Pasorapa: When the Well Runs Dry

Tucked away in a southeast corner of the department of Cochabamba, approximately 280 kilometers from the city itself, the small agricultural community of Pasorapa is confronted with a threat to its way of life. This menace hasn’t come in the form of a multinational corporation attempting to privatize its water or an overzealous government seeking to exploit its natural resources. Rather this community in peril has been suffering from its worst succession of droughts in recent memory, with grave consequences for their two primary sources of economic stability – agricultural production and cattle rearing. Speaking with Norman Arandia Castro, an animal husbandry expert and director of Farming and Livestock and Environmental Development for the municipality, it became clear that the magnitude of these droughts was unprecedented. “I am thirty-something years old and I’ve never seen a drought like this one. The desperation was astonishing, you know? To see how the people cried and cried…’the water tank doesn’t come to assist me’.”

Gazing at the surrounding countryside on a Democracy Center research visit in 2010, the impacts of drought on this community of five thousand are striking: cattle herds are thin and frail, corn crops are stunted and withering, and water reservoirs used for farming and livestock are bone dry. People are desperate to return to the flourishing agricultural center that Pasorapa used to be. Arandia Castro told us that “Pasorapa produces everything that you can sow…”. Everything, that is, until a few years ago when the rains slowed and then dramatically stopped, creating one of the worst drought periods experienced by the municipality on record. “There have always been droughts no?” he told us. “But not like recent years. Now during the year sometimes there are two or  three strong rains;  the rest of the time it just drizzles.”

From plenty to empty: the devastation of a farming economy

All Pasorapeños acknowledge that droughts have occurred in the past, but these last years have been noticeably different in strength and duration. A region that once was known as a breadbasket of the country has been profoundly impacted by these changes, and the effects can be seen in local community life. The success of the livestock and dairy production was once so pronounced that during the Carnival celebration marking the pre-Lenten period people would throw small balls of cheese during the festivities in place of confetti, as a sign of abundance. That has all changed now says Alberto Terrazas Pinto, a livestock herder and farmer:

“This year [2011] I don’t think we’re going to see a carnival (celebration)…look at how ugly the weather is…other years, there was corn in abundance for carnival…ooh,with the cheese that they threw in the town…. enough to whiten the streets….I remember when I was young, you could find huge extra pieces of cheese to grab. Now there’s not even any to try damn it! There are not even cows. When it doesn’t rain there is nothing, if it rains…uff there is plenty.”

As Alberto says, without rain, everything suffers. In total 10 municipalities in the department of Cochabamba were affected by the droughts, although the municipality of Pasorapa was the most severely impacted. It was the first to declare a local state of emergency, in May and then again in July of 2010, making appeals to national authorities for assistance. During the drought livestock were dying off by the hundreds, due to the lack of water and feed to maintain theherds. By the end of the dry season the municipality had determined that over 1,000 cattle had been lost. The economic impacts of these losses can hardly be understated. In a poor country with limited financial resources, for much of the population simply losing a few of their herd can spell financial ruin. Each cow costs between two and three thousand Bolivianos (roughly three to four hundred dollars). Lucia Moscoso struggled to save a cow that had fallen into a ravine in a futile search for water. She spent precious savings hiring transport to move the wounded animal back to her land, where she attempted to nurse it back to health for over two months. In the end it succumbed to its injuries and the dry conditions, as did six others in her herd of 45. And of the remaining 39, she explained with a look of preoccupation, “Now those (cows) that there are, are thin and haven’t recovered up till now…” Relative to other livestock farmers in the community, Moscoso has been fortunate to have only lost six cattle. Others were not so lucky. Eduardo Lira Flores told us that most years there are losses, but never this pronounced. “In regular years, yeah, some 10 percent die, but especially in these years 20 or 30 percent of everyone’s (herd) has died…this year in particular it has happened.”

