Severe Drought in Bolivia Threatens Food and Water Supply for Thousands

by Ella

Bolivia, a nation known for its stunning landscapes and diverse ecosystems, is currently grappling with a dire water crisis that has left thousands of families in fear of running out of food and water. Seven of the country’s nine departments are currently experiencing severe drought and a concerning lack of rainfall. This crisis has hit particularly hard in the Andean region, jeopardizing the livelihoods of over 200,000 families. The water shortage, exacerbated by climate change, has taken a devastating toll on agricultural production and livestock, plunging many into a precarious situation.

The government of Bolivia has responded to this emergency by initiating a series of comprehensive measures and investments. The dire situation is expected to persist, with 2024 projected to be even drier due to the looming El Niño phenomenon.


María Eugenia Chuquimia, a resident of Lorocota, a community located nine miles north of La Paz, expressed her deep concerns about the ongoing drought, stating, “This drought… my biggest fear is running out of food and water.” María and her family rely on their small farm for sustenance, but due to the severe lack of rainfall, the Bolivian authorities have imposed water rationing measures. As a result, the Chuquimia family can no longer water their crops, and their household receives only two hours of unpurified spring water each day.


Nora Condori, another resident of Lorocota, shared similar worries, explaining that they must ration water rigorously, washing their clothes in a polluted river due to the absence of clean water. Both women engage in organic farming, cultivating lettuce, potatoes, and oca, an Andean tuber similar to yam, which they sell in La Paz. Their use of natural pest control methods distinguishes their products, but the lack of rainfall threatens both their crops and the fight against pests. María Chuquimia warned, “If it doesn’t rain, we can’t plant, the potatoes won’t grow, and if we can’t water the fields, pests become even more problematic. If this persists, Bolivia may face a famine.”


Bolivia’s Andean regions have been grappling with insufficient rainfall since 2016, leading to the declaration of disaster areas in Oruro and emergency statuses in La Paz, Cochabamba, and Chuquisaca. Potosí and Tarija have also been severely impacted. In Santa Cruz, the nation’s largest department, some municipalities have already begun water rationing. This region plays a pivotal role in Bolivia’s economic engine, accounting for 61% of the country’s food production, much of which is intended for export.


Bolivia has witnessed a concerning 28% decrease in rainfall over the last five years, as per a recent report from the country’s National Institute of Statistics. In 2018, the annual rainfall measured 9,941 millimeters but plummeted to 7,192 millimeters in 2022. Between January and August of the current year, only 4,882 millimeters of precipitation have fallen.

La Paz, the nation’s capital, home to more than two million people residing at an altitude of over 11,800 feet, has chosen not to implement water rationing measures despite its reservoirs being only 50% full. Instead, authorities encourage changes in water usage habits, such as using less water for laundry and bathing and irrigating public parks with gray water.

Potosí, a city with around 850,000 inhabitants, faces a severe water shortage, leading to the declaration of a department-wide emergency. The city has resorted to water rationing as its 27 reservoirs and lakes, its primary water sources, are expected to run dry by December. Potable water distribution has been halved, and the irrigation of parks and gardens has been banned.

The Vice Ministry of Civil Defense reports that the drought in Bolivia has impacted 200,871 families in 144 of the country’s 336 municipalities. The government has allocated $17 million to combat the current drought and is implementing over 800 water, sanitation, and irrigation projects. Furthermore, an emergency program now supplies large-volume water tanks (300-1,300 gallons) to many affected municipalities.

Agricultural production and food security are in jeopardy, with more than half of Bolivia’s population currently facing food insecurity, particularly in rural areas, according to Save the Children. Extreme weather events, including drought and a lack of irrigation water, have devastated the country’s agriculture and livestock sectors. In 2022, Bolivia produced 4.5 million tons of its main food crops, including soybeans, sorghum, corn, wheat, and sunflowers, marking a 5% decrease from the previous year.

Carla Cordero, a social policy analyst with the Jubilee Foundation, stressed the critical role of climate change in this crisis, stating that “The impacts of climate change — drought, cold fronts and lack of irrigation water — make it harder for Bolivians to produce food.” The majority of the agricultural production in drought-affected Andean regions is consumed locally, which, in turn, affects market prices and food security. Families in extreme poverty are unable to access enough good-quality food for proper nutrition, further exacerbating the situation.

A chorus of voices in Bolivia, including farmers and religious congregations, has turned to prayers and pilgrimages in hopes of bringing rain. They seek divine intervention from Pachamama (Mother Earth in Aymara) and the God of the Bible, beseeching for life-giving rainfall.

Meteorologists are warning of further challenges in the coming years, with the El Niño phenomenon expected to exacerbate climate changes in early 2024, leading to below-normal rainfall in the Andean regions and prolonged drought conditions, along with high summer temperatures. Bolivia has already experienced unusually high temperatures in recent months, with La Paz reaching its highest temperature since 2010 at 81.5 °F (27.5 °C) in September. In Villamontes, a town in southern Bolivia, temperatures soared to 113 °F (45 °C) in August, setting a record for the highest winter temperature in the Southern Hemisphere.

Michelle Vásquez, head of SENAMHI’s agriculture unit, expressed concerns about human contributions to climate change, noting that “Regrettably, humans are one of the most damaging species on Earth. Our high emissions of pollutants directly affect the climate and have a global impact.” Experts emphasize the need for short, medium, and long-term public policies that involve both government and community participation to address the water crisis. Failure to act decisively will only deepen social vulnerability throughout Bolivia.



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