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Bolivia Climate Screening

Multiple Authors



We were requested by the Sida helpdesk at the University of Gothenburg to prepare a background paper (10-15 pages long) for participants in a Sida meeting in La Paz in November 2008 on the impacts, adaptation and mitigation of climate change in Bolivia. The background paper complements the Bolivia Environmental Policy Brief prepared in June 2007 and will be able to expand on the issues raised in the brief, and provide a deeper analysis. In line with Sida priorities, there is an emphasis on water resources management, community forestry and issues of land tenure, as well as ways of engaging the government in dialogue on the environment and climate change.

This report was written by Tahia Devisscher and Ben Smith at SEI Oxford in October 2008.

Current Climate and hazards

Covering both the Andes and the Amazon, the climate of Bolivia is very varied, with precipitation that ranges from less than 400mm/year on the Altiplano to over 5000mm/year in Chapare, and average annual temperatures that range from 11C on the altiplano to 27.5C in the lowlands (Ministerio de Planificacion del Desarollo 2007). The high mountains of the Andes create a rain-shadow effect so the western part of the altiplano is drier than the east, and the north is wetter than the south due to its proximity to the Amazon, the presence of Lake Titicaca and its closer relationship to the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). In the lowlands precipitation decreases from NW to SE (Iwanciw 2007).

The major climatic hazards in Bolivia are drought on the altiplano and flooding in the lowlands, but landslides, hail, forest fire and extreme hot and cold temperatures all also cause damage. The climate of Bolivia is strongly modulated by El Niño, which leads to intense droughts on the altiplano and flooding on the plains. The strong El Niño event of 1997/98 caused economic damages of $530m, or 7% of GDP (Ministerio de Planificacion del Desarollo 2007).

Trends in current climate

The climate observation network in Bolivia is underdeveloped (Iwanciw 2007) and there are relatively few studies using meteorological data to look at observed changes in climate in Bolivia, however the following observations can be made:

Temperature Temperatures on the altiplano have increased significantly in recent years, at a rate of +0.32-34C /decade for the period 1975-1998 (Vuille et al 2003). Analysis shows that the coldest night-time temperatures recorded have increased at Patacayama station on the altiplano over the period 1960-2000, and also that the incidence of both cold nights (temperatures below the 10th percentile) and warm nights (temperatures above the 90th percentile) has increased over the same period (Vincent et al 2005). 74% of respondents to household surveys around Lake Titicaca felt that temperatures had increased, while none felt that they had decreased.

Precipitation Precipitation in Bolivian Amazonia has increased 15% since 1970 (IPCC 2008), while 88% of respondents to household surveys around Lake Titicaca thought that precipitation had decreased in recent years. Analysis by Vuille et al (2003) shows no clear regional trend in precipitation for the period 1950-1994, with some Bolivian stations showing an increase and some a decrease. There appears to be a trend for a more intense rainy season, but a later onset of the rains. Flooding has increased and floods have become more severe, with the 2007 floods affecting more than 800,000 people in Bolivia (Schoeren et al 2007).

Glaciers Glaciers in Bolivia have been receding at a rapid rate. Chacaltaya glacier shrank from 0.22km2 in 1940 to 0.01 km2 in 2005, and from 1992-2005 lost 97% of its volume, with the consequence that Bolivia has lost its only ski resort. Most glaciers in Bolivia are small and on current trends will disappear in the next 50 years. This is consistent with an observed increase in the 0C isotherm of 50m/decade.

Climate Unpredictability Interesting work carried out through a project funded by the Netherlands Climate Assistance Programme (NCAP) using household surveys around Lake Titicaca to gauge local perceptions of climate change seems to reinforce the changing seasonality of rainfall. Respondents were clear that the climate was less predictable than usual and that rains appear later now than they used to, sometimes only starting in December rather than August. This has pushed back the planting date and led to greater damage from frosts, as certain crops, for example broad beans, do not always have time to grow by the time the first frosts arrive in April or May. Communities in the Andean valleys also reported that rains now came later but were more intense (Rada and Iwanciw 2006).

