Thursday, February 14, 2008

When it rains it pours

When Janaki and I were living in Ascensión around this time last year, the weather became kind of depressing. We had been prepared for it to be rainy, given that we were living in the Amazon Basin, but it seemed like every day it would just pour and pour. Even the people who lived there began complaining about how wet and dark and dreary it was, and commenting that it was worse than usual... probably due to El Niño. The effects of the rain on human health and food production were disastrous, as can be seen in the photos Janaki and I took of people paddling boats across their fields near Trinidad more than 2 months after the worst of the flooding was over. It turns out, unfortunately, that this year's La Niña climate phenomenon is significantly worse. The rains have caused the Amazon's tributaries to flood vast areas of the eastern lowlands, especially the department of Beni, and have displaced approximately 60 000 people and killed over 50. In Guarayos, where our project is based, the flooding has cost this years rice and yucca crops as well as pretty much anything else that people normally grow for food or clothing, devastating the local economy. Flooding has also repeatedly wiped out bridges on Bolivia's only major lowland highway, repeatedly isolating Ascensión, and leading to fuel shortages.

The devastation has reached extreme proportions in Beni, especially around Trinidad. Whereas last year, it was mostly farmland and rural communities that were destroyed, this year the waters have also breached dyke that surrounds Trinidad, a city of about 90 000 people. It's unbelievable to see pictures on the news of people paddling canoes down the streets of a city that Janaki and I were visiting less than 10 months ago. Our good friend Fanny, who invited us into her home and showed us the amazing sites of the area around Trinidad, is currently trying to cope with the fact that her home is filled with 80cm of water and that she can't leave because the roads are cut off and she's scared that people will loot whatever possessions she leaves behind. The floods have been called a National Emergency, and the international community, lead by Brazil, Venezuela and the US, has been pitching in to try to airlift stranded people to safety, and get food and safe water to the tens of thousands of people in Trinidad who are in Fanny's situation. We can only hope that international and national aid keeps pouring in to help all those whose lives have been destroyed by this catastrophe.

As if the worst national disaster to hit Bolivia in many, many years, if ever, weren't enough of a problem for the country, the eastern leaders and the central government are back at their normal game of blaming each other for the suffering of those caught in the flooding, and trying to force through their conflicting agendas to shape Bolivia's future. Needless to say, the political atmosphere is not ideal for trying to mobilize a unified effort to help those who need it most urgently.

The rains and political fenangling have halted our project for 2008 so far. When we left Ascension, we knew that the patchy, dilapidated roof on the worksite that the municipal government had donated to us was not going to serve our employees too well in the rainy season so we requested that the government help us fix the roof. They assured us that they would be working on it by the last week of may, and then repeated that it would be done soon over and over and over again until December, when they told our employees to try again in 2008. By this time, strong winds had further damaged the roof, making it completely useless, and the above mentioned downpours had rendered it impossible for our employees to mix concrete in an unsheltered area. Our employees have stepped up pressure on the government in 2008 to help us out, and they've agreed to, but since they are trying make sure they can put whatever money they can to mitigating the effects of the flooding, and are reliant on a departmental government that is in the same position, it is unclear when exactly we'll get the help we need to get the roof of the worksite re-built. In the mean time, the employees have been busy with preparing new workshops for water, filter use, and hygiene education, performing follow-up visits to check on the status of already-installed filters, helping to plan our approach to the project in 2008, and building a previsionary worksite out of a tarp and some posts that they'll use until the mayor's office finally comes through with the supplies we've been promised to allow us to fix our roof. So we're almost ready to restart in 2008, and we'll keep you posted.

Photo from BBC News online. For more flood images see:

A rare post-us-in-Bolivia photo of the project

We've always recognized the importance of images in communicating with people outside of Guarayos about our project. It can be extremely hard to visualize what our employees are working on if one has never seen Ascensión, or, for example, a Biosand filter. For that reason we tried to take as many pictures as possible during our time in Guarayos, and left a digital camera with our employees so that they could continue to send us photos with their updates. Unfortunately, the camera we left broke about a week after we left bolivia, and then repeatedly broke after it was repaired in various local shops... leaving us without any pictures since we left. In september, one of our employees was able to purchase a camera phone, giving us hope that we'd be seeing pictures sooner, rather than later. Unfortunately, his chord to upload pictures onto the computer didn't work very well... so we had to keep waiting. Suddenly in mid-December, without any explanation, we received 2 photos in our inboxes, sent to us by Roberto. Both kind of grainy... probably taken with a camera phone, presumably his. One appears to show the head of the first household in which we installed a filter wayyyy back in April 2007, smiling as she fills a glass from her still-functioning BSF. This one shows part of a family with one of the filters that were installed since we left. The young children will surely reap the, most benefit of the families' newly earned appliance... as it will protect them from the water-borne diseases that would have likely overwhelmed their immune systems and surely forced them to miss school and possibly worse.
Receiving this photo was especially welcome, as Janaki and I can sometimes forget, now that we are in Canada, that the effort we continue to put into raising the money for the project helping administer it is making a tangible difference in real people's lives.