Bolivia: Impacts by Sector

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani 25th March 2011 19:17


This page looks at the impacts of climate change on different sectors in Bolivia. It forms part of a larger report produced by Tahia Devisscher and Ben Smith in November 2008 as background to inform Sida's work in Bolivia. The rest of the report is here.

Bolivia’s dependence on natural resources is high with primary agricultural production contributing almost 13% to the GDP (Iwanciw, 2007). Two decades ago, the global mining crisis led to economic diversification of the country and the development of two productive sectors in addition to mining: the exploitation and industrialization of natural gas, and forest resources (UDAPE, 2006). In 2006, the gas and oil industry represented about 6% of GDP and at present, the forestry sector contributes more than 3% of GDP and 7% of employment (Iwanciw, 2007; Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). The income earning opportunities gained from primary production has placed natural resources at the centre of the National Development Plan (MPD, 2006). To redistribute incomes, the NDP proposes channelling increasing revenues from gas and mining to agriculture, forestry and other primary production sectors that generate employment (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007).

Bolivia is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to its dependence on natural resources for economic growth. Both the forestry and agriculture sectors are highly climate sensitive, and although mining and hydrocarbons are not directly affected by climate change, they have an effect on the local environment jeopardizing the capacity of the local population and natural systems to cope with climatic variability and extremes. Although climate change affects each productive sector differently, the trend in past decades shows an increase in the negative impacts caused by climatic variability and extremes at the sectoral level (MPD, 2007). This section describes the main implications of climate change for the mining and hydrocarbon, water, forestry, agriculture and health sectors, underlining the effects on poverty reduction and sustainable development.

Mining and Hydrocarbon Sector

Although the hydrocarbon and mining sectors are not directly sensitive to climate change, they play a significant role in the environmental quality of the country. On the one hand, mining activities have been major sources of pollution in various important watercourses of the country, and given the increase in global mineral prices, mining activities are estimated to grow in the future. If water becomes scarce due to climate change, water protection and quality improvement will be key preventive measures, and mining activities will need to be controlled to minimize the discharge of heavy metals into rivers. Moreover, mining concessions are operating within indigenous territories and national parks, affecting ecosystem services, livelihoods and biodiversity. This affects the adaptation mechanisms of communities that are directly and indirectly affected by mining operations. On the other hand, while increasing exports and royalties are raising the revenues from the hydrocarbon sector, the oil and gas boom has had negative environmental and social impacts for many local communities in Bolivia. Key environmental impacts include deforestation, pollution of water basins and drinking water, untreated waste discharge and loss of biodiversity. Moreover, recent oil spills in 2000 have caused some of the worst environmental disasters in the country. The hydrocarbon sector is not only detrimental to the resources that provide important repositories for vital livelihood resources and ecosystem services that are key for adaptation to climate change, but also an important source of carbon emissions.

Water Resources

Over the past two decades, changes in the distribution of annual precipitation have caused excess and/or deficit of water resources impacting different regions and productive sectors of the country. Even without the influence of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) droughts have become more frequent and intense in the highlands and valleys of the country and floods have severely affected land, agriculture and population in the lowlands in recent years (MPD, 2007).

Moreover, temperature rise has caused a retreat of the Andean glaciers. Glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate in Bolivia, and amny are expected to disappear in the xoming decades (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). This has several implications for the highlands and cities located in the west of the country. Glacier melting has resulted in an increase of the stream flow during the wet season and a decrease of runoff during the dry season. This situation is stressing agricultural activities in the highlands and placing great pressure on water availability for consumption and energy generation for the western region of the country (MPD, 2007; Iwanciw, 2007). The National Program for Climate Change estimates that in less than 30 years, melting of the nearby glaciers will reduce water supply for La Paz city by 35% (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007).

