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Landlocked Bolivia in drought state-of-emergency

 Emma Donlan, Christian Aid's Country Manager in Bolivia reflects on the recent declaration from the President for a National Emergency.

On 21 November, Bolivian President Evo Morales declared a national emergency as the country suffers the worst drought in 25 years.

Last month Morales called on local governments to use funds to drill wells and transport water to families and farmers affected by shortages.

The cause

Experts are blaming the country’s water shortages on climate change caused by or exacerbated by rising temperatures and the El Nino weather phenomenon in the Pacific. Additionally, an increase in migration to the country’s largest cities has put pressure on resources.

The water supply to La Paz which is the highest capital city in the world, and neighbouring El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city, comes from glaciers in the surrounding Andean mountains. The three main reservoirs which supply water to these cities have almost run dry.

Water rationing

Hundreds of thousands of families have had their water supply rationed. This is the first time in the country’s history the government has put into effect water rationing. However, the effects of drought were felt by others in the country much sooner.

Last year, Lake Poopó - once Bolivia’s second-largest lake and an important fishing resource for local communities disappeared. This disappearance threatens the very identity of the Uru-Murato people, the oldest indigenous group in the area. Many of the Uru-Murtato people, who had lived off its waters for generations, left the area, joining a new global march of refugees fleeing not war or persecution, but climate change.

Environmental advocates blame the loss of Lake Poopó on the reoccurring drought and the diversion of the lake’s water sources for mining and agriculture.

Communities affected

The Bolivian highlands have also been affected, especially communities north of Potosí who were displaced due to the last significant drought 25 years ago. Once again, they are leaving their homes and livelihoods to seek refuge in cities across Bolivia.

The rationing schedule the government implemented is failing; the state-run water company has not been able to fulfil their commitments to the published timetable and many homes have not received a drop of water. Communities are not certain of when, and for how long they will have access to the service. The shortages have sparked protests in La Paz and El Alto as people are getting more and more frustrated. 

The elderly and those with disabilities cannot physically queue for buckets of water. Livestock and crops are falling victim to the drought. Schools are closing and hospital and clinics are working under extreme pressure as there are fears of an epidemiological outbreak.

Those who have been lucky enough to receive water, in most cases – the water received is not fit for human consumption.

The future

Bolivia’s water-regulation authority has stated that the current water crisis may persist until at least 2018.

President Evo Morales has insisted that Bolivians 'have to be prepared for the worst.'

Related content

Video interview on climate change in Bolivia (Spanish resource)


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