Ecuador is better prepared for El Niño than it was in 1997 when poor planning led to catastrophic damage and loss of life

Dec 21, 2015 | 1 comment

According to Rodney Martinez, director of the non-profit International Research Center on El Niño in Guayaquil, the government of Ecuador is much better prepared for a strong El Niño today than it was in 1997.

“They had excellent weather forecasts then,” he says. “The problem was that they ignored them. They government declared a state of emergency in June of 1997 and then did nothing during the subsequent months,” he says. “There were practically no preparations.”

Guayaquil in 1998.

Guayaquil in 1998, during El Niño.

The results were horrendous.

Beginning late December 1997, heavy rains and high tides caused flooding along the country’s Pacific coast, forcing 30,000 from their homes. During the four El Niño months, until April 1998, two hundred and eighty-six lost their lives, many from infectious diseases triggered by the flooding. Dozens died of poisonous snake bites. More than $1.5 billion of agricultural production was wiped out, and infrastructure damage amounted to $830 million. The total cost of El Niño-related destruction came to nearly 15 percent of Ecuador’s Gross Domestic Product, according to a study by the Development Bank of Latin America.

Hundreds of homes were washed into the ocean or destroyed by landslides. Highways and roads were destroyed and some communities were isolated for months. Utilities in some communities were not restored for more than a year.

Although Martinez says the coming El Niño could be as bad as the one 17 years ago, he says the results should not be nearly as tragic.

“The government has been very serious about avoiding another 1997-1998,” he says. “They have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in flood control and health related projects.”

Ecuador’s water secretariat estimates that over 140,000 hectares of land will be protected from flooding, benefiting 330,000 residents. Four of the projects are complete, and President Rafael Correa said in November that the remaining two are on schedule to be finished by the end of the year.

As in 1997, the president has declared “State of Exception” in 17 provinces, allowing the central government to mobilize the military and tap emergency funds in preparation for the rains; the Ministry of Education has announced that classes in the coastal region will end in January, a month earlier than normal, in order to protect students who attend schools in flood zones; and the Ministry of Agriculture is encouraging farmers to take out insurance on their crops.

For more information about the coming El Niño and the government response to it, click here.

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