How is Climate Change affecting Bolivia ten years on?

December 4, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Interesting new paper written by James Painter for Oxfam Bolivia, “Bolivia – Climate Change, Inequality and Resilience” (available in both Spanish and English). What’s novel is that this is a follow-up to his 2009 report – I wish more organizations did this kind of thing – building up a longitudinal picture of change, rather than always hopping from issue to issue in a series of one-off snapshots. Some highlights:

‘Many of the testimonies collected on the 2020 visit were similar to those heard during the first visit in 2009. In particular, the repeated experiences of hotter temperatures, unpredictable or shorter periods of rainfall, sudden downpours, and more droughts were a common refrain in all three regions we visited.

In some cases, local people said these weather patterns were getting worse.

Although there have been examples of improvements since 2009, climate change continues to have a much greater impact on women, particularly due to their being in charge of agricultural production.

Extreme weather events have continued, most notably extensive flooding in La Paz, Beni and Pando in early 2014, the drought in over half the country in 2016, and the widespread forest fires in Chiquitania in 2019 that were exacerbated by a changing climate.’

Other fears expressed in 2009 were also born out:

‘The 2009 report pointed to the problem of mosquitos carrying diseases such as malaria and dengue being able to survive at higher altitudes due to rising temperatures. Dengue is considered particularly sensitive to climate change, as climate is one important driver of the current distribution and incidence of the disease around the world. It affects poorer sectors as they find it more difficult to afford the treatment and medicines necessary to treat and cure it.

Lake Poopó
Lago Poopó. Credit: Juan Karita

Bolivia suffered an outbreak of dengue in the first half of 2020 and by early May, 7,500 people had been infected and eight had died (seven under the age of 12), mainly in Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando. The number of people infected was one of the highest recorded in recent years. According to Roberto Tórrez, head of Epidemiology for the department of Santa Cruz, climate change was one of the main drivers of the epidemic, along with migration and lack of proper sanitation methods, because ‘the mosquito that transmits the disease – aedes aegypti – can adapt to different altitudes. Before, it could survive at 1,400 metres above sea level, but because of temperature increases in recent years it has adapted to living at 2,300m’. This led to the disease spreading to other departments, such as Cochabamba and Chuquisaca.’

The report also identifies a couple of new phenomena that it missed, or that were not yet detectable in 2009:

‘Absent from the 2009 report were details of how climate change can affect urban residents, which now accounts for nearly 70% of the Bolivian population, with half the population living in the metropolitan areas of La Paz-El Alto, greater Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. A 2018 study of the urban area of Cochabamba showed that islas de calor (heat islands) doubled in surface area between 2000 and 2017. Heat islands are defined as urban zones or areas where the temperatures rise due to urban expansion, concentration of cement buildings and tarmacked roads, and low vegetation. The effects are felt as an intense sensation of high temperatures and sudden changes in rainfall, which is shorter but heavier.

Also absent were more details of the complex links between climate change and other environmental problems, and their impact on poorer sectors. Water and air pollution, soil erosion, natural disasters not linked to climate change, and deforestation all affect women and Indigenous groups disproportionately, as for example, they have the least capacity to cope with health problems caused by pollution, and with the economic fall-out of losing crop production because of poor soil quality.

In May 2019, a comprehensive report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that nature (biodiversity) is being eroded at rates unprecedented in human history. One million species are currently threatened with extinction, including many in South America.

The IPBES report showed the strong interrelationship between climate change, the loss of biodiversity and human wellbeing. Climate change is a primary driver of biodiversity loss, worsening the impact of habitat degradation, pollution, invasive species and the overexploitation of natural resources. In turn, the loss of biodiversity contributes to climate change, for example, when destroyed forests emit more carbon dioxide.’


But at least the new research unearthed a few positive examples:

‘In Pando, several Indigenous and small-scale farming communities are successfully following alternatives to the dominant agricultural system of clearing forests for food production and cattle rearing. They share the common aims of generating economic, socio-cultural and environmental benefits by employing a variety of alternatives, such as harvesting and processing forest products without chopping down trees.

These alternative agricultural systems have had some success encouraging women and young people to participate in decision-making processes and benefit from income-generating opportunities. Testimonies from families benefitting from these alternatives are an inspiring antidote to the general ‘doom and gloom’ narratives around climate change and deforestation.’

December 4, 2020
Duncan Green