Bolivia under water: Why no national disaster declared amid floods?

The Bolivian government says its massive aid operation, which includes food and tents, is well underway, but not everyone is satisfied with the response.

Bolivian Presidency/Courtesy via Reuters
An aerial view of a peripheral road that serves as the city's protection from flooding is seen partially in Trinidad, Bolivia, February 18, 2014.

Bolivia is suffering from weeks of heavy rains that are causing rivers to swell, homes to flood, and crops to rot.

More than 58,000 families have been affected over the past month, according to official counts, with 56 people reported dead. Limited reporting from isolated communities could mean the actual number is significantly higher. A lack of potable water, the destruction of crops and livestock, and the threat of mosquito-born disease all pose long-term risks.

Bolivia's government says a massive aid operation, which includes food and tents, is well underway, but not everyone is satisfied with the response. Carmelo Lens, governor of Beni, one of the country's worst-hit departments, says the government should declare a regional disaster and allow a broad range of international aid organizations into the area, as it did in the past.

Bolivia's minister of defense, Ruben Saavedra, has rejected Mr. Lens' request, and said the government will distribute national and international aid to affected areas. Severe flooding is a fairly frequent occurrence in Bolivia, and some observers say that President Evo Morales is determined to prove that Bolivia can successfully manage its own relief efforts during an election year. 

Bolivia's lowlands are traced by broad, winding waterways that serve as lifelines for hundreds of remote riverside villages, many of which have been inundated by unusually high waters. "I lost all my kitchen things, the river washed away the gas tank, and my house collapsed," says Basilio Vie, a member of the 36-family indigenous Tsimane community of Altagracia, which is located in Beni.

Mr. Vie, his wife, and their two children fled the community six days ago to the town of San Borja, fearing the Maniqui river would rise even more.

Government aid is now reaching many towns and cities via helicopter and plane, but the Bolivian lowlands are a vast, hard-to-reach area dominated by small indigenous and campesino, or farming, communities. One of the biggest problems for flooded communities is access to drinking water, because rivers filled with rotting animal carcasses and sewage have inundated wells and other sources of potable water. 

As the rainy season winds down next month and waters begin to recede, another challenge will be mosquito-born disease: damp earth expands breeding grounds for mosquitoes that can carry dengue fever. 

"As dire as the situation is for campesino and Tsimane communities close to San Borja, it's really bleak for the further-out communities," says Matthew Schwartz, an anthropology student at the University of New Mexico, who works with the Tsimane. He describes the difficulty of navigating high rivers to reach isolated communities as "mind-boggling," and says the loss of crops is especially severe.

"Some of the communities are very far away. A lot of them don't work in a wage economy, they don't have access to money, and they engage in subsistence horticulture. The destruction of crops will really affect them," Mr. Schwartz says.

It's not just the loss of subsistence crops, many of which cannot be replanted until late this year, and disease that will have long-term effects in the Bolivian lowlands. Across the region, raising cattle is an important source of income, and the herds can be a family's main asset. To date, some 48,000 cattle have drowned or starved to death, according to reports in the national press.

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