This Is What Climate Change Looks Like in an Era of Covid-19

Illustration to article titled This Is What Climate Change Looks Like In an Age of Covid-19

Photo: Eriberto Gualinga

As the coronavirus pandemic continued to escalate around the world, a more localized emergency has occurred in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

After a day and a night of extreme rainfall on the headwaters, the Bobonaza River, which runs through a mosaic of indigenous towns and villages near Ecuador’s border with Peru, rose at a speed never before experienced by local communities. seen.

Many didn’t even have time to get their things before the waters flooded their homes. The communities quickly announced that they had been affected by a flood. As a sign of what could come elsewhere in a world experiencing the double crisis of pandemic and climate change, government support has been slow to come despite some members of the community losing everything.

“It was very strange, intense rain,” Melva Patricia Gualinga Montalvo, a leader of the Kichwa people in Sarayaku, one of the affected indigenous riverside towns in Pastaza province, told Earther. The river rose about 15 meters into the basin. It never rose like that. It covered all the houses and destroyed them. It has destroyed everything: schools, high schools, solar panels, houses, crops, vegetable gardens, small plots with chickens, everything that came its way and left the indigenous peoples in the most terrible situation. ”

The water left a meter (three feet) of mud on everything it passed, Gualinga said. Three suspension bridges about 15 meters above the river were damaged. She estimated that 700 people – about half the population – are affected in her city alone. Some have lost their kitchen, others have lost their crops, but about 30 families whose wooden houses have been wiped out have left “absolutely nothing,” she said. “Just what they had on their back. Their houses, their pots, everything, everything is gone. ‘

Multiple other communities were hit by the floods, which also came along two other nearby rivers. However, as the Ecuadorian government focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the response to the floods was slow to respond. The country has seen a rapid increase in cases of Covid-19 in recent weeks. The total reached more than 1,800 reported cases by Saturday most of any Latin American country outside of Brazil and Chile. Of the reported cases, the country has also registered 48 deaths from the virus.

Illustration to article titled This Is What Climate Change Looks Like In an Age of Covid-19

Photo: Eriberto Gualinga

Ecuador has taken strong measures in recent days to stop the spread of the virus, including curfew and completely closing limits to both foreigners and nationals. In an incident last week, local authorities in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, ordered trucks on the runway to prevent a Spanish repatriation plane from landing (the plane eventually landed in Quito).

When I first spoke to Gualinga on Monday, she said government representatives had only arrived the day before – five days after the flood – to evaluate the situation. Many of the families in Sarayaku who lost their homes initially ended up in church and the local Catholic mission, not the most ideal situation for social distance. Ten days after the Flood, 138 sleeping sets with mattresses and 175 family dinner sets arrived in Sarayaku.

“I think the pressure worked,” said Gualinga. Other communities, they say, are still waiting for some form of government support Amazon Watch.

The relationship between the Sarayaku Kichwa people and the government is fragile at best. For decades, they have fought the government for unauthorized oil development in their territory, and won one case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2012. They were also at the forefront of the massive protests about austerity measures that flooded Ecuador last year, ultimately forcing the government to reconsider its plans.

With little government support to date, Sarayaku has turned into one GoFundMe campaign to help people rebuild their homes. The fundraiser has so far raised $ 42,000 in donations to help rebuild homes, with Gualinga saying the first supply of essentials arrived by canoe on Sunday.

The heavy rains of the past week are part of a wider picture of the heavier floods in the Ecuadorian Amazon over the past 10 years. Gualinga sees it as crystal clear that the flood is related to climate change, noting that her 96-year-old father and 86-year-old mother have not experienced anything like it. Numerous lines of research show that heavy downpours are increasingly common as a warmer atmosphere crashes with more water.

“The risk of flooding has increased significantly as a result of climate change,” Carlos Larrea, professor of environment and sustainability at Andina Simón Bolivar University in Quito, told Earther.

Illustration to article titled This Is What Climate Change Looks Like In an Age of Covid-19

Photo: Eriberto Gualinga

What is happening in the Ecuadorian Amazon right now is a bell for other places and not just for the climate. That’s because climate change doesn’t stop just because there is a global pandemic.

For example, the United States faces the prospect of coping with climate-related threats and coronavirus simultaneously. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), predicts that some 28 million people are at risk of moderate or greater flooding this spring. Having floods hit Ohio already, where hundreds of people were evacuated last week. And the NOAA forecast does not take into account floods as predicted on Saturday in the Midwest amid a severe weather outbreak.

Rural areas where access to healthcare facilities is more limited face both the highest expected infection rates and flood risks, according to a climate scientist analysis Kristina Dahl for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Several counties in eastern South Dakota and eastern Iowa are expected to have infected 25 percent or more of the population with the virus in the same time frame if they are at risk of major flooding, the analysis found. Such data can help decision-makers to understand in advance where limited resources are most needed.

“At the national and local levels, states can think about where the combined risks of infection and natural disasters are greatest in identifying facilities that can be temporarily converted into shelters or medical facilities,” Dahl wrote. “Resources can then be allocated in proportion to the identified risks.”

Many countries will also have to consider how the current unprecedented situation with coronavirus will interact with another major climate challenge: extreme heat.

All over the world, many people see the prospect of a summer stuck in their homes, many without air conditioning. In India, where currently more than a billion people live under lockdown, only 5 percent of people have air conditioning. Extreme heat is already killing more people in the United States than any other weather-related event, and scientists expect 2020 will be one of the hottest years ever recorded. Record heat waves in France led to last summer more than 1,400 additional deaths. This number may have been much higher without the preventive measures that have been taken, such as keeping large parks and swimming pools open, actions may not be an option this year.

The coronavirus pandemic appears likely to threaten and disrupt lives worldwide in the coming months. The global focus on the pandemic is completely understandable. But it is vital that this does not mean that the continued effects of climate change are buried behind the headlines or ignored by governments. Too many people on the front lines of climate change – whether in the Midwest or the remote villages of the Amazon – don’t have the opportunity to do so.

This article is a modified version of a newsletter first published by From a climate correspondent. Find it on Twitter.

Jocelyn is a freelance climate and science journalist from Scotland who loves geek on climate policy. She is currently based in Costa Rica. follow her on Twitter.

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