Drought-hit Paraguayan Chaco gets life-saving water and hygiene

by Paola Chorna in Boquerón
When you arrive in the Paraguayan Chaco region, after an eight-hour journey west from Asuncion, the signs of widespread drought are everywhere. Another constant sight is the search for water: women carrying tin cylinders on their heads, under a hot unforgiving sun.

In the Boquerón Region, better known as the Paraguayan Chaco, there are more than 55 different native communities that speak several dialects. Only in some of them will you find leaders who speak a little Spanish or Guarani.

"We had no food. Without the Red Cross help, we would surely have died," said Amaira, a 28-year-old woman from an area called Campo Loa. One of Amaira's six children had died of drought-related disease in recent weeks.

Another resident of Campo Loa, Artemio Mejara, said the Paraguayan Chaco is experiencing its worst drought in a decade. "Conditions are desperate, many of us are so weak we can barely walk," the old man said. The disaster is having inevitable economic consequences - Atemio's only son recently lost his job as a farmer.

In Boquerón, the drought has had a particularly negative impact on agriculture, which in the Paraguayan Chaco means subsistence farming. Almost 5,000 families in 56 indigenous farming communities have been affected.

"The Jotoicha community has been devastated by a lack of water," said Andres Pablo Ojeda, the leader of the Nivacle ethnic group in Campo Loa. "Farmers have less water to use. This year we're going to see more suffering. The longer this goes on, the more serious it's going to get."

The local traditional water supply systems, called "tajamares" - excavations in non-permeable land where rainwater is collected and distributed to the community -- have dried up totally.

"The tajamares and cisterns were our lifeline. Survival without them was unthinkable," said Yakud, a young woman from the Laguna Negra community who has been attending Red Cross workshops given by health promoters. "But now, with all this humanitarian assistance and all the things that we are learning, such as the importance of boiling the water, and the construction of water tanks, things are going to improve," she added.

"People drink the waters of the river or the tajamares which has now began stagnating. There are many who have died of water-borne diseases after drinking these waters," Yakud complained.

Food and water distribution has been a key part of the International Federation operation in Boquerón. Fifty-one water collection and storage systems are being built, while trained hygiene promoters are trying to raise awareness about how to prevent diarrhoeal diseases.

These water deliveries and hygiene information were accompanied by food deliveries, but before this essential nutritional assistance arrived, people were forced to eat the roots of wild plants for a week. "They developed diarrhoea and could not recover - their bodies had already wasted away due to the lack of nourishment," says Valiente Mendez, leader of a nearby hamlet. "My land does not produce enough to survive so I work for a large landholder like almost all of the small farmers in this area. We do all the work and he gives us a little amount of the crops," he related.

However, early forecasts indicate that the harvest is likely to be well below normal. In the middle of what is usually called "the rainy season", there is still no sign of those much- anticipated rains.

"Our job is to focus on education. That's really the root of the whole water problem in the Chaco communities," said Robert Pelayo, one of the Paraguayan Red Cross volunteers and health promoters. "If people learn to boil and conserve water and put in practice some of the things we teach them about hygiene promotion, we wouldn't have such a big problem."

Since October 2002, the Paraguayan Red Cross has been coordinating closely with the International Federation's regional delegation for South America in Lima, as well as its Pan-American Disaster Response Unit, based in Panama. In addition, the Spanish Red Cross is one of several organizations carrying out relief activities in the affected region.

Drought response has historically consisted of reactive "crisis management". The Paraguay drought has confirmed the feeling that public and private sectors must adopt a more proactive approach to dealing with drought. It is never a matter of if, but rather when the next drought will occur, and better preparation usually equates to a better response.