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Bolivian Lowlands Get Life-Saving Flood Warning System

Franz Chávez

TRINIDAD, Bolivia, Jul 7 2010 (IPS) - An early warning system to alert people living in the lowlands of the northern Bolivian department of Beni about imminent flooding of the mighty Mamoré and Ibare rivers is saving lives, food and goods, and overcoming the uncertainty that led to enormous losses in the past.

The Mamoré River. Credit: Franz R. Chávez/IPS

The Mamoré River. Credit: Franz R. Chávez/IPS

“La gateadora (the crawling flood) is the most dangerous because it is relentless, and rises stealthily,” César Cortez, an experienced 72-year-old farmer, told IPS as he relaxed in the dry season in the main square of San Pedro Nuevo, 56 kilometres north of Trinidad, the capital of Beni.

The rapid advance of floodwaters, known locally as “la gateadora”, is feared because in a few hours it can transform the plains into a lake which devours crops, destroys the flimsy houses and threatens the lives of defenceless, impoverished local people.

The region that is home to some 300 families of Canichana indigenous people, in the municipality of San Javier, becomes a gigantic lake in the December to March rainy season, along with 70 percent of the land in Beni that is under water for four months of the year.

The geography of the department of Beni is uniform: plains covered with natural pasture and undergrowth, at altitudes between zero and 154 metres above sea level, huge trees, and lands divided by the Mamoré and Ibare rivers, which flow from south to north and empty into the Amazon River.

In this endlessly flat landscape with a diversity of plants and animals, it is hard to tell when the rivers will overflow their banks. Even on very sunny days, danger is close at hand, Nicolás Aradilla, the local magistrate of the small farming community of Los Bambuses, told IPS.


In the old days, the best indicators of imminent flooding were clouds of mosquitoes descending on population centres, the appearance of herons, or even alligators coming into the town square, Cortez said.

Other natural signs pointing to the exact level of the expected flood, such as snakes on the roofs or snail eggs at a particular height, are no longer widely recognised by local people.

After the worst floods on record, in late 2007 and early 2008, when 165,000 cattle died out of the total Beni herd of 2.9 million, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) came to the assistance of the hard-hit farmers with a proposal for an early warning system (EWS).

Results were immediate. In 2009, 78 percent less cattle died than in 2008, and losses were limited to 35,000 animals.

“There was an urgent need to provide early warnings because of the regular flooding that happens twice every two years, with a devastating flood every five years, according to statistical probability,” the coordinator of the EWS project, Óscar Mendoza, told IPS.

Some 83,035 people, out of the department’s total population of 362,521, benefit directly from the programme, which covers the municipalities of San Javier, San Andrés, San Ignacio de Moxos, Santa Ana, San Ramón, Exaltación and Puerto Siles, all in the Mamoré river basin.

A radar on the Grande river, at the border of the departments of Beni, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, instantly sends information to a satellite that in turn beams the alert warnings to a central office of the National Meteorology and Hydrology Service (SENAMHI) in the country’s administrative capital, La Paz.

From here the information is transmitted to a Departmental Early Warning System, and the message is copied to a computer network serving the municipalities, to announce the rise in river level and the inevitable flooding that is on its way.

Open frequency radio stations broadcast the warning to the population so promptly that farmers can immediately build “chapapas”, rough and ready platforms up to two metres above the ground, to save food, seeds, grains, animals and their family.

The system was used before the last flood, and it put an end to chaos and the unpleasant surprise of waking to find household utensils floating in water, Ariel Candia, in charge of the Risk Unit in the municipality of San Javier, told IPS.

San Javier, located about 30 kilometres north of Trinidad, is highly vulnerable during the rainy season because of its proximity to the Mamoré River.

Nearly 80 percent of its 19 communities, home to 7,000 Canichana and Sirionó families and covering an area of 8,000 square kilometres, is exposed to sudden flooding.

Candia, an agronomist, communicates with local people in their own language. To encourage a state of readiness in his municipality, he recommends making storage platforms and processing cassava, an abundant local tuber, into “chivé”, hand-milled flour; cutting it into thin slices to dry; or simply roasting it over a slow fire, in order to preserve it for the months to come.

Dugout canoes are swiftly converted into food processing factories for salting and drying meat and making molasses from sugarcane, just as the earlier inhabitants of this region used to do.

These procedures have also been collected into a manual of good practices, published by FAO and distributed to the populations of tropical areas.

Antonio Soto, headman and cultural secretary of a Canichana indigenous organisation representing 300 families, told IPS he regards the early warning system as very valuable. He said that when flood alerts are triggered, a committee will be formed to organise rescue work to save the food and the lives of the people he represents.

 
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