Resilience or resignation: facing droughts and floods in rural, poor Bolivia

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‘Resilience: Ability of the life system and its components to anticipate, absorb, adapt or recover from the effects of an adverse event in a timely and efficient manner, including by ensuring the conservation, restoration or improvement of its essential basic structures and functions.’

Supreme Decree regulating the Law No. 602 of Risk Management, Bolivia

Yolanda is a 46 year old woman who lives with her husband and her six children. After the floods, she left her community to live in a rental unit nearby. Since then, she has been struggling because she no longer has a house or a plot of land to work. Day after day, she has to look for work as a day laborer, and her income is insufficient for the sustenance of her family. Before the floods, she used to have a tranquil life; cultivating her own produce and working the land. She had enough food for her children; she also had her own house and fruit trees. She expresses great sorrow regarding the difficult situation her family is in. Her economic needs, her worries and suffering, have made her ill: she now has headaches constantly. She feels the burden of supporting the family. Despite the fact her husband also works, their earnings are never enough to make ends meet.

Woman affected by floods

Pedro is a 71 year old man. He used to live with his wife, but she became ill, and their children took her to the city of Cochabamba. At present, he lives alone; he has eight children, all married. He has been affected by the drought and has lost his potato and corn crops. Now, he is surviving only on some vegetable crops. He is ill, suffering from a hernia and Chagas disease; he no longer has the strength to sow, but still continues to work his field. He is simply awaiting the rain, in the hope that the weather improves. He is resigned to staying in his community until his death because he is most accustomed to living in the countryside, but hopes that his children will come back to their fields to sow. He will go on sowing as long as he can.

Man affected by droughts

Bolivia is a country with a vast geographical diversity, from a high plateau (altiplano) that reaches 3,000 meters above sea level to valleys at mid-altitude and tropical plains. This diversity gives Bolivia a wide variety of temperatures and microweathers, which is accompanied by a high risk of adverse weather events. Bolivia has historically been exposed to floods and droughts. Approximately four out of 10 people live in flood-prone plots, and more than 16 percent of the population live in areas at risk of drought. Accompanying this geographic diversity, Bolivia has a large indigenous population, comprising more than 40 different ethnic groups of varying sizes and with diverse livelihoods strategies. Moreover, despite significant progress in the last decade, a large proportion of Bolivia’s population are not able to afford a basic food basket (about 16.8 percent in 2015). The levels of poverty are significantly higher for indigenous and rural populations.

During the last decade, the magnitude of Bolivia’s weather patterns has undergone significant changes; extreme rainfall, floods, landslides, and droughts have been pushing the poorest and most marginalized communities beyond their ability to respond. According to several studies, Bolivia is one of the Andean region countries that most suffers the consequences of weather change (García et al., 2007; Jansen et al., 2009; Winters, 2012). Weather change is already causing the acceleration of glacier melting, increasing the likelihood and intensity of floods. The expected impacts on the Andean countries are serious: unprecedented temperature rise in tropical areas, intensification of the El Niño phenomenon, and droughts in tropical and subtropical areas (Cai et al., 2014).

There is a considerable amount of literature documenting the consequences of weather shocks on income and poverty. 5 The evidence shows that weather events such as droughts and floods have negative impacts on communities, and cause destruction of infrastructure, loss of savings and assets, etc. The extent of the weather event impacts depends on the ability of families to manage these risks, not only after they occur, but also before they occur by taking measures to prevent or minimize their impact. The recurrence of this type of events also influences risk management; the condition of poverty in itself affects the strategies employed. It is important to note that poverty can amplify weather change impacts and can lead to a vicious circle of chronic poverty. Although causal evidence is more limited in Bolivia, several studies confirm this link between droughts and floods, and poverty (UDAPE, 2014 and 2016).