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Latin America’s Poor Are in the Climate Change Crosshairs

Countries like Bolivia are already suffering from climate disasters, and affected communities can’t keep up with the damage

Amy Booth
Amy Booth
Aug 28, 2018 · 12 min read
La Paz, Bolivia — February 18, 2018: Debris of a building seen after a flood due to heavy rains brought by El Niño. Photo by Jose Luis Quintana/LatinContent Editorial/Getty

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Running through a mountain valley in Bolivia, Avenida Ecológica is the road connecting the small town of Tiquipaya with the neighboring city of Cochabamba. Broad and green, it’s shaded by tall eucalyptus trees, their bark gently flaking in the sun.

If you reach the gas station and look uphill toward the Juventud Chilimarca neighborhood, the scenery changes dramatically. Vast mounds of churned earth and boulders the size of small cars line what might once have been the central thoroughfare. The houses by the roadside have been gutted. Holes in the walls reach from floor to ceiling, and although these were people’s living rooms a year ago, all the furniture is gone.

On the evening of February 6, a huge landslide in the mountains above town tore its way down the hillside, devastating everything in its path. Homes, bridges, cars, and roads were destroyed by a rush of thick mud carrying tree trunks, boulders, and debris.

The first warning was an earth-shaking roar. Some residents, unaware of the scale of the impending disaster, went up to the bridge crossing the river outside their houses to look. At first, the landslide was hidden from view by the trees lining the hillside above. Then, a vast, cement-like gray mass came into view.

Alina Vasquez and her family were at home when the landslide hit. When she saw it coming from the bridge, Vasquez rushed her family upstairs. At first, they watched from the balcony as the mud hit, but as the morass kept rising, she soon realized it was going to reach the balcony. They retreated to the back room and were trapped. Downstairs, Vasquez could hear the sounds of breaking glass and the hissing of gas escaping from broken pipes. Then the lights went out. “All we did was pray,” she said.

For a tense hour, they waited for help. Rescuers put ladders against the walls of the next row of houses and laid mattresses over the mud in Vasquez’s back patio, one story deep by now, to form an escape route without sinking. That allowed them to clamber to safety over the corrugated-iron roofs of the submerged outhouses.

A tragic picture emerged of a town that wasn’t prepared to deal with a disaster of that magnitude — a disaster that, as Bolivia is ravaged by climate change, is likely to happen again in the future.

Vasquez’s elderly mother was frozen in shock and couldn’t move. Two members of the rescue team had to carry her out in her pajamas. Her bedroom had been downstairs, and she lost absolutely everything. “They were her things from her whole life. Photos, memories, practically everything. We couldn’t save anything,” Vasquez said.

It was a month before salvage teams started emptying the mud from Vasquez’s house, and it wasn’t pleasant work. Her dog had been trapped in the kitchen and killed by the mudslide. Looters had stolen the electrical fittings from the house while she was away. Upstairs, there is a dent from where the mudslide lifted the neighbor’s car and crushed it against the wall. Of the balcony where her family watched the mudslide, all that remains is a semicircle of tiles around the door.

Five people lost their lives, and 463 homes were damaged. Some were submerged by mud or destroyed entirely.

As the community reeled from the impact, people started to ask questions. How had this happened? Could it have been avoided? As experts including hydrologists, agronomists, lawyers, and engineers scrutinized the situation, it became clear that a complex network of factors had combined to cause the devastation. These included the torrential rains Tiquipaya was experiencing at the time, the building of houses in danger zones, failure to maintain the river basins draining water from the mountains above, and the absence of risk management systems.

Ultimately, a tragic picture emerged of a town that wasn’t prepared to deal with a disaster of that magnitude — a disaster that, as Bolivia is ravaged by climate change, is likely to happen again in the future.

In January and February, Tiquipaya was hit with torrential rains that dumped an entire season’s worth of precipitation over a period of about three weeks. The landslide came after a huge mass of earth on the riverbanks high in the mountains slipped into the river and eventually dislodged, plunging downhill into the communities below.

The damage might not have been so bad if the drainage basins had been looked after properly. Unfortunately, they hadn’t.

In the 1990s, a comprehensive project to maintain the drainage basins around the Cochabamba Valley was in full swing. The Programme of Integral Drainage Basin Management (PROMIC) surveyed many of the rivers in the Cochabamba Valley and trained local experts in drainage basin management, a project funded partly by the Bolivian government and partly by development grants from countries including Switzerland and Belgium. The first study of the Taquiña River was done in 1993, according to Omar Vargas, a lecturer in drainage basin management at San Simón University in Cochabamba who worked on the project. Its basin was chosen as a laboratory for a five-year drainage basin management project. Visiting teams always found problems and would repair them.

