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BOLIVIA: El Niño Has Bigger Bite with Climate Change

Bernarda Claure* - Tierramérica

LA PAZ, Mar 24 2007 (IPS) - Bolivia is entering its fourth month of onslaught from El Niño, the climate phenomenon that has grown stronger, and threatens to return with even greater force.

According to the forecasts of Bolivia&#39s National Weather Service and of the scientific community of international agencies, the national under-secretariat for Civil Defence announced earlier this month the end of El Niño, the warm phase of what is known as the Southern Oscillation.

But heavy rains, overflowing rivers and hurricane-force winds have not ended in the northeast, while drought, hail and frost persist in the west of this land-locked South American nation that is home to all types of climates, from tropical in the plains to polar in the Andes Mountains.

Experts consulted by Tierramérica agreed that the Andean region should prepare for more frequent and intense visits from El Niño as a result of global climate change.

The greatest threat is to the northern department of Pando, which faces heavy flooding from rains in neighbouring Peru, says the under-secretariat.

Although this is rainy season across all of Bolivia, the period that began in December is the most severe since 1998.

El Niño is a periodic climate phenomenon resulting from the interaction between the ocean surface temperature and the atmosphere in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. It affects a large portion of the planet, but especially the Andean region of South America.

The strength of this year&#39s El Niño was to be expected, Oscar Paz, coordinator of the National Climate Change Programme (PNCC) of the environmental ministry, told Tierramérica.

It could be a manifestation of the new phase of natural disasters, according to the latest studies by the United Nations&#39 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in February.

"As a consequence of global warming, in the past few years rainfall has been more constant and heavier," Carlos Céspedes, head of planning for the National Naval Hydrology Service, said in a Tierramérica interview.

The phenomenon reached its maximum intensity, says Luis Phillips, technical director for the Amazonian Navigation Improvement Service. In the Bolivian northeast the impact is worse now than a decade ago because the population is eight times bigger and the economy more dynamic as a result of the livestock sector – now decimated by the heavy rains.

The Ranchers Federation in the north-eastern department of Beni estimates at least 22,000 head of cattle dead. Other losses, not yet quantified, are related to the farming sector there and in Santa Cruz and Pando, where rice and soybean crops were hit.

More than 50 people have died and 79,386 families across the country have been affected as a result of the intense weather.

Richard Quispe, of the Eastern Ecological Association, told Tierramérica that also to be taken into consideration is the disappearance of vegetation and the likely losses of endangered animal species, like the southern helmeted curassow (Pauxi unicornis), a bird that inhabits Bolivia&#39s tropical east.

In the rains of 1998 damages surpassed 527 million dollars.

The issue was taken up at the 2nd Alexander von Humboldt Conference on the role of geophysics in natural disaster prevention, Mar. 5-10 in Lima, where U.S. oceanographer Michael McPhaden warned of more catastrophes if humankind doesn&#39t step up to take action on climate change.

Construction continues in areas where El Niño causes intense rains, and deforestation persists in places where there is intense drought, he said.

According to Paz, of the PNCC, although the indicators of warming in the South Pacific and the history of climate events in the region help predict impacts, scientists don&#39t know how or when it will end.

The measures to be taken will first have to be related with expanding technology, said Phillips. "In Bolivia, our monitoring stations are totally out of date, when the rest of the world has satellite instruments."

Peru, very vulnerable to changes in Pacific temperatures, this time around was less affected than Bolivia, in part because of its El Niño tracking system and because it is better prepared for its impacts. Furthermore, unlike in 1998 when the phenomenon thrashed Peruvian territory, this year the intense rains were concentrated over Bolivia, and parts of Argentina and Brazil.

The challenge, says Paz, is to create a high-level scientific entity that works on a system to monitor this and other climate phenomena, in conjunction with a network of local governments capable of sounding early warnings, determining which zones are most vulnerable, and planning based on those findings.

Meanwhile, the PNCC is working with communities in various regions to learn what problems are arising from climate change and to integrate those experiences into a national policy.

The PNCC director said a fund-raising project is under way with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in order to monitor the devastating moves of El Niño.

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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