BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Widespread flooding in Bolivia, which prompted the government to declare a national emergency last week, shows the vulnerability of one of South America's poorest countries to changing weather patterns linked to climate change.
Landlocked Bolivia, which runs from the rugged Andes to the Amazon jungle, faces a variety of climate change-related pressures, from disappearing glaciers to worsening droughts and more intense and unpredictable rainfall. Combined with rising urban demand for water, the problems suggest a long-term water crisis ahead for the country, analysts say.
The latest disaster has killed at least 50 people and left thousands homeless in Bolivia after weeks of heavy rain triggered flooding and mudslides, with 400 houses destroyed in the capital La Paz alone in a mudslide.
In Cochabamba, southeast of La Paz, schools and stadiums were sheltering hundreds of families whose homes were destroyed. In lowland Santa Cruz department, Bolivia's major grain growing region, floods damaged soy, corn and wheat crops. Rivers burst their banks and major roads were unusable.
"We've declared a state of emergency on different levels in different areas of the country," Defence Minister Ruben Saavedra said last week.
The government has allocated $20 million to help survivors.
Defence Minister Saavedra put the crisis in the Cochabamba, Beni, Santa Cruz, La Paz, Chuquisaca and Tarija departments (administrative regions) down to the La Niña weather phenomenon, linked to abnormally cool ocean temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific.
Changing ocean temperatures and increased evaporation linked to climate change may be increasing the frequency and intensity of La Nina and El Nino events, some scientists believe.
However, also Bolivia has a long-term problem with flooding, especially in the department of Beni, where 120,000 people have been affected this year.
Roger Quiroga, emergency coordinator for Oxfam GB in Bolivia, described Beni as one of the "largest lakes in the world" during the annual rainy season, when 150,000 sq kms is covered, an area equivalent to the size of Ecuador or Nicaragua.
The flooding – similar to that in the Amazon - is an old phenomenon but the risks have increased drastically over the past two decades due to deforestation and agricultural development, among other factors.
As a result, Oxfam has made humanitarian and climate change adaptation projects a priority for Beni. It is encouraging the use of an ancient irrigation system called "camellones", using raised platforms of land surrounded by canals to protect crops and provide better protection against flooding.
But one of the challenges of trying to help Beni tackle flooding problems is that some communities are isolated and live beyond the reach of development programmes, Quiroga said.
While many regions of Bolivia are flooding, others are getting less rainfall than normal.
Edwin Torrez Soria, climate change investigator for Agua Sustentable (Sustainable Water), a non-governmental organisation, said in parts of the country the rainy season has been shortening and rains increasing in intensity. Temperatures during rainy season have been rising, boosting evaporation.
Perhaps the most worrying threat to the country’s water supplies, however, has been glacier retreat. Chacaltaya, which at 5,300 m was once the world's highest ski run, is now a rocky, icy slope with a redundant lift.
Quoting the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, Torrez said Bolivia's glaciers were in a "critical" state.
Dirk Hoffman, executive director of Bolivian Mountain Institute, painted a darker picture: "There is nothing to be done about the Bolivian glaciers. They are doomed."
Bolivian glaciers have lost about half of their volume since 1963, he said.
But greater responsibility for growing water shortages in La Paz and El Alto, a satellite city of the capital, lay with the country’s political authorities, Hoffman said.
"If you have population growth of something between 35,000 and 50,000 people each year for the metropolitan area, and for more than 15 years you don't build any new water catchment, do you think it surprising that water will not be sufficient at some point?" Hoffman said.
Using less water more efficiently and renovating the leaky urban pipe system would help tackle the water problem, Hoffman said. He also urged that dams should be built in the mountains outside cities.