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CLIMATE SOUTH: Developing Countries Coping With Climate Change

Bolivia in Need of Coordinated Climate Change Policies*

The ski run on Chacaltaya glacier is just a memory now. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

LA PAZ, Jun 29 2012 (IPS) - The effects of climate change are causing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in losses of crops, livestock and housing in Bolivia. But the few climate change adaptation and prevention policies adopted by the authorities are piecemeal and fragmented, experts say.

In the June 2011 to May 2012 agricultural season, 0.3 percent (21,000 hectares) of the country’s farmland suffered flooding, hail or drought, according to the Ministry of Rural Development’s contingency unit.

And a total of 20,449 families in 72 of Bolivia’s 328 municipalities lost income or had problems putting food on their table, according to government statistics.

The damages may seem mild compared to previous years: In 2007, the impacts of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) weather phenomenon affected a surface area nine times bigger than over the past year, with 185,432 hectares damaged. And from mid-2008 to mid-2010, the farmland where crops were destroyed totalled 162,045 and 164,963 hectares, respectively.

But the impact of these disasters is magnified by Bolivia’s vulnerability: this nation of Amazon rainforest and Andes highlands has a great variety of ecosystems, and over half of the population lives in poverty.

Poor native communities in rural areas bear the brunt of flooding and drought, Mirna Inés Fernández, an activist with the group Reacción Climática, told IPS.

This year, the area most heavily damaged by flooding was the pastureland on the plains in the northern province of Beni, while Chaco, in the south, has suffered from intense drought, the contingency unit reported.

The Beni plains were still cut off from the rest of the country in mid-June, Zamira Cortez, the head of the early warning system, told IPS from the municipality of Santa Ana del Yacuma.

The road between that town and the provincial capital, Trinidad, was still covered in water, and the 291-km drive, which usually takes five hours by car, took up to three days by boat.

In that livestock-raising area, the growing season is short, from September to December, and farmers have to weather cycles of drought and flooding, which make it impossible to produce large volumes of food.

Extreme weather events “have caused between 300 and 400 million dollars a year in losses of goods and trade flows since 2006,” says “Tras las huellas del cambio climático en Bolivia”, a report on climate change in Bolivia published in 2011 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The average temperature in this country’s tropical Andean region rose by 10 to 11 tenths of a degree Celsius per decade starting in 1939. But in the last 25 years, it has risen between 32 and 34 tenths of a degree every 10 years.

In the Amazon region in the north and northeast of the country, the temperature rose eight tenths of a degree per decade between 1901 and 2001.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report 2007 forecast a higher rise in temperatures in the future, and said that warming in the Andean region accelerated the retreat of glaciers, affecting water and electricity supplies.

The glacier on the top of the 5,400-metre Chacaltaya mountain, 30 km from La Paz, disappeared in 2009, even earlier than scientists had predicted. The glacier, the world’s highest ski area until a little over a decade ago, was one of the first to melt due to climate change.

The UNDP warns that there is little research on climate change in Bolivia. The report said it drew on “specific scientific observations, and local perceptions based on very little systematisation and generated from climate models that still reflect high levels of uncertainty.”

Last year, an on-line forum on agricultural risk management organised by the Ministry of Rural Development concluded that “the position of this country is still in the process of construction, and subject to ongoing adjustments (associated with) the National Development Plan, which in its design will take into account the effects of climate change.”

In 2009, Bolivia organised the World People’s Conference on Climate Change, which called for global justice with respect to rich nations’ responsibility for global warming.

But the country’s domestic institutions and laws are disjointed, fragmented and compartmentalised, with specific actions developed for specific areas, but with no coordination, the UNDP says.

“There is awareness in the communities that leadership is needed, in order to confront these conditions. But the state has not adopted measures,” María René Pinto, the coordinator of the Environmental Defence League’s (LIDEMA) programme for the reduction of vulnerability to climate change, told IPS.

A study by LIDEMA found that the problems of productive infrastructure and water sources have increased the vulnerability of the livelihoods of small farmers from 51 communities in 15 municipalities in the country’s nine departments or provinces.

The study sought to identify roles related to productive, social and environmental development, with the aim of proposing sustainable climate change adaptation measures.

In her visits to the municipalities, Pinto observed an absence of leadership in dealing with climate-related difficulties, but saw an increase in community organising around the issue.

In the highlands, the study found a reduction in incomes, a growing tendency of the population to move away from their home regions, family breakdown, preponderance of monoculture, the generation of conflicts, and shortages of food and water for agriculture and human consumption, due to the shrinking of glaciers.

And in the country’s central valley, conflicts over water sources broke out between communities, family incomes shrank, more and more people moved away, and soil erosion increased.

On the plains in the north and east of the country, many families lost their homes, land and livestock, fell ill from diseases caused by stagnant floodwater, and are isolated because roads are underwater or were destroyed by the flooding.

Citing these findings, the researcher stressed that the country should develop and strengthen its capacities and improve the performance of its institutions, to tackle the problem of adaptation to and mitigation of climate change.

She also said it is necessary to put a new value on traditional indigenous knowledge, promote dialogue between different generations of farmers, for the sake of transferring and sharing technologies and know-how, and create prevention strategies.

Technical experts from the Ministry of Rural Development contingency unit told IPS that an integral system of information for small farmers was being designed. The information will include agro-meteorological data, local knowledge, and indigenous wisdom.

* This article is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).

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