Bolivia battling floods in Santa Cruz

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Bolivian government is struggling to repair bridges and reopen roads in Santa Cruz department after torrential rains left at least one dead amidst widespread flooding in the eastern lowland region.

State highway authority ABC was working to reopen the Santa Cruz-Samaipata road, while a damaged bridge cut off the Santa Cruz-Porongo highway, state news agency ABI reported. The municipality of Santa Cruz, the regional government and the defense ministry are all providing earth-moving equipment and water pumps, it said.

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Flooding from the Pirai and Grande rivers caused the collapse of 20m of the Santa Cruz-Porongo highway as well as landslides along the road to Cochabamba, Santa Cruz's regional government said in a statement.

Lake Guapilo and several canals overflowed in the city of Santa Cruz after 180mm of rain fell in the area, flooding homes in eight districts, causing power outages and halting public transport, according to meteorological service Senamhi. The service also declared alerts in Cochabamba, Beni, Pando and Tarija departments.

Two more local residents drowned in the flooding, while a bus crash left six dead due to the bad state of the Santa Cruz-Cochabamba road, according to local newspaper El Deber.

Santa Cruz, the country's largest department, is a major soybean, coffee and cattle region, and home to oil and gas fields and the El Mutún iron ore mine.

The flooding in Santa Cruz, which covers 33% of Bolivia's territory, comes after the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expected impacts from the La Niña phenomenon in Peru and Ecuador.

Bolivia's government has been focusing its efforts on water projects after severe drought last year forced state water utility Epsas to restrict water services in capital La Paz, a highland city of 800,000 inhabitants.

President Evo Morales, who declared a national emergency and sacked his top water officials for failing to warn the government about the lack of water supply, is accelerating potable water and sewerage projects after the country battled its worst drought in half a century in late 2016.

The drought extended into 2017 and forced the government to spend all of last year figuring out how to store more water - and failing to plan for eventual flooding as a result.

The government, which completed the US$146mn Misicuni reservoir in March, has invested an additional 980mn bolivianos (US$142mn) in potable water and irrigation systems over the past decade, according to the environment and water ministry.

The eastern Andean region over the past year suffered the effects of both global warming and the La Niña phenomenon, where cooler ocean temperatures cause drought in the highlands. Morales is in the process of seeking US$500mn in international emergency aid to invest in potable water and irrigation infrastructure.