Quillacollo: The Voices Behind the Numbers

Outside of Bolivia, the city of Quillacollo is hardly a well-known metropolis. Once a small, rural outpost to the more bustling departmental capital of Cochabamba, Quillacollo has witnessed exponential population growth over the last decade. While there hasn’t been an official census since 2001, estimates based on new water hook-ups and electricity connections indicate the city has surpassed 300,000 residents. Council president Gilmar Terrazas believes that close to 50 percent of residents are migrants. This population boom carries with it a litany of problems for the development of adequate infrastructure. Settlements are expanding in periurban areas which often lack access to basic sewage and sanitation services as well as potable water. In Quillacollo many of these new city residents have located in areas susceptible to flooding due to their proximity to the River Rocha. Settling in areas close to the flood plain is a gamble that some have no choice but to take. Such was the case for Fortunato Torrico Guzmán who chose a home on the Western side of Martín Cardenas Avenue in the neighborhood of Providencia, thinking it was the best option available:

“This never happened before. Before there was land fit for sowing on both sides (of the main road). On the other side there was more sown land and so I didn’t want to buy land on that side, because the level of the earth was very low. In 1965 or 68 the river burst its banks and all the houses on that side fell down. They removed the pigs and sheep. However the water didn’t cross the main road because it went towards the sown land on that side of the road. But now that they have built the road, on the other side where before it was cultivated and the earth was very low, people have gone buying lots and have filled the space with earth, to the level of the road. Before, since the earth level was low, the water didn’t reach to this side – but now it passes over to this side…Now there isn’t even alfalfa for the cattle. And they are bringing water here from Cercado [in the city of Cochabamba] and from Vinto [a municipality next to Quillacollo].”

While flooding is typically associated with the eastern lowlands in Bolivia, particularly the Beni where in 2008 diluvial rains were the worst in 50 years, they also have serious consequences for residents living in the altiplano and surrounding valleys. On February 21st, 2011 the waters of the Rocha River, which had been rising for approximately a week due to heavy rains in the Cochabamba Valley, finally overflowed.

Residents in the neighborhood of Providencia in southern Quillacollo were awakened by a mixture of water and sewage pouring into their homes. With little time to react most were concerned with the well-being of their loved-ones, leaving many of their possessions behind. Maria Arroyo was focused on the safety of her three children and abandoned the house without taking the valuable sound equipment her family depends on for their income:

“We had an amplification system and this is what we lived off, but since the flood came at dawn we didn’t have time to save everything. Now we can’t work because we don’t have all the equipment.”

Loss of these precious resources is no easy feat to overcome and can result in financial ruin. Those who have lost their primary source of income understand what it means for their livelihoods. Fortunato Torrico lost three of his animals, two bulls and a pregnant cow. Overcome with emotion, he broke down as he told us of the morning he lost his battle with the floods overtaking his livestock:

“There were several tethered cows and with the water reaching up to the waist we couldn’t untie them. We were running. I have a bad back…”

The elderly, like Fortunato, are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of weather events due to their physical limitations. Women and children also suffer disproportionately from these disasters, as was the case in the neighborhood of Calvario. Water borne diseases are particularly acute in regions that suffer from extreme floods. Climate scientists are now suggesting that the environmental changes associated with global warming will result in the intensification of several diseases, as well as an increase in the number of cases. Other of these diseases are not water borne and are thought to be caused by migratory patterns and increased population density in urban areas. While there were no reports from Quillacollo of the dengue or typhoid typically associated with heavily flooded areas, many residents that we spoke with reported that their children had developed skin conditions and diarrhea, and were fearful of the number of mosquitoes emerging from the pools of water left behind. Caring for a sick and weak child, including the associated medical bills, is another cost inflicted on those who can least afford it.

Compounding the severity of the floods was a sanitation system unable to handle the sheer volume of water that the Rocha River would send through it. Consequently homes were filled not only with flood waters, but with some of the city’s untreated sewage as well. As the UN’s global assessment report on disaster risk reduction highlights,

‘extensive flood risk is closely linked to the increased run-off caused by new urban development, a chronic underinvestment in city-wide pluvial drainage, the location of informal settlements and social housing projects in low-lying flood prone areas and inadequate water management in the surrounding watersheds. In other words, the urbanization process not only leads to increasing exposure of vulnerable people and assets in hazard prone areas but is also responsible for magnifying the hazards themselves, particularly floods.’ (UNISDR, 2009. p72.)

While all of these impacts – sickness, loss of material wealth and means of generating income – are both physically andfinancially debilitating in and of themselves, nothing is more traumatizing than the threat of your home collapsing on your family. This is what many were facing on the morning of February 21st, 2011 and in the weeks that followed. One woman we spoke with talked about her decision to abandon her home for a camp for persons displaced by the flooding:

“In these days I was in my house and really I didn’t want to stop there. I came here because I was scared that the house would fall on me…we couldn’t sleep at night.”

At the root of these fears is the reality that many of the homes constructed in precarious housing zones (PHZs) cannot withstand heavy rains and floodwaters. Adobe – the principal construction material used for many homes in impoverished areas in Bolivia and other parts of the underdeveloped world – is not structurally the soundest material with which to build, but happens to be the cheapest. For those with scarce monetary resources adobe is often the best material available. One man from an affected neighborhood described the thinking of those who have uprooted their families to sleep in the camps set up with the help of the Ministry of Defense and the United Nations:

“The water was inside the house. It was better that we came away here [to the camp]. It was safer for the children as well. We couldn’t wait until the next day – see how [the house over there] has collapsed? The roof has fallen in…if you’re in the house it will kill you, no? They have preferred to leave their houses and sleep here.”

And who knows how long it will be until they can return. Without access to the necessary construction materials to rebuild, some have abandoned hope that they will receive assistance in rebuilding their lives. Celso Coca was forthcoming in his demands to the government authorities, imploring them for reconstruction materials such as brick or cement. He was not optimistic in his chances of receiving assistance however.

“The authorities have forgotten us. We are trying to find a few funds by collaborating between ourselves. They have planned to do a Kermes [food and drink sale] for this Sunday or next…We have to organize well and bring funds together because the authorities – I don’t know when or if they will arrive.”

Without concrete aid from some authority, domestic or international, many of these homes will be abandoned and land sold off for a fraction of what was originally invested. This may be the only solution though, as flooding in Quillacollo reached record highs again in 2012, destroying 27 homes and affecting over 350 families across the city.  Without a concerted government plan to address inadequate infrastructure, the burden of these disasters will continue to be carried by those most poorly positioned to bounce back from the emotional, physical, and economic shocks they dole out.


Return to When the Rains Fall on Quillacollo: Impacts on a Vulnerable Population