Projections of climate change

Climate projections for Bolivia are complicated by the complex topography of the Andes, the presence of the Amazon rainforest, whose future response to climate change is unclear but which has the potential for abrupt changes which would radically alter the climate of the region, and the effect of climate change on El Niño (IPCC 2007). The lack of regional climate simulations or downscaling experiments over Bolivia make it hard to be precise about the nature of future change, especially given that Bolivia is made up 2 very different climatic regimes.

It is clear that temperatures will continue to rise and the IPCC states that the range of warming for 2081-2100 for the A1b scenario will be 1.8C-5.1C, with the median warming across the models being 3.2C. Studies have shown that in tropical areas deforestation can lead to local temperatures up to 2C higher, so in areas of deforestation these temperature increases may be greater (IPCC 2007). The IPCC gives a large range of precipitation response for the same period, from -21% to +14%, with the median showing little change. Overall there is likely to be a decrease in precipitation at the start of the rains (Sep-Oct) and an increase during the rainy season, leading to a shorter more intense rainy season (Iwanciw 2007). As shown by the analysis of Vuille et al (2003), precipitation changes will vary regionally in Bolivia, and regional climate simulations or data downscaled from GCMs are needed to explore this further.

Whether or not there is an increase in annual precipitation, the increased intensity of precipitation and extreme precipitation events, such as the events of 2006, will probably lead to more floods and land-slides. Increased seasonality of rainfall, coupled with the retreat of glaciers and higher evapo-transpiration has the potential to create severe water supply problems, particularly on the altiplano, where cities such as La Paz are dependent on glacier run-off for 30% of their water supply (IPCC 2008).

There are suggestions that climate change will mean that there are more frequent and more intense El Niño events. If this is the case then the frequency of droughts in the altiplano and floods in the lowlands can similarly be expected to increase. The likely increase in droughts, floods, and forest fires driven by high temperatures, makes preparing for and responding to disasters even more important. In this context it is important to recognise the synergies between disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation, and the potential for a coordinated approach in many areas. Much of the capacity to withstand and respond to disasters such as floods will also increase the ability of communities to deal with changes in climate.

Impacts of Climate Change

Altiplano The major issue on the Altiplano will be the problem of water availability. The cities of La Paz and El Alto rely on glaciers for over 30% of their water supply, and many of these glaciers are expected to disappear by mid century (Vergara et al 2007b). The reduction of glacier run-off along with a shorter but more intense rainy season will mean that there are not only problems of overall water supply, but importantly of how this water is distributed throughout the year (IPCC 2008). Alternative water sources, and increased water storage and efficiency will need to be implemented to ensure adequate water supply. Shorter rainy seasons and an increase in evapo-transpiration due to higher temperatures, as well as any increase in El Niño activity, may act to make droughts more frequent. The increased intensity of precipitation events will also cause more flash floods, soil erosion and land-slides, particularly on unstable peri-urban slopes (IPCC 2007).

The delayed onset of rains is already having negative effects on crop production in some areas by shortening the growing season, and more extreme events will also negatively impact on production. If issues of water availability can be overcome, however, rising temperatures have the potential to increase productivity of certain crops on the Altiplano, as low temperatures are currently a limiting factor. The spread of vector-borne diseases such as Malaria to high altitude areas where they have not previously be known (see Box 4) is a major public health concern which requires proactive preventative measures (Rada and Iwanciw 2007, IPCC 2007)

Andean Valleys In the valleys water availability is already a major issue as the pattern of rainfall has changed and increased temperatures have led to drier soils. This situation is likely to become worse in the future, with erratic rainfall and drought conditions impacting negatively on crop production and animal rearing. Increasing temperatures will also continue the observed trend of greater incidence of animal and crop pests and diseases, compounding the negative physical effects of climate change on production (Rada and Iwanciw 2007). The chemical contamination of water sources is exacerbating the problems of water availability, and will need to be addressed in order to provide enough water for irrigation and consumption. The restoration of valley ecosystems has the potential to help better regulate flows of water (PNCC 2007).