National aid: gaps in government capacity

The economic vulnerability of the country is manifest in more than just the direct impacts to the population. Intense shocks to the local economy caused by climate-related disasters are particularly difficult to surmount when the government doesn’t have the resources to adequately respond. A lack of funds for disaster relief at the federal and municipal level can significantly hamper relief efforts or impact political decisions on how to respond to these crises. In November 2010 Pasorapa’s mayor, Cinthia Ávila, went to Cochabamba lobbying for Assembly members to declare the municipality a ‘disaster zone’. Such a classification would have brought more financial and technical assistance to the community to overcome these grave losses. The Assembly was slow in issuing a decision, waiting for further impact assessments on the severity of the droughts. Ávila was quoted as saying, “Until the Assembly takes a favorable decision I’m not leaving Cochabamba with my hands empty, as my people suffer from the consequences not just of the drought but of poverty (as well).” Poverty rates in rural areas often exceed that of their urban counterpart and are subject to wide fluctuations. This variability is due to the fact that much of the income of rural populations is based on the production and sale of primary goods. In rural areas extreme poverty rates have hit as high as 75 percent (in 2000), but have recently been brought down to 48.1 percent (by 2009) (UDAPE, 2009: 31). Increasing frequency of extreme climate events will undoubtedly make this unpredictability in income even worse in rural areas.

The federal and local governments made promises to mitigate the effects of the crisis in Pasorapa through the provision of water resources and drilling of new wells, as well as the building of new reservoirs and dams. In reality though, little has been achieved. Arandia Castro sat before us paging through a binder filled with letters from affected community members imploring their local government for assistance in dealing with the crisis. There was huge concern from the mayor’s office that the support they can offer would not be sufficient. “There is a tremendous worry on the part of the mayor’s office no? Because we have to do something. And in association with those things, day by day people  are asking (the office) to drill more wells, and it’s clear that this isn’t going to cure or resolve the problem…” When there is such an overwhelming demand for aid and a limited supply of economic resources available, the local government is left in an untenable position. They know that almost everyone has been affected by the droughts, but some have lost almost everything and need to be prioritized: “What I had to do – in terms of  [ensuring] equality I had a list, and that list couldn’t be altered.”

In the municipality there have been many studies and assessments, but not much investment from the local or federal government to address these problems. According to Eduardo Liga Flores, “We see that in the municipality too, there are studies that they do through the mayor’s office, through the prefect that comes. They are only studies and there is no investment, there is nothing to benefit the people of Pasorapa. Because with studies and (more) studies we aren’t going to have any practical benefit.” Many are looking for long-term solutions to their problems, not simply band-aids. One irrigation scheme that was often mentioned by community members as well as the local government official was the diverting of the Misque River to bring its waters to Pasorapa. A project of this magnitude would require huge capital investments, as Flores himself acknowledged: “A strong practical investment is needed there, that the national government would have to implement. Because the municipality doesn’t have those means…or capacity.” The realization of the project would cost an estimated $18 million, a huge sum for the federal government to provide for such a sparsely populated area.

Pasorapa’s climate migrants: a community losing its lifeblood

As we’ve seen, the intersection of poverty and extreme climate events can exacerbate the already precarious financial position of rural farmers and cattle ranchers. Bouncing back from the financial blow of losing a significant portion of their harvest or herd can be difficult, and some have resolved to migrate rather than face the possibility of another dry season like the last. Young people have been moving to the city in droves looking for opportunities that are literally drying up in Pasorapa.  ”At the root of these things,” says Liga Flores,  our youth, our children, keep on leaving for the city. We stay here, the older people, or the people with livestock that can’t move to the city to search for other opportunities. Only the tough really have stayed here to fight these weather inclemencies that afflict (us). And the youth need it, to develop themselves; they need to acquire better income to sustain their family and (therefore) have to leave.” Although the most recent census in Bolivia was back in 2001, many of the community members we spoke with were expecting the next set of data to reflect the outward migration of youth in the municipality. In general much migration from rural to urban areas results in the growth of informal settlements – places that don’t have the necessary basic services and whose vulnerability to climate events is thus heightened (UNDP, 2011: 124).

Given the general insecurity already experienced by the community, the consequences if the droughts were to intensify any more is difficult to fathom. Most don’t even want to consider the possibility. For those who dare to project into the future, they echo farmer Deterlino Hinosa’s words: “If we continue down the path we’re going, Pasorapa is going to be a disaster.”


The Drought Continues

The following news reports (in Spanish) show how the disaster in Pasorapa goes on unabated:

1. Pasorapa mitigates drought through “rain harvesting” (Nov 2013)

2. Drought destroys 80% of fodder in Pasorapa (May 2013)

3. Drought destroys 100% of crops in Pasorapa (Feb 2012)

“In Pasorapa there isn’t even water for human consumption, which is provoking massive migration to the cities and abroad. Cattle and goat livestock are dying on a daily basis; the loss of maize, potato and other crops is 100%”

- Eliseo Barriga of Pasorapa municipal council

4. Drought in Pasorapa affects 1,714ha of maize and wheat crops (Feb 2012)


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