In the Crosshairs: climate change vulnerability in Bolivia

As the crisis of climate change continues to unfold, serious attention must be given to those who are currently, or who will be in the future, the most adversely affected by its impacts. The term ‘vulnerability’ is often used when referring to these people, but what exactly does it mean? One mistake that is often made is conflating vulnerability with exposure to the risk of weather related disasters. While exposure to extreme weather (or sea level rise in the case of many small island nations or heavily populated coastal zones) certainly contributes to the vulnerability of  particular population  – whether national, regional or sub-regional – it is only one aspect of this multi-layered concept. Beyond geography, other macro and micro factors such as geopolitical influence, government capacity and economic resources can also heighten vulnerability levels. Bolivia  is uniquely situated in this sense. Living in  a country with a distinct geography, debilitating poverty rates, and a lack of political weight to influence international mitigation and adaptation policies, Bolivians sit in the crosshairs of climate change. The gravity of the situation is becoming more evident with each passing generation. Based on statistics from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), Bolivia suffered its ten worst natural disasters over the preceding three decades and has experienced a precipitous rise in disasters that would be classified as catastrophic. In other words, Bolivians are already living with the facts of climate change.

Geographic vulnerability and the El Niño effect

The simple geographic misfortune of the country is one component of its heightened vulnerability. Bolivia’s diverse topography– ranging from the altiplano (high plain) of the west with its dry, cool climate to the humid jungles of the eastern lowlands – makes it susceptible to both intense droughts and diluvial floods that can wreak havoc on agricultural yields. With farming being a key sector of the economy both in terms of employment as well as subsistence, such threats to  productivity can have grave consequences. As climate patterns shift and further exacerbate the risks and uncertainties associated with agricultural production, farmers are increasingly looking for ways to safeguard their harvests. David Wheeler’s vulnerability index measures risk relating to three key climate-related problems faced by nations worldwide: extreme weather, sea level rise, and agricultural productivity loss. Out of 233 countries, Bolivia was ranked 21st in 2008 and is predicted to be the 12th most susceptible country to extreme weather by 2013. Such a sharp rise underscores what many Bolivians already know – that climate change is real and something that is making an impact on their everyday lives right now.

More often than not, these extreme climate events have been attributed to the El Niño/La Niña weather phenomenon, the effects of which Bolivia is already predisposed to. In the last 25 years, the world has registered stronger and more frequent El Niño events. Whether this trend is representative of a new kind of El Niño - one that is exacerbated by climate change – is still unclear. Carlos Salinas, coordinator of Bolivia’s  National Climate Change Plan, seems convinced that there is a strong correlation between the intensification of El Niño events and climate change:

“What climate change has done is it has exacerbated these phenomena. So now we have every year, Niño, Niña, Niño, Niña…logically, this influences what is happening or what is going to happen…We have seen landslides, floods, more prolonged droughts. So this is the relationship that El Niño and La Niña have with climate change.”

Even prior to this intensification, El Niño has made its presence felt within Bolivia, most notably in 1982-1983 when it affected over 2.8 million people and caused damages totaling almost three billion dollars – equivalent to over 7 percent of annual GDP. These economic impacts can hardly be understated given the historic poverty levels and lack of resources available to local and federal government agencies to deal with environmental disasters.

Economic vulnerability and migratory trends

It is no surprise that a lack of economic resources can inhibit the response to or recovery from a climate related disaster. In Bolivia this dynamic plays out on a global, national, and regional level. Domestically, high levels of inequality in an underdeveloped country  indicate that some will be  far better equipped to deal with the impacts of extreme weather events than others who have less personal resources. According to Oxfam’s report Bolivia: Climate Change, Poverty and Adaptation Bolivia has a high percentage of its population  already at risk  of flooding and drought, with those most exposed being poor and indigenous. Rural farmers or cattle ranchers often cannot deal with the economic shocks  that extreme weather events cause and are consequently compelled to leave their communities in search of opportunities that cities provide.

Movement from rural agricultural areas to larger urban centers is a general international trend that is not likely to decelerate in the coming years. According to the United Nations, since 2008 half of the world’s population lives in areas classified as urban and 90 percent of  its growth in the coming decades will be in urban areas. Bolivia seems to follow this global trend: 30 years ago 64 percent of the population lived in rural areas whereas today 62 percent live in centers characterized as urban. This process of rapid urbanization can mean a lack  of urban planning and regulation due to the sheer volume of new migrants (as has happened in Quillacollo). Without zoning restrictions new settlers seek out the cheapest land available, often in precarious housing zones (PHZ) near floodplains or on steep cliff sides. Moreover, these informal housing settlements often lack adequate infrastructure  such as access to clean water or proper waste disposal methods. Urban expansion at this pace, quickened by global warming in coming decades, could make an already bad situation even worse for those ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of major climate change events.

National Government Capacity and Geo-Political Influence

In addition  to the country’s geographic particularities and lack of economic resources, the government also faces demands that it doesn’t have the capacity to meet, adding to Bolivia’s overall vulnerability. The extreme droughts that threaten the livelihoods of rural farmers, or ruinous floods that overwhelm residents in PHZs, are not easy problems to resolve. When they do occur, the government response to these disasters is often slow or inadequate. The reasons for delayed relief efforts are varied, but are generally related to questions of access or influence. Rural areas are often difficult to get to, particularly when a disaster affects an entire region, as was the case in the floods in Beni in early 2011. Without access  government agencies often struggle to provide the necessary assistance either for immediate or more long-term recovery needs.

When it comes to exerting influence on how emergency responses are carried out, this is a problem in the developed world as well. In urban settings, those most adversely affected by disasters are often also those most marginalized from political processes and  have the least influence on political decisions. Disempowered and lacking what is known as “vertical voice” or the channels to make demands on elected leaders, certain (particularly vulnerable) segments of both rural and urban populations are ignored. The absence of democratic accountability means the response from political representatives can be slow or even nonexistent.

One can see this dynamic being played out on a global level as well with regard to climate change adaptation funds or mitigation policies. Internationally, Bolivia has little political sway in the negotiations shaping the policies of major global carbon polluters. In the 2010 rounds of UN climate change negotiations in Cancún, Bolivia’s negotiation team was unable to convince even its closest allies, Venezuela and Cuba, to join it in rejecting the Cancún accord – a position it took because  of the agreement’s failure to secure more ambitious targets on mitigation policies and a stronger set of binding mechanisms. As a country in global negotiations – the outcomes of which will profoundly affect its future – Bolivia finds itself unable to catalyze action from the international community. In this way  the experience of the nation’s representatives echoes that of those Bolivians  living in periurban areas who  struggle with the economic effects of climate change and who can hardly get the attention of their elected leaders.  Pablo Salon, the ambassador to the UN, wrote after Cancún, “Bolivia is a small country. This means we are among the nations most vulnerable to climate change, but with the least responsibility for causing the problem.” As a result of the position Bolivia’s negotiating team took in Cancún, it acquired the reputation for being ‘obstructionist’ in international fora. Last November at the COP 17 in Durban, Bolivia proposed its Joint Mitigation and Adaptation Mechanism: “Sustainable Forest Life”, intended to be an alternative to market based solutions such as the UN-REDD program. To the disappointment of the Bolivian negotiating team, the proposal was shelved after receiving little attention from other negotiators, once again highlighting Bolivia’s impotence in influencing policy decisions that will have a direct impact on its current and future generations. This intersection of deep poverty, geographic location, and a serious lack of influence on policy choices at both the local and international level, makes Bolivia the quintessential example of climate change vulnerability.