May 2012

Bolivia's Inconvenient Truth

Global Warming concerns everyone on the planet including Bolivia.
Laura Denis is highlighting us on the damages that disregard toward ecoawareness
is causing.

By: Laura Denis
Projects Abroad Volunteer

Top of the Sajama
Photo: Ximena Noya

We are all familiar with the warnings of Al Gore from his film, “An Inconvenient Truth”, but what happens when the disasters on screen become real and tangible? Global warming is the rising temperature of both the Earth´s atmosphere and oceans. This increase of temperature will lead to increased sea levels, change in rain patterns and the disappearance of glaciers, permafrost and sea ice. We have seen the picture of the poor baby polar bear floating away on a melting ice floe, its home disappearing into the rising ocean. However, this change is not only relevant in the Arctic. Many countries in South America have been struggling to deal with flooding, drought, lackluster crops and fire. Factors such as poverty, bio-diversity and climate unite to create a perfect storm of destruction in countries like Bolivia.

Oxfam International reports that Bolivia is especially vulnerable to the ill effects of climate change due to six basic reasons, most of which are out of the country´s control. Firstly, Bolivia is home to many amazing ecosystems and being one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, many of those systems are vulnerable to any change in climate. Bolivia is also located in a region of the world that was subject to volatile weather even before climate change and these natural disasters are now more frequent and more severe. More than half of the diverse country is considered Amazonian and the deforestation of this area adds to vulnerability to flooding that can also be increased by the retreat of glaciers – Bolivia has around 20% of the world´s tropical glaciers. Social reasons also contribute to the severity at which Bolivia experiences climate change. Low-income areas of developing countries become the ones hit hardest by global warming and as Bolivia is unfortunately one of the poorest countries in Latin America with extreme inequality of wealth, those groups are the most exposed to the impacts. Poverty is concentrated within groups of indigenous people and Bolivia has the highest percentage in South America.

Batteries rotting
Photo: Alejandra Kolbe

Due to these six natural and social factors, Bolivia, unfortunately, has and will continue to deal with the negative impacts of climate change. In the last five years, Bolivia has seen and felt the brunt of global warming. An increased number of floods and fires have ravaged the country and citizens have noticed a higher number of violent hailstorms and more frequent visits from El Nino. El Nino is the warming of the surface of the Pacific Ocean that is supposed to occur every four to 12 years. This warming disrupts the feeding cycle of many fish and plankton and they subsequently die in large numbers. It also results in heavy rain blanketing South America, which has led to mudslides, and flooding in Bolivia. These rainstorms turn sidewalks into rivers and blow branches across streets in the city and can cause mudslides in the country. Conversely, La Nina is also occurring more and more. This is when the opposite happens; the water cools and brings drought – and fire – to western South America. The year 2009 saw a drought that killed 7000 animals and made an additional 100,000 sick as reported by the New York Times.

A warmer temperature also increases crop pests and insect borne diseases such as Malaria and Dengue. Increased instances of drought and flooding have had devastating results for the people and land of Bolivia.

The common element present in all discussions about global warming is water and Bolivia relies on both its forms– liquid and ice. Near La Paz, Bolivia´s capital city is the spectacular Illimani glacier that, as a naturally occurring reservoir, is the only source of water to the agricultural communities in the area during the dry season. In the past decade, according to the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the population of this area has tripled over the last 30 years with the largest expansion in the last decade. This population growth coupled with unreliable rainfall and higher temperatures (temperatures have been rising faster at higher altitudes) has caused the glacier to shrink.

A World Bank report, published in 2008, said that climate change would eliminate most of the glaciers in the Andes regions, which could threaten the way of life of up to 100 million people. Illimani, and other glaciers that ring Bolivian cities, have acted as natural reservoirs that collect water during the rainy season and release it during the dry months. As these worldrenowned glaciers have provided water and electricity to many parts of Bolivia for generations, these areas could become a casualty of climate change and become ghost towns. Agriculture makes up nearly 20% of Bolivia´s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 65% of the people work in agriculture. Without water and electricity in the agricultural areas there has been a migration of workers to the already crowded cities, which causes economic losses and social unrest as reported by the New York Times.

Bolivia can expect much of the same in the coming years because of climate change. Due to increased glacial retreat, water availability will be threatened which in turn leads to less food security and higher food prices. There will continue to be more frequent and intense natural storms and an increase in both mosquitoborne diseases and forest fires. An international study undertaken in 2011 found that this water stress will continue to increase, particularly in high-altitude cities. Edson Ramirez, a Bolivian glaciologist, says that the glacier retreat has gone faster than his predictions; he predicted that the glacier Chacaltaya would last until 2020 but it disappeared in 2009.

Garbage in the middle of the street
Photo: Ximena Noya

If the glaciers continue to disappear at the same rate, the cities of La Paz and El Alto may lose up to 30% of their freshwater supply according to a briefing published by OneWorld. In addition, as around 40% of Bolivia´s electricity is powered by hydroelectric turbines, this as well would be threatened.

With these negative changes happening in the natural world, the same could happen socially in Bolivia. Dirk Hoffman, of the climate change program at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz, told the New York Times “These are populations at the brink of surviving anyway, and then you have the extra stress of climate change and you have huge social problems. What´s at stake is conflict – you wouldn’t talk about civil war exactly. But it will be unrest.” The people of Bolivia have recognized the severity of the problem facing their country and are beginning to develop national policy and programs to adapt. The establishment of the Platform of Social Organisations against Climate Change is a positive move forward to put pressure on international governments to help combat the impacts and to recognize what Bolivia can do to help itself. The Bolivian government has identified areas that need to be addressed in order to combat climate change such as sustainable forest management and improving water management.

There is also a project underway with the Universidad Mayor de San Andres and Bolivian NGO Aqua Sustenable (with the support of Canada´s IDRC) to research the Illimani watershed and determine how best to control the water use. They are also working with farmers to help them return to traditional ways of farming that would conserve water and soil.

However, what has been done thus far is not enough. Oxfam International states that the international community needs to step up and both cut emissions that harm developing countries such as Bolivia and donate resources to help combat climate change. The Bolivian government also needs to continue to create policies that address the severity of global warming and begin to adapt to the changes that are occurring while educating the population about what they can do as individuals to help; for example, recycling and water conservation. Adaptation includes reforestation, finding new water sources and building a new reservoir to replace the glaciers. While it is true that many of the problems faced by Bolivia due to climate change are due to emissions from richer countries, the government and people of Bolivia cannot rely completely on the support from other nations. Not all of the factors that lead to the severity of the changes are the fault of Bolivia, but the country can step up to slow down the progress of global warming. With the creation of policies and the ability to adapt to the changing world, Bolivia will be able to change and hopefully find success in the face of climate change.

Domitila Barrios De Chungara,

“I remember a workers’ assembly, in the mines of Bolivia, some time ago, more than 30 years: a woman stood up, among all the men, and asked who was the main enemy. There were various replies: ‘Imperialism’, ‘the Oligarchy’” ‘bureaucracy” ... And she, DomitilaChungara, put them right: ‘No, comadres. Our main enemy is fear and we have it within us.’” In these words Eduardo Galeano describes the fight of her life, a fight for many liberties and rights such as the freedom of speech.

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