If you have ever traveled at dawn, during the winter, on one of the roads that crosses the Andean highlands, you may have witnessed those first rays of sun reflecting off a thin blanket of frost that covers the meadows and fields. Undoubtedly, a beautiful landscape for the occasional traveler, but for the families that inhabit these places it can be the culmination of an endless night trying to withstand the intense cold of the puna seeping through the walls and ceilings of their homes.
This happens almost every year in the Andean highlands when, between May and September, meteorological frosts occur. During frosts, nighttime temperatures can reach -20°C or even lower in exceptionally cold years. Climate change could increase the intensity and frequency of frosts. According to the National Center for the Estimation, Prevention and Reduction of Disaster Risk (CENEPRED, by its Spanish acronym), in Peru around 600,000 people live in areas exposed to meteorological frosts, most of which are located in the southern highlands, especially in Puno, Cusco and Huancavelica.
As expected, families living in poverty and extreme poverty in remote rural areas are the most affected by frosts. The combination of factors such as homes that lack adequate thermal insulation conditions, the remoteness of basic health services and the prevalence of anemia and chronic child malnutrition intensify the vulnerability of this population to extreme weather events. According to the Ministry of Health, low winter temperatures in areas where frosts occur increase acute respiratory infections (ARIs) in children under the age of 5 by approximately 50%. Another group that is vulnerable to these diseases are adults over the age of 60, who have the highest mortality rate. Added to these factors is the vulnerability of this population to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also collapsed health services, already scarce in rural areas.
What actions can be taken to comprehensively protect the health and livelihoods of families that will continue to be affected by frost? In the Multisectoral Plan for Frost and Cold Waves 2019-2021, the Peruvian government prioritized a series of actions articulated on different fronts including, among others, access to health services, assistance for the protection of crops and animals, and the provision of safe, thermally-conditioned homes. Since 2019, the budget assigned to the sectors in charge of implementing the different components of the plan has increased.
Among the actors that participated in this multisectoral effort, the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion (MIDIS, by its Spanish acronym) has been key in improving rural housing. Since 2017, MIDIS has been implementing the “Mi Abrigo” (“My Shelter”) Program, through the Social Development Fund (FONCODES, by its Spanish acronym), to improve homes that do not have the conditions to ensure adequate temperatures during frosts. The houses are refurbished following standard techniques to insulate and ensure heat retention in walls, floors, windows and doors.
In order to increase the resilience to climate change of the most vulnerable populations, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been accompanying the “Mi Abrigo” Program with technical assistance to identify opportunities to improve the technical and logistical aspects of the housing refurbishment process. As part of this technical assistance, opportunities were identified to better respond to the different realities found in the Andean highlands.
For example, one aspect that was analyzed was the provision of materials used to refurbish homes, which are not necessarily available locally, but must be transported from district, provincial or even regional capitals. A solution proposed by the study consists of using local techniques and materials that replace manufactured materials to reduce costs and time requirements. For example, using “mattresses” made from ichu, cabuya or totora vegetable fibers as thermal insulators on walls. Another technique is the use of mud plasters, instead of plaster and cement, since mud has a better thermal behavior and also maintains the landscape quality. It is worth mentioning that in the Andean highlands temperature changes between day and night are usually dramatic, with a difference that can be of up to 30 degrees in 12 hours (-20°C/+10°C). Therefore, the refurbishment seeks to help homes retain day heat to use it at night.
In sum, the application of a single bioclimatic housing model may be insufficient for a territory as heterogeneous as the Andean one, where the climate, relief, occupation, accessibility to resources and types of housing vary according to each elevation level and geographical location. In this regard, within the framework of the IDB’s technical assistance, a guide for the thermal refurbishment of homes that offers a series of technological alternatives for each building component, which can be combined in a modular way, was developed. A resulting model can combine modern technologies with ancient construction and thermal insulation techniques. Thus, there are various opportunities for innovation in insulation techniques and materials adapted to the rural reality.
Protecting the health of the most vulnerable families is one of the positive outcomes of improving the thermal conditions of their rural homes, which generates the basic conditions for them to remain productive. Home refurbishment and maintenance activities, carried out through executing centers, also generate temporary employment for local communities, which, without a doubt, will contribute to improving their quality of life and promoting a sustainable recovery after the pandemic.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Gestión.
Photo: @carlevarino – Unsplash
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