Climate change and hands of resistance

By Rebekah Nimtz, an MCC Service Worker in the cross-roads, bread-basket city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. This post is part of a series by MCC Latin America and Caribbean (LACA) on climate change and food security

Several years ago in Bolivia during the rainy season I noticed that a drip bucket in my house was nearly overflowing when I returned from an annual absence of a few weeks. The next year I was surprised to come back to find it only half full. The rainy season had begun a month late. This past year it began well over two months late. On the south side of Cochabamba, in migrant zones where many kids I work with live without running water, even the cacti appeared to be drying up. Bolivia continues to experience the effects of its worst drought in almost four decades and the highest recorded temperatures in the past ten years.

The drought on the ground

The drought on the ground. Photo by Edgar Chuquimia.

El Niño and climate change are credited with playing the major roles in  weather fluctuations, in a country whose ecosystems the UN considers some of the most vulnerable worldwide to the effects of global warming. Late rains have made only a dent in lost reserves, which hovered around 8% capacity, with a reservoir in the governing capital of La Paz at only 1% at the end of last year. This lack of water caused President Evo Morales to declare a national emergency in November. Friends in the city of Cochabamba weren’t as startled by the state of the emergency as those in La Paz, as rationing of water in Cochabamba is the norm. This past year Cochabamba only received, on average, water via the municipal water company, SEMAPA, a few hours once a week.

In the region of Mizque, 160 km outside of Cochabamba, adaptability to the effects of drought depends on whether one lives closer to the village, with more access to an irrigation system and agricultural machinery, or half-an-hour further out in the mountains, where one’s livelihood is more dependent on cultivating corn and raising cows, goats and vicuñas.

Jaime Pardo works for OBADES, the social arm of the Baptist church in Bolivia. MCC partners with OBADES in its work with locals in Mizque on food security projects such as irrigation systems, greenhouses, and crop diversity. Jaime shared that in early 2016 the rainy season not only started late, but was cut short when the rains stopped in March, leaving already planted corn unable to reach maturity. By the end of the year there was no more pasture left for livestock. Animals had to move around for hours in search of first water and then food, complicated by the drying up of once full rivers. It was a bit easier for the goats, who would eat anything within sight, even plastic. Jaime commented that the image seared in his mind of this past year is of skin-and-bone cows wobbling down the mountainside as though drunk, trembling and barely able to stand. As for their owners, without water to sow their crops, the only option has been to leave for the city.

A corn crop unable to reach full maturity

A corn crop unable to reach full maturity. Photo by Jaime Pardo.

A vast number of farmers have also left Bolivia’s already dry southeast Chaco due to the unprecedented rate of cattle deaths, the region’s primary income. Lake Poopo in the western part of the country completely dried up at the beginning of 2016, not only due to drought,  but also water deviation for mining. The Uru people, who lived off the lake for centuries, have long since gone, along with their way of life. The swell in already exploding urban populations exacerbates poverty and puts greater demands on failing infrastructure and local municipalities to implement solutions.

In rural and urban areas alike, communities have plead with the government for assistance, with the repeated loss of crops resulting in economic ruin for families. Some irrigation and groundwater projects have come about as a result. Nevertheless, even the breadbasket of Cochabamba unprecedentedly began importing food from neighboring countries. Outdated infrastructure exacerbates the problem with up to 50% losses of water in some places within pipes and distribution networks. Privatization is an option, but faces opposition for often failing to reach city outskirts and municipalities. The Misicuni dam and hydroelectric project of Cochabamba, underway since 1957, is a set-back filled effort of 10 private local and international companies that is only now gradually approaching completion. It was originally planned to give water to 400,000 people in a city with now closer to a million inhabitants.

Meanwhile, deforestation of the northern Amazon, in Bolivia and beyond, inhibits the flow of humid air and rain to the Andes. Hydroelectric projects damage the river arteries of the jungle and affects the natural water preservation cycle. Damaged water cycles leave torrents of rain that show up late, to destroy crops at the time of harvest and cause catastrophes with flash-flooding, as opposed to the gradual, soft rains of days gone by. The need to address emergency situations means that working on root causes turns into a catch-up game for a government that is already behind on developing prevention and relief plans for a problem long foreseen.

Bolivia has accessed, however, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN’s green fund for a “My Irrigation” program to assist in rural areas. The construction of grain storage plants are underway. Experts emphasize the need for long term water shortage plans such as dikes for water storage, preservation and education initiatives, and continued efforts to renovate outdated water distribution systems so they can be ready to carry, for example, the water now beginning to finally gush from the Misicuni dam project.

Elizabhet Trujillo of the community of Totorani harvests drought resistant maca

Elizabhet Trujillo of the community of Totorani harvests drought resistant maca. Photo by Edgar Chuquimia Ramos.

The small, hopeful steps of local communities across the country, especially alongside governing bodies, are prevailing against the obstacles, even if those steps begin as little more than drops in a dry bucket. The community of Villa Vinto, not far from Mizque, in partnership with OBADES, is enlisting a Peruvian model in the creation of artificial lakes and dykes to capture and store rainwater. With municipal government offers of new farming tools as prizes for the best efforts, the project is hoped to spread to communities throughout the entire region. Mizque continues to produce drought-resistant maca, which in addition to being a delicious superfood, reaps greater economic benefits than typical potato crops. The persistent well-digging of colony Mennonites in Durango on the border with Argentina has allowed them to grow crops in previously declared agricultural dead-zones. If a drop of water can carve out a canyon, the small efforts of hands working together might be able to eventually fill that canyon with more water for the future.