Lowlands Higher temperatures in the lowland areas of Bolivia are expected to impact negatively on crop production as crops such as soy and cotton are pushed beyond their optimum temperature thresholds (Iwanciw 2007). As mentioned by the IPCC (2007), deforestation can locally increase temperatures further so may exacerbate these changes. The higher temperatures also increase the chance of uncontrolled forest fires, such as those that caused great damage in the SAMA Biological Reserve of Tarija in 2002, and led to a state of emergency being declared in the state of Beni in 2004.

There have been severe floods in Bolivia in recent years, for example the 2007 floods caused $50m worth of damage, and affected nearly 500,000 people, and it appears that the number of floods in Bolivia is increasing (EM-DAT 2008). Although it is difficult to link this directly to climate change, it can be expected that floods will continue to be a major problem as rainfall intensity increases, and that floods will become more severe if climate change causes El Niño to become more frequent and/or stronger (IPCC 2007). Ecosystem protection and restoration can help to regulate water flows and availability, and reduce flood risk, but strong flood preparedness plans are also needed to minimise both human and economic costs.

Click here for a page detailing the impact on different sectors in Bolivia.

Capacity and Policy: Adaptation

The development of the national mechanism for climate change adaptation (MNACC) is based on preliminary vulnerability assessments that consider different climate change scenarios for the future, and the systematisation of participatory consultations and adaptation needs. As presented in the previous section, climate change impacts affect different sectors and regions in the country. Therefore, strategies to adapt to such impacts need to adopt a multi-sectoral approach. The MNACC recognizes this and hence proposes five sectoral programmes and 3 cross-sectoral programmes. These programmes were designed at the national level following a process of constant feedback from the Climate Change Departmental Committees and local base organizations. The MNACC considers a period of 10 years and will be implemented at the national, departmental and municipal levels (MPD, 2007).

To facilitate the integration of the MNAAC into national planning, the mechanisms are in line with the policies and strategies set under the National Development Plan (NDP). To support an effective integration of the MNACC programmes and the NDP policies, the MNACC is coordinated and implemented by the Ministry of Development Planning through the Vice-Ministry of Territorial and Environmental Planning and sectoral Ministries, and has the technical support of the National Programme for Climate Change. The aims of the MNACC are to: 1) respond to the national policies outlined under the NDP with sectoral and cross-sectoral climate adaptation actions, 2) consolidate participatory mechanisms by establishing an Inter-institutional Climate Change Council, 3) support the development of financing mechanisms for national development and incorporate adaptation actions, 4) integrate adaptation actions into development planning, programmes and projects, and 5) support the development of discussion and decision-making platforms to engage different actors in the development of a national climate change strategy (MPD, 2007).

Five sectoral programmes compose the MNACC and focus on:

  • water resources
  • food security
  • health
  • human settlement and risk management
  • ecosystems

These programmes are supported by three cross-sectoral programmes that facilitate the integration of climate adaptation into the development strategies of the country:

  • scientific research
  • capacity building and education
  • anthropologic aspects and traditional knowledge.

In addition, the MNACC involves a ‘mobilizing” programme to ensure that the MNACC is incorporated into national planning, and that resources are allocated properly for the implementation of strategies and actions under each MNACC programme. This section will shortly describe the adaptation programmes and strategies under the MNACC.

Cross-sectoral programmes under the MNACC

The three cross-sectoral programmes under the MNACC seek to create a better understanding and awareness of potential climate change effects, as well as building capacity to develop adaptation measures based on new information and traditional knowledge. Each of the policies comprised under the three programmes are in line with the policies established under the NDP. Strategies under the scientific research program include strengthening research capacity and research coordination among different institutions and universities to generate relevant information that can support decision-making. Strategies under the capacity building and education programme involve incorporating climate change topics in educational programmes, promoting education that show the importance of conserving nature, and creating awareness among citizens and decision-makers on climate change related-issues. This includes the development of communication activities to create social change among the population and workshops, debates and discussion platforms to build capacity among the decision makers. Finally, strategies under the programme on anthropologic aspects and traditional knowledge focus on recovering and systematizing local knowledge, supporting anthropological research on aspects related to migration flows and drivers, and incorporating local knowledge in adaptation measures and land use planning.

