Bolivia: the necessity of adaptation

By Bryan Walker 06/11/2009

Oxfam’s messages on the battering effects of climate change on poorer countries continue with the publication this week of their report Bolivia: Climate Change, Poverty and Adaptation.  Poverty and injustice in many countries of the world is what Oxfam works on, and this focus has inevitably led to concern about what climate change is adding to the problems faced by the poor.  This report, like their others, includes a number of interviews with local people whose livelihoods depend on the food they grow. It can be argued that this is anecdotal evidence of climate change and not to be trusted. I don’t see it that way. What the local people are experiencing fits with what we would expect from the predictions of climate science. I see no reason for Oxfam to withold their stories on the grounds that we can’t be absolutely certain that all of what the locals report is down to global warming. If we wait for absolute certainty on such matters we will have waited until it is too late.  Climate change is always going to be mixed with natural variability but the underlying warming trend is as apparent in the human stories as it is in the global temperature graphs. And the stories are certainly guides to the kind of adaptation measures that need to be urgently addressed. 

The five main impacts of climate which Oxfam identifies for Bolivia are: less food security; glacial retreat affecting water availability; more frequent and more intense ‘natural’ disasters; an increase in mosquito-borne diseases; and more forest fires.

The effect of unpredictable weather on food supplies is already being felt. Glacier retreat and rising snowline are affecting some. Says 38 year-old-Lucia Quispe from her highland village below Mt Illimani:

I am very worried. The snow and ice is disappearing and melting day by day, year by year. The sun is stronger. It doesn’t snow as much. We are very concerned.

The snow and ice could disappear completely. So the water might not come down from the mountain at all. So we could have much less water. Already in recent years not much water is coming down in August and September, until November.

The same woman comments on the unpredictability of seasonal rain.

It does not rain when it should any more. At any moment, there might be clouds and the rain falls. Before, there was a season for rain, and a season for frost, and a period of winter. Now, it is not like that any more. In the last couple of years, the times of the seasons are all wrong.

This unpredictable rainfall is experienced in the valleys as well. One community leader comments:

These days, when it should rain, it doesn’t, and when it is supposed to be the dry season, suddenly the rains appear… We don’t have irrigation systems, so the rain is very important for our crops.

Disastrous and frequent flooding has been experienced in lowland areas in recent years. Oxfam reports on an adaptation project begun recently. Many have enlisted in the camellones (raised fields) project which builds raised earth platforms of around 500 square metres and up to two metres high, each surronded by canals. The intention is to prevent seeds and plants being washed away as they are above the level of the floods. The water surrounding them can be used as a source of irrigation and nutrients during the dry season. It’s an ancient idea updated with modern knowledge and technology. Initial signs are positive, with increased crop yields. Early fields survived the 2008 floods reasonably well, but the challenges of severe flooding or drought have not yet put the more widely established system through severe testing.   

Unusually in developing countries Bolivia has a well organised alliance of social movements and NGOs working together as a pressure group on climate change. It is active in proposing policies which include an immediate moratorium in forestry concessions and establishment of a legislative framework to regulate their sustainable exploitation and replacement. Deforestation is a major contributor to flooding in the Amazonian regions of Bolivia as well as adding to its low level of greenhouse gas emissions. 

The government is not passive on the issue. Oxfam recognises they have made an important and serious start in understanding and responding to climate change effects. However, there remains a need to develop and implement effective policies, institutions and practices to adapt to the reality of severe climate risks. It’s a big task ahead. And it’s one for which they have every right to expect international assistance. The Minister for the Environment and Water comments:

We think it is tremendously unjust that Bolivia, one of the countries most affected by climate change, should have to pay the cost of adaptation when it is the developed countries which have harmed our climate and planet. That’s why we are making a double demand on developed countries: first that they should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and secondly, that they should create a worldwide adaptation fund for developing countries.

The European Commission has indicated that it would look at up to $22 billion a year for such a fund.  Less than half, in Oxfam’s view, of what they should be considering, but at least a figure.  New Zealand so far has indicated they accept the evidence that more funding is needed, and that it should be additional to existing aid commitments, but at the time of writing there has been no indication as to how much money they will commit. I hope the amount will be substantial and proportionate to the need.