In 2006, the government changed, and with it, many PROMIC staff. PROMIC was eventually replaced by the Departmental Drainage Basin Service (SDC). No longer did teams go up into the mountains to meticulously maintain the Taquiña basin.

Despite the effort involved, many felt the landslide had caught the authorities unprepared.

“[Landslides] don’t happen from one moment to the next. There are scars and fissures,” Vargas said. “If they’d gone to check, they would have seen. The earth gives you signals.”

Compounding these factors was the voracious advance of urban sprawl into areas not suitable for urbanization. In theory, nobody is allowed to build houses within a specified buffer zone around the river or at an altitude of more than 2,750 meters (Tiquipaya is at 2,649 meters). The 2,750-meter threshold is the edge of Tunari National Park, which surrounds the city of Cochabamba and neighboring towns Tiquipaya and Sacaba. In practice, both of those limits are “permeable,” according to Rodrigo Meruvia Soria, general coordinator at Gaia Pacha, an environmental foundation.

Land speculators, known as loteadores in Spanish for the lots of land they deal in, commandeer large plots and sell them off without checking whether they’re suitable for building homes. “[Buyers] are generally low-income families looking for somewhere to live,” Meruvia Soria said. “This land is economically much more accessible than other territory.”

It’s no small issue: An estimated 30,000 people live above the 2,750-meter threshold, occupying an area of 311 hectares, according to a 2017 legal project. The project also notes that not all families living above the threshold are poor, but the poor are more likely to face eviction.

Although these settlements are illegal, local authorities have hooked many of them up to power and water services, in some cases before finally giving them formal recognition. Some of the settlements predate the park boundary laws.

Building in these areas interrupts the water cycle, and especially in a dry place like Cochabamba, that’s a problem. In the area where the landslide hit, houses had been built as close as 10 meters from the river — well inside the buffer zone, according to Meruvia Soria. This endangers the lives of those living there and creates a bottleneck where there should be a broad drainage basin, increasing the pressure of oncoming landslides. Satellite imagery provided by citizen group Colectivo Willay shows that what was a clear drainage basin in 2003 was occupied by row upon row of houses by 2016.

When the disaster struck, state agencies, NGOs, and volunteers rushed to the site, setting up temporary shelters for families who had nowhere else to go. But despite the effort involved, many felt the landslide had caught the authorities unprepared.

“Everyone improvised to an embarrassing extent,” said Tania Ricaldi Arévalo, a researcher at the University of San Simón who participates in the Working Group for Climate Change and Justice and Colectivo Willay. Meruvia Soria said it was unclear where to deliver food aid or who was responsible for it, and that emergency centers had to manage themselves independently.

A 2014 Bolivian risk management law states that the government is required to warn people and take preventive and mitigative measures in high-risk areas where people already live. But Tania says the law is not applied in practice, and communities are left vulnerable as a result. “If this had happened at night, it would have wiped the population out,” she said.

Cecilio Salvatierra, technical secretary in Tiquipaya’s municipal government, said the government had dealt with emergencies such as forest fires and droughts before, but that it didn’t have the capacity to deal with a disaster on this scale. “We as Cochabambans and Tiquipayans have neither the economic nor the scientific capacity to anticipate that we’d have this kind of disaster,” he said.

Ricaldi Arevalo, however, was skeptical about arguments based on budgets. The 2014 law states that when a local entity reaches the limit of its resources, it can draw on support from higher up, including national government if necessary. She believes it is more a question of political will.

Bolivia is particularly vulnerable to the kind of extreme weather events that are on the rise.

When Policarpio Rojas Terrazas built his house in Juventud Chilimarca four years ago, he had no inkling that something like this could happen. The home was outside the established buffer zone, but it was gutted anyway.

Rojas Terrazas was in the town center when the disaster happened but rushed back as soon as he heard. When he arrived, his worst fears were confirmed. As the morass approached, 12-year-old Gamadiel Rojas, who lived in the house, had run inside to try to save his dog. The landslide hit before they could get out, knocking a wall on top of them both and killing them.

Six months on, Rojas Terrazas’ house remains an empty shell. He hasn’t moved back in because there’s no water, power, or furniture. He’s rebuilding with what is left of his own money. He used to own a business renting out dining sets and other events equipment, but the landslide destroyed the lot. “It’s going to take at least a year, if I get the money,” Terrazas said. He was skeptical about receiving state support. “It’s been so long, and they haven’t given me so much as a grain of sand,” he said.