Linking Adaptation and Disaster Risk reduction in Bolivia

As discussed above, the likelihood is that climate change will make disasters such as drought, floods and forest fires increasingly frequent in Bolivia, so preparing for and responding to disasters will be a particularly important element of adapting to climate change. In this context it is important to recognise the synergies between disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, and the potential for a coordinated approach in many areas. The main reason for such a synergistic approach is that a proactive approach to disaster risk management will not only build capacity to withstand climate-related disasters, but will but will also create the capacity within local institutions, the active engagement of local communities and the links between different actors which will be needed to respond to slower onset climate impacts. In addition, lessons learned, and tools and methods developed by the disaster risk reduction community may have valuable applications for climate change adaptation. The reasons for a coordinated approach between the 2 fields have been detailed in many publications in recent years, and the reader is referred to Thomalla et al (2006) and Sperling and Szekeley (2005) for a full discussion on this subject.

In Bolivia, as in many countries, these 2 communities have so far worked largely in isolation, and are under the responsibility of different government ministries; disaster risk reduction is strongly supported by the Ministry for Civil Defence, whereas climate change adaptation is an isolated unit within the Ministry of Planning and Development. There is an awareness within the 2 communities of the need for further dialogue, and some collaboration has occurred in an ad-hoc manner under the NCAP project on Targets for Climate Change Adaptation. The Andean Environment Agenda for 2006-2010 also includes a target to bring the two communities closer together. One suggestion to increase collaboratoion in the Bolivia context is the establishment of a formal platform or roundtable for dialogue and information exchange to facilitate cooperation between the two communities (Iwanciw 2008 Pers. Comm.).

Capacity and Policy: Mitigation (CDM, Energy policies etc)

It must be noted that Bolivia accounts for just 0.3% of global emissions of carbon dioxide, and the International Energy Agency statistics show that for 2005 Bolivia’s per capita emissions were 1.29 tonnes/capita. This is below both the Latin American average of 2.09tonnes/capita, the world average of 4.2tonnes/capita and significantly below the OECD average of 11tonnes/capita (IEA 2008). As such, mitigation in Bolivia is a minor issue when compared to adaptation, and under any proposed international agreement to agree a global per capita emissions target, such as the 2 tonnes/capita suggested by Sir Nicholas Stern and the London School of Economics (Stern 2008), Bolivia would be allowed to increase its carbon dioxide emissions. As Bolivia is not a major emitter, any mitigation efforts in the country must be shown to have benefits for sustainable development, adaptation or ecosystem protection.

The majority of emissions in Bolivia come from deforestation and land-use change, which means that sustainable forest management must be the corner-stone of Bolivian efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. In this context it is vital that the current REDD proposals are included in any post-2012 international agreement on climate change.


Reducing deforestation is the major area where Bolivia can contribute to emissions reductions, but it should be recognised that reducing emissions of carbon dioxide is not the main reason to reduce deforestation in Bolivia, rather it is an ancillary benefit to the major gains in protecting ecosystems, biodiversity and forest livelihoods.

Bolivia has 54mha of forests, which equates to 48% of the area of the country. With 1mha certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and another 12mha in protected areas, Bolivia is a world leader in the certification of forests and sustainable forest management (CFV 2008). The national parks system in Bolivia covers around 20% of its area, which is much higher than in other Latin American countries. Despite this, over recent years deforestation has progressed at more than 250,000ha/year according to the government of Bolivia (PNCC 2006), and UDAPE (2006) state that deforestation has increased from 168,000ha/year for the period 1990-2000, to 300,000ha/year for the period 2000-2005. The discrepancy between the figures highlights the difficulty of assessing rates of deforestation. Drivers of deforestation include forest fires started to clear land, unsustainable ‘slash and burn’ agriculture and legal and illegal logging.

Afforestation, reforestation and the restoration of degraded ecosystems are all options for increasing the amount of carbon that can be absorbed by Bolivia’s carbon sinks. Agro-forestry systems can also store carbon, but their success depends on the demonstration of their environmental, social and economic benefits. No-till and conservation agriculture techniques also promote carbon storage, and at the same time create systems that are more resilient to drought.


