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BOLIVIA: Floodwaters Besiege Amazonian Town

Franz Chávez

TRINIDAD, Bolivia, Feb 28 2007 (IPS) - Seen from the air, the capital of the Bolivian department of Beni is surrounded by an enormous stretch of water. Local residents are hoping that the polluted floodwaters, only 40 centimetres below the level of the ring road which is acting as a dike, do not overwhelm it.

 Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

The small airstrip at Trinidad, in the northeast of Bolivia, is like a military operations centre, with planes landing and taking off in quick succession. Some are huge C-130 Hercules transports belonging to the Bolivian and Venezuelan air forces, while others are light Cessna aircraft.

They are transporting supplies of food and medicine for the 19,000 families left homeless by the flooding in Beni, which has a total population of around 407,000, of whom approximately 90,000 live in Trinidad.

The biggest river in the region, the Mamoré, burst its banks and its waters poured into mud and palm leaf dwellings and large ranch houses alike. Thousands of people have been homeless for the last 20 days, although a measure of peace returned on Wednesday when the sun came out after weeks of torrential rain.

Claribel Solano, 35, is smiling again. She lived in Villa Monasterio until it disappeared under the floodwaters three weeks ago, and now her home is right at the entrance to Trinidad airport, beside the ring road which doubles as a dike.

She can see aircraft going by all the time, arriving with heavy loads of food and clothing, but her presence and that of others who have been evacuated has gone unnoticed, even by the media.

Solano has even seen President Evo Morales&#39 motorcade drive swiftly by at least four times as he has made personal visits to the flooded areas. But the security vehicles&#39 tinted windows apparently blocked out the view of the flood victims, who asked IPS where the food and other donations were going to.

"Here, just a few metres away from the airport, nothing has been delivered, so I want to ask President Evo: Where&#39s the food?" says the dark-skinned Juanito Florián, 40, who is barefoot and wearing an old shirt and shorts.

His wife and six children have taken shelter under blue plastic sheeting, with their few belongings scattered on the floor of fine red earth, among stubborn bushes that cling to the edge of the road.

Marlene Noé, a black-haired young woman, holds her young daughter in her arms. Her eyes search for a solution to their plight, although today smiles, jokes and a certain amount of hope are in the air because the sun has come out, bringing a temperature of 31 degrees.

Solano&#39s enthusiasm has not deserted her. She smiles and carries on working, selling pastries, cakes, empanadas (meat pies) and beverages made from dried fruit.

The media have chosen to go further afield, and their correspondents struggle for one of the few vacant places on the two UH-1 Huey helicopters, on loan from the Argentine air force to overfly the devastated areas.

This Wednesday the government declared three provinces in Beni department "disaster areas".

Argentine President Néstor Kirchner ordered the loan of five helicopters. Someone commented that there are five more such helicopters at the U.S. anti-drug base in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in central Bolivia, but no one can imagine why they have not been assigned to rescue missions and assisting the victims.

A few metres further on, three families have set up tents using waterproof material donated by the Peruvian government. Their camp is in the middle of the road, to attract attention, but they are still waiting to receive food.

Jesús Ibáñez, who has plied various trades including driving a motorcycle-taxi, bewails the loss of his home appliances, computer and television set. A little way away is his furniture, damaged by the rain.

While Ibáñez is talking to IPS, a woman falls into the water from an improvised boat paddled with planks of wood for oars. Some teenagers manage to rescue her, and with some difficulty she makes it to the shore of the immense lake created by the Mamoré floodwaters, which is the only source of drinking water for the victims, contaminated though it is with dead animals, sewage and solid wastes.

"The oxidation beds for treating wastewater in Trinidad are just a few metres away from this water, and now the two waters have mixed," says a concerned woman, while her children play in the dark waters.

At the military airstrip at Trinidad, the head of civil defense for Beni, Colonel Alejandro Núñez, watches over every detail of the shipments of donations to communities that can only be reached by air.

In combat uniform, Núñez gives his orders to dozens of sweaty soldiers, who carry the food and bundles of clothing collected in the rest of the country to and fro on their shoulders.

His previous experience in emergency operations, during the earthquake in the central department of Cochabamba in May 1998, taught him the importance of meticulously recording deliveries of donations.

Trinidad has received 240 tons of food donated by private individuals and the World Food Programme (WFP), and a container with medical equipment and medicines worth 1.7 million dollars, donated by the international relief organisation World Vision. But distribution is limited by the lack of means of transport, said Núñez.

Distribution is reliant on one Hercules airplane with a capacity of 20 tons, two Cessna light planes which can carry half a ton each, and two Argentine helicopters capable of transporting a ton apiece.

The northeastern region has been most heavily affected by the torrential rain that has fallen all over the country since December, which is attributed by experts to the periodic El Niño climatic phenomenon. Some 350,000 people have lost their homes and livelihoods, and at least 35 people have been killed.

On the rivers, large naval ships belonging to this landlocked country can transport up to 25 tons of donated goods, but Núñez is most concerned about provision of food and medicines over the next two months, when the waters retreat and people go back to their lands, hoping to rebuild their homes.

"Food supplies are guaranteed for the next 15 days, so long as the ring road remains an unbroken dam," he says, while ordering the distribution of bottles of water to his exhausted troops.

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