After the disaster happened, the municipality tried to persuade people living in the hardest-hit areas to relocate and proposed a wider buffer zone around the river to reflect the true extent of the danger zone. The communities refused, and authorities approved the same buffer zone as before to accommodate them. Salvatierra said the state had not stepped in to help survivors like Rojas Terrazas and Vasquez rebuild their original homes because it didn’t want to invest in dangerous areas, only for the buildings to be destroyed again in event of another landslide.

Johny Diaz, a neighbor of Rojas Terrazas, says he doesn’t know where he would go if he had to leave his home. He said he hadn’t received any financial support to relocate. “If they gave us the value of our houses, we could leave, but there’s been nothing so far,” he said.

Despite the state’s apparent reluctance to invest, it is building social housing on the same row of houses as Vasquez, Diaz, and Rojas Terrazas’ devastated homes. “I call them matchboxes because they’re so small,” said Jorge Cadima, president of the Juventud Chilimarca neighborhood association, pointing at the earthy area where the foundations have been laid.

In a sense, it was ironic that the disaster should be provoked by heavy rain. Until recently, Bolivia had suffered from the opposite problem. In November 2016, the country was experiencing such severe drought that the government declared a state of emergency.

The country’s second largest lake, Lake Poopó, had dried up completely in late 2015, wreaking havoc on the lives of the communities who depended on the water. Rationing hit La Paz, crops and livestock were dying, and rural communities were receiving emergency aid. Then the rains came.

The downpours Tiquipaya was experiencing at the time of the landslide reflect a trend of changing rainfall patterns, with the rainy season getting shorter and more intense. While sources were divided about whether the rainfall pattern was due to long-term climate change or climate variability (natural variations that can occur over a period of years, such as El Niño or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation), two things are clear: Tiquipaya wasn’t prepared for this kind of disaster, and as the global climate changes, Bolivia can expect to see more of them.

Bolivia is particularly vulnerable to the kind of extreme weather events that are on the rise. It is one of the poorest countries in South America (it vies with Guyana for that unenviable title), with a sparse population strung out over terrain ranging from snow-capped Andean peaks and exposed mountain plains to dense Amazonian jungle.

Although Tiquipaya was hit this time, the same could easily happen in other Bolivian cities. Meruvia Soria said that the cities of Tarija and the judicial capital Sucre could potentially face risks, since they too are surrounded by river basins. In 2011, La Paz’s city hall found that only 25 percent of the city was constructed on safe ground. The other 75 percent was built on unstable ground that could present geodynamic risks. It’s not just Bolivia. Landslides frequently kill people in other Latin American countries, including Peru and Colombia.

Ricardo Navarro, president of Friends of the Earth El Salvador, explained that the lack of preparation is similar in El Salvador, which has a similar level of development to Bolivia, according to the United Nations’ Human Development Index. “The government reacts to what’s in front of it, like a firefighter. It should plan 15 years out,” Navarro said.

The key to fighting these climate-related disasters is co-responsibility.

Problems with paying for the consequences of natural disasters were also familiar — Navarro said funding the repair work often meant pulling budget from other areas. “It’s like if you pull a blanket over your head and it leaves your feet exposed,” he said.

The government might not be able to prevent landslides in Tiquipaya, but there are a few things it could do to reduce the harm they cause, according to Vargas. He suggested the construction of sedimentation lakes along the river bed. These slow the flow of the water and filter out much of the solid matter carried by landslides.

They could also dig trenches to divert the flow of mountain runoff away from fragile surfaces. Planting native bush species such as kewiñas would help prevent soil erosion; Vargas said the eucalyptuses that were introduced to cover the area’s hillsides weren’t a good choice because they are large, heavy, and consume a lot of water.

Although many blamed the landslide on deforestation in the surrounding mountains, Vargas, Cadima, and others agreed that it didn’t play a defining role this time.

Jhohan Oporto, director of postgraduate studies at San Simon University’s faculty of architecture and habitat sciences, believes an important piece of the puzzle is teaching communities the importance of respecting building regulations. He also pointed out that while new building designs are in theory meant to be approved by architects, in practice that doesn’t happen because low-income families often can’t afford it. “If architects don’t work with poor people because they can’t pay their fees, then let the state pay for it,” Oporto said.

To Meruvia Soria, the key to fighting these climate-related disasters is co-responsibility. That means developing countries like Bolivia, rich countries like the United States, and industrial powerhouses such as the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) must all step up and fight climate change if disasters like this landslide are to be minimized.

Meanwhile, the residents of Tiquipaya are racing against time to rebuild their homes and their lives before the next rainy season comes around.

Amy Booth

Written by

Amy Booth

Hi! I write about social issues in South America and study politics. Bylines: The Guardian, The Independent, Vice, New Internationalist and others.

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