, toilet paper, medicine and other basic goods to survive the coming months.

Vizcarra said Peru has distributed 4,000 tons of aid so far, but that another 4,000 tons will likely be needed.

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The deadly floods and mudslides come amid torrential rainfall across the western region of South America. Some experts believe that the rains are linked to climate change, pointing out that rising temperatures have already led to drastic climatic changes including the retreat of glaciers in the Andes.

“We are confronting a natural disaster caused by climate change,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos last Saturday. “We need to prepare because the rains that are coming will be more intense.”

People living in urban slums, on precarious riverbanks and other flood-prone areas have suffered the most losses. Mudslides have wiped out entire villages, leaving hundreds of thousands of people living in tents without electricity, running water or sewage systems.

Health workers warn that compromised water sources and lack of hygiene pose a serious health threat across the region. Cholera often follows natural disasters like flooding due to the prevalence of stagnant water, they say, while the lack of adequate hygiene supplies increases the risk of neglected tropical diseases including trachoma, soil-transmitted pathogens, and various bacterial and parasitic infections.

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Peru and Colombia have also suffered drastic destruction to roads, bridges and other infrastructure, hampering rescue efforts and the delivery of aid. Vizcarra told Reuters that more than 200 bridges and more than 2,000 kilometers of highway have been wiped out in Peru, while economists predict the cost of reconstruction at more than $6 billion.

Meteorologists say the extreme downpours are linked to the rare and sudden emergence of warm ocean waters just off Peru’s coast. According to climate researcher Kevin Trenberth from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, this may be the first sign that a new large-scale El Niño is developing sooner than anticipated.

“For the poor people in Peru, this is a pretty dramatic climate change. It’s the real deal. They don’t have the infrastructure to deal with prolonged rains, and this is causing millions of dollars worth of damage,” he said to Inside Climate News. “Scientists in North America may be scratching their heads and talking about whether we’ve got an El Niño or not, but in Peru, it’s not theoretical at this point. In Peru it’s real.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com