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You Can Blame El Niño for the Massive Floods in South America

The Argentine Red Cross says the floods caused by unseasonal rains have affected around 160,000 people in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay and is predicting that there could be more to come.
January 26, 2016, 9:35pm
Imagen por Peter Lykke Lind

Carmen Argentinas was terrified when the water came crashing through the town of Concordia where she lives, about 500 kilometers (300 miles) north of the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.

"It all happened so fast," the 70-year-old told VICE News, standing in her kitchen where the walls are still wet from the flood that set her running for her life late last month. "I was scared for my children of course, but I worried most about my grandchildren, because the water was well over their heads."


Related: 'Super' El Niño Looks Set to Ruin the Lives of Many of the World's Most Vulnerable People

Concordia lies on the Uruguay River in the low-lying province of Entre Ríos that has been particularly badly hit in the unseasonal floods that the Argentine branch of the Red Cross has described as "the worst in history."

The organization said that the floods, which killed at least six people in Entre Ríos alone, have affected more than 160,000 people in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil.

Experts say the floods are a consequence of El Niño — an irregular phenomenon that impacts weather patterns and is defined as beginning when surface temperatures in the Pacific rise more than 0.5 degrees centigrade above the average for a prolonged amount of time.

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Temperatures rose by more than 2.3 degrees this year, making it one of the biggest in history, a so-called "Super El Niño."

"In two months it rained between 700-800ml. That is 400ml more than the norm," meteorologist Cindy Fernández from the National Meteorology Service in Argentina told VICE News, linking the high El Niño directly to rainfall in the country. "Several records have been broken, including the one for the most rain in 24 hours, with 215ml. The old record was 90."

It was the rise in the level of the Uruguay River and its tributaries that brought disaster to Concordia at the end of December. The town of around 100,000 usually sees its heaviest rainfall after March and had never experienced anything like this.


According to Red Cross Argentina's Director of Disaster and Emergency Response Christian Bulado, the flooding affected 15,000 people, with 9,000 leaving the town voluntarily and a further 2,000 evacuated.

"That is how we measure the severity of El Niño, how many people it affects," he said.

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The water took about a week to recede from Concordia after which evacuees began slowly trickling back to their homes to see the damage.

Today trash in the treetops shows how high the water level rose. The stench is also overwhelming with the sweet rotten smell of piled up garbage mixing with sewage water and rotten food hanging over the town.

"The river went over my house. All my things are gone, everything," said Néstor Cabrera from behind the fence in his yard, staring at the now calm stream that runs only a few meters away from his house in the poorest neighborhood in Concordia.

"It's a disaster. Everything was destroyed, all our possessions washed away, and we are left with nothing," 22-year-old Jonathan Pesóa described the damage in the house where he lives with his wife and toddler. "I cannot even show you how it looked before, because all of our pictures were washed away as well."

Meanwhile, disaster workers are warning the worst could still be to come.

Related: Related: Climate Change Might Be Destroying This Ancient Peruvian Archaeological Site


They point to the high temperatures in the region that, combined with the flooding, increase the risk of epidemics of diseases such as Dengue fever. Some also predict more, potentially even worse, floods once the rainy season begins in March.

"Usually water levels rise here, but that's okay because it is from a normal level. This year, if rain pours like it normally does, we are going to have a humanitarian crisis," Christian Bulado of the Argentine Red Cross said. "The same things will happen, houses will fall, rats will breed and spread diseases, but to a greater extent."

Some experts turn to global warming to explain the intensity of El Niño this year.

"All of the impacts of El Niño are exacerbated by global warming. Global warming sets the background and El Niño determines regional weather patterns. When they work together in the same direction, they have the biggest effects and records are broken," said Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

This year's El Niño phenomenon also has a striking resemblance to the "Super" El Niño from 1997-98 that caused 17 tropical cyclones and an estimated global death toll of 23,000. The current El Niño is already responsible for 21 tropical cyclones.

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Ramón Bardón used a long stick to show how high the water rose in his house in Concordia. He also pointed to four big plastic bags that he said contained all his family's possessions aside from a rusty foosball table in the garden.

"The house was moved off its foundations," the 52-year old explained. "But this is my home. Whatever happens, I am not leaving."

Follow Peter Lykke Lind on Twitter: @Peterlind2