Bolivia: Drought and floods combine to make safe water a critical challenge

Bolivia: Drought and floods combine to make safe water a critical challenge
25 March 2024

By the IFRC

(This story appeared first on the IFRC website on Friday, World Water Day)

In the last year, the Bolivian people have had to cope with devastating floods, the hottest year on record, and the most severe drought in their history.

Over two million people suffered from the lack of rain, while the storms left over 50 dead and 430,000 people affected. 

This data seems to confirm what science has been telling us for some time: Bolivia is the most vulnerable country to the climate crisis in South America (Table 1).   

The frequency and intensity of drought episodes is increasing in the highlands and plains of the country. In 2023, Bolivia experienced the longest dry period in its history, a consequence of high temperatures and the climate crisis, intensified by the El Niño phenomenon. 

In seven of Bolivia’s nine departments – La Paz, Potosí, Cochabamba, Oruro, Chuquisaca, Tarija and Santa Cruz – nearly 2 million people saw the lack of rain dry up their fields, deplete their savings and damage their physical and mental health.

The effects were particularly severe in rural areas, where income and jobs depend on agriculture and the raising of camelids, sheep and cows. Reservoirs dried up completely; potato and other staple food crops were lost; and llamas and alpacas began to get sick and even die of thirst.  

“Every time a llama dies, apart from the emotional loss, we are losing about 100 US dollars, the equivalent of what we need to live for a month in our sector,” says Evaristo Mamani Torrencio, a resident of Turco, in Oruro. 

“Per family, we lose between 15 and 20 llamas. That is a lot of money and that is a loss not only for the community, but it is also a loss for the town, because that is where the money comes from to buy our things in Oruro.“

‘Water deficit’

Water scarcity can lead to restrictions on use, an increase in its price and a decrease in its quality. This reduces the frequency by which people can hydrate themselves, weakens hygiene measures, and increases the spread of stomach and infectious diseases. 

In cases such as Evaristo’s and other communities supported by the Bolivian Red Cross, the long recovery time after drought can also lead families to make decisions with irreversible effects on their lives. These include being forced to sell their land, going into debt or migrating.

Meanwhile, in other parts of Bolivia, sudden flooding is also having a severe impact on people’s access to safe water supplies.

On 27 February, the Acre river in the city of Cobija, on the border with Brazil, exceeded its historical maximum and caused the flooding of 16 urban sectors and three rural communities.

“The landslides associated with rainfall in 90 per cent of the country contrast with a progressive annual decrease in rainfall recorded by the National Meteorological and Hydrological Service in recent years,” says Julian Perez, IFRC Programme and Operations Coordinator in the Andean countries.

“Something that concerns the IFRC is that both events, droughts and floods, have severe long-term impacts on the community, affecting food production, food security and generating water deficit and malnutrition.”


In addition to damage to fields and infrastructure, the population is already facing cases of dermatitis, respiratory infections and water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea.

They are also preparing to avoid mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue. “In the first quarter of 2024 alone, Bolivia has registered a total of 11,000 cases of dengue fever,” Perez says.

In both extreme cases, access to clean water and essential services is critical to maintain health and prevent the spread of disease.

With support from the Bolivian Red Cross and IFRC-DREF, 6,500 people affected by the droughts and floods will be able to protect themselves via improved access to safe water and they will be able to better decide how to recover from the floods by receiving cash to address their most urgent needs.

“Bolivia urgently needs to implement climate change adaptation measures, such as reforestation and the construction of adequate infrastructure, as well as improve the early warning system and support the state’s efforts to strengthen disaster management,” Perez concludes.

Bolivian Red Cross volunteers meet villagers affected by drought to discuss their needs and possible strategies for inevitably lengthy recovery. (Photo: Susana Arroyo Barrantes/IFRC)