Large reserves of natural gas have been discovered in Bolivia, with proved reserves of 27.36 trillion cubic feet, and probable reserves of 52.29 trillion cubic feet (PNCC 2006). In 2005 hydroelectricity accounted for 48% of Bolivia’s energy generation, natural gas for 32.% and oil for 17% (World Bank 2008), however the installed hydro-electric capacity has grown very little since the natural gas reserves were discovered. The decrease in run-off as glaciers continue to retreat will have a major impact on hydropower generation, and could hasten the transition towards use of natural gas. It is estimated that in neighbouring Peru, loss of power generation from a 50% reduction in glacier melt will cost at least an additional $212m a year, and although Peru is more dependent on hydropower than Bolivia, this figure indicates economic losses from glacier melt in Bolivia could be very large (Vergara et al 2007b). The exploitation of the reserves of natural gas is a key part of the National Development Plan but, as a non-renewable resource, proceeds from its exploitation must be used to diversify Bolivia’s economy and energy-mix. Transparency in dealing with the revenues from exploitation of gas is vital if the government is to meet its stated aim of using said revenues for pro-poor development.

The relevant institutions in Bolivia relating to mitigation are the Ministry of Development and Planning and the Vice-Ministry of National and Environmental Planning, both of which supervise the National Programme on Climate Change (PNCC to use its Spanish initials), and the Office for the Clean Development Mechanism (ODL in Spanish). Expand this paragraph maybe?

Key issues to consider

Water resources and management

Water availability is set to become a major issue in Bolivia, especially in the Altiplano where cities like La Paz and El Alto will lose 30% of their water supply even if demand stays the same. Technical support for an integrated water resource management plan that takes into account the effects of climate change on future water availability should be considered. Pilot projects to improve water efficiency and increase water storage would also be a useful precursor before engaging the wider population on these issues. Irrigation systems should be considered as part of these projects. Supporting the amelioration of contaminated water resources, particularly in regions where mining activities operate, would help to improve water supply. Providing support to improve sanitation services is also key to improve living conditions, particularly in the rural area.

Capacity in the Health sector

Climate change will cause an increase in vector borne diseases incidence and their expansion into new areas that were not considered endemic. Examples of this have been the outbreaks of Malaria in the Titicaca Lake region. It is important to create awareness and local capacity within the health sector to respond to these emergent threats, making sure that the implementation of the epidemiological and bioclimatic monitoring systems receives support at the national and local levels.

REDD and Community Forestry

REDD represents an enormous opportunity for Bolivia to address deforestation and land degradation, while reducing GHG emissions. Support for further studies on the implementation of REDD, and capacity building so that Bolivia is ready for REDD if it becomes operational would be useful. For example, community-based forestry activities could be supported under the initiative undertaken by the World Bank (FCPF). Studies on how to ensure that REDD acts as a pro-poor mechanism and benefits vulnerable groups are important to ensure that it fulfils its potential to both protect Bolivia’s forests and help poverty alleviation efforts.

Land colonization

The Bolivian programme of land colonization is central to the national development plan, but it is vital that this does not accelerate deforestation. It is of great importance that environmental concerns are integrated into policies on land reform. Linking innovative systems of payment for ecosystem services to land colonization might produce a more sustainable approach than the standard ‘slash and burn’ model.

Support sectoral implementation of the National Adaptation Strategy

The National Mechanism for Climate Adaptation sets out a bold cross-sectoral approach to adaptation in Bolivia. To be effective, however, different sectors will require substantial support and guidance in its implementation. Inter-sectoral cooperation and institutional capacity will need also to be strengthened. Simultaneously, local-level projects that aim at building adaptive capacity based on social learning and stakeholder participation need to be promoted to complement national-level adaptation policies.

Climate observation network

The climatological observation network in Bolivia is weak, and participation in regional research on climate is low. In order to better assess national vulnerabilities and develop adaptation strategies it is important to build a good observational network to monitor changes, and improve the capacity of the meteorological services to use climate information and undertake research on climate issues. A series of training workshops or on-line models might be a useful starting point.

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