Insight from a Dedicated Peace Corps Volunteer
Katie Aker recently returned home, unfortunately early, from her Peace Corps volunteering in Peru. Though her and her fellow Peace Corps volunteers were attending a training outside of their remote communities when the flooding began, when the training concluded they were informed that they would no longer be able to return. Due to the devastation caused by persistent, heavy rains in the region (and much of the country), Katie didn’t get to say goodbye to her home or her family and friends in Peru. Now home safely in the U.S., she shares her personal insight with us in hopes of inspiring others to help Peru now.
It was devastating for all volunteers involved and we all were wishing we could’ve been with our communities to help them through this difficult time.
Tell us a bit about what your Peace Corps volunteer work involved.
During my service, I was a Community Economic Development volunteer. In our program we had three primary areas of focus: business advising, women and youth entrepreneurship, and financial education/savings programs. In terms of business advising, I mainly worked with several artisan associations in my region, assisting them with improving their marketing and customer service practices and identifying costs and a fair price for their products. I taught many different youth entrepreneurship classes to students in technical institutes and I also trained teachers on how to teach business planning in their classes. In coordination with the local municipality, I was able to host a few income generating activities workshops for women in my town.
To promote financial education and savings programs, I taught a few summer school courses to young students to increase their financial literacy and also helped several local NGOs and organizations start savings programs and a financial education workshop series with their workers and beneficiaries.
Apart from my primary project goals, I did some other projects working with youth and a lot of English teaching during summer break. To promote and ensure sustainability in our work, we are encouraged as volunteers to always collaborate with a local counterpart on projects, so for nearly all of these projects, I was coordinating with someone from the municipality, school board, institute, NGO, or artisan association. I also lived with a host family during my two years in my community, so most of my favorite memories are from my time living with them and being a member of their family.
Why did the flooding in Peru become so incredibly devastating?
There were many factors at play that led to the heavy rains/flooding becoming so devastating. Although the mountainous regions of Peru normally have a rainy season every year, the coast is a desert and therefore rarely receives rains. During my two years in my community, it only ever rained two days, until the heavy rains started in March of this year. The infrastructure on the coast is not built with heavy rains in mind and were, therefore, easily destroyed when they started being inundated by the constant rains.
Additionally, a heavy El Niño (the weather phenomenon that brings heavier rains to the coast every 10 to 20 years) was predicted for last year (2016), so everyone in Peru was prepared for it to come. However, it didn’t come last year so everyone forgot about it and moved on. This year, the heavy rains came out of nowhere and no one was prepared for them; it caught everyone off guard, which only added to the devastation since there was no preparation ahead of time.
The overflowing rivers inundated the loose, arid soil on the coast and produced strong mudslides that swept through the towns and cities, causing further destruction. From what locals told me, this was the worst flooding that the northern coast of Peru has experienced in over 30 years.
How are communities being affected by the flooding both directly and indirectly?
Even the communities that didn’t experience too much actual flooding have had to deal with the unavailability of food/drinking water, loss of electricity/water, etc. While we were consolidated in our regional capital, it was very difficult to even find bottled water because it was all sold out. Ground transportation between Lima and the north of the country was completely cut off due to the destruction of bridges, so the only way “out” was via flights, which many people can’t afford.
There were hundreds of thousands of people in communities that were directly affected by the floods whose houses/farms are now destroyed or completely gone. Unfortunately, many people with limited resources are forced to build cheaper houses in areas more susceptible to damages from flooding/landslides, so it really affected people in poorer communities more. They will have to rebuild their houses and farms with very little resources and without having a current income.
What are the three biggest challenges locals are facing at the moment?
From what I can tell by communicating with friends and family back in Peru, the rains are subsiding in the area of the country that I was in (although I’ve heard that further north the rains are expected to last until May). I would say that currently one of the biggest issues is still access to affordable food and drinking water.
Once the rain does subside, I imagine the most pressing challenge locals will face will be rebuilding infrastructure, including houses, farms, roads, bridges, etc. Without ground transportation access, a lack of food/water will continue, tourism will subside, which will hurt the local economies, and locals will not be able to travel to work/school.
Due to the flooding and the intense heat (it’s currently summer in Peru), the mosquito population is expected to drastically increase, meaning that mosquito born viruses like dengue, chikungunya, and zika will also drastically increase. Mosquito prevention and treatments for people who get infected will be another huge issue in the coming months.
How long do you anticipate it will take communities to recover from the flooding?
With a disaster such as this one, there are many complex layers to recovery. As I mentioned, once the rains/flooding stop, there are going to be so many areas to focus on, including rebuilding of infrastructure (and hopefully more durable infrastructure to prevent this level of damage in the future), prevention of the spread of diseases, and recuperating the local economies after a crash in agricultural production, tourism, and transportation. I anticipate that all of this could take between six months to a year to get back to “normal.”
Why is it important to support local organizations in Peru right now?
A dollar goes a long, long way in Peru. Often times people want to lend a helping hand rather than donating money, but in this particular situation financial donations are certainly the most needed. Local organizations have the manpower and knowledge of what specific regions need most right now, but they lack the financial resources to be able to provide the best support. While I was in Peru, I saw so many local organizations already working on relief efforts, so I’m confident that these donations will be put to good use.
What is the best way to help Peru now?
Financial donations really are the best way to help the people in Peru right now. As a Peace Corps Volunteer who has been trained in sustainable development, I oftentimes have a hard time thinking that money is the best way to support a community, but in situations that require immediate aid like this one, financial donations (to the right organization) really are the most effective. A local organization will be able to turn these donations into desperately needed resources for the people of Peru to get through this disaster and recover, rebuild, and move forward.
In the future, once these communities have been able to rebuild, I highly recommend visiting the northern coast of Peru. It’s a hidden gem in an incredibly diverse and beautiful country.