The water sector in Bolivia currently faces great challenges that can be exacerbated by climate change. For example, demand for water resources is increasing especially for irrigation, industry and electric power generation (MPD, 2007). As a result of changes in water availability crop productivity may decrease, and electric power generation may fall short in fulfilling the increasing demand for energy in cities such as La Paz and El Alto (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). Water availability for human consumption represents a particular challenge, since around 2.3 million people lack access to improved drinking water and nearly 5 million people lack access to sanitation (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). Water scarcity, particularly in semi-arid mountainous regions may hamper government efforts to improve water and sanitation coverage.

Another important issue is river water pollution which causes human health problems in different locations of the country. Key sources of pollution are discharges from mining activities, agricultural runoffs, and untreated wastewater from industry and households. Mining is one of the major sources of water pollution causing high concentrations of heavy metals in waterways that negatively affect agriculture, cattle-breeding, and fisheries (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). Climate change can threaten water quality as the concentration of pollutants increase in reduced water flow. This can negatively affect productive activities and human health at accelerated rates.


Although most of the land in Bolivia is not suitable for agriculture, approximately 40% of the economically active population is engaged in the agriculture and livestock sectors, reaching up to 80% in the rural areas (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). The soils both in the highlands and the lowlands have little depth and are fragile, having more suitable conditions for forest vegetation cover rather than for intensive agriculture. Currently, overexploitation of soil resources in the highlands and valleys and expansion of cattle-grazing and cultivation for export such as soybean in the lowlands are the main factors for land degradation in the country (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). Between 1954 and 1996, soil erosion increased by 86% affecting 45% of the total land mass and up to 70-90% of land in the valleys (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). This situation, exacerbated by the lack of security in land tenure and unequal land distribution, has been detrimental to the improvement of productivity in Bolivia.

Climatic variability and extremes are negatively impacting agriculture. Rising temperatures and changes in precipitation distribution are affecting the physiology and growth of crops as well as their sensitivity to pests and plant diseases (Iwanciw, 2007). In the northern highland region, for instance, the rainy season has become shorter and droughts more frequent in the period of crop flowering and fruit formation. This has directly impacted production by reducing productivity. In the Vallegrande region increasing rain intensity has increased the exposure of crops to pests and plant diseases, also negatively impacting yield and revenues. Similarly, climatic variability and more frequent extreme events have affected cattle-breeding and fisheries that also represent an important source of income in the rural areas.

A decrease in production has negative effects on food security. Due to the fragile physiographic conditions of the country, the state of the land and water resources, and the precarious agricultural systems, food security in the country is highly vulnerable to climate change effects. Moreover, a great part of the rural population depends on agriculture for subsistence and as their main source of income generation (MPD, 2007). As a result, climatic variability and more frequent extreme events not only pose a high risk for food security, but represent a threat to poverty reduction objectives in the country.


Almost half of the Bolivian territory is covered with forest, making up more than 53 million hectares. The forestry sector accounts for more than 3% of the GDP and in 2005 generated around USD 140 million in exports (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). The state of forests is highly influenced by land reform processes and agricultural development. The new Forest Law, issued in 1996, has set the conditions to improve the management of forests and biodiversity conservation practices in the country (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). Although illegal activities are still a challenge, to date 8.5 million hectares of forest are exploited under concession following a forest management plan and 2.2 million hectares are certified under the Forest Stewardship Council. This has converted the country into the world leader in certified natural forests (CFV, 2008).

Improvements in the forest sector can be jeopardized by climate change. Changes in temperature and precipitation regimes alter the distribution and composition of forests, affecting biodiversity and ecosystem services and goods (MPD, 2007). Forest ecosystems in Bolivia currently face degradation processes that can be accelerated by climatic variability and extremes. Deforestation has increased over the past decades from an estimated 168,000 hectares annually 1990-2000 to around 300,000 hectares annually 2001-2005 (VMRMA, 2006). In turn, forest fragmentation increases the vulnerability of forest ecosystems to cope with climatic changes, affects ecosystem services (e.g., micro climate and water regulation), contributes to carbon emissions, and accelerates the process of biodiversity loss in the country. Furthermore, drier conditions in the lowlands have contributed to forest fires affecting the livelihoods of indigenous and local groups living from forest resources. Since 2000 the incidence of forest fires has increased reaching an area of 245,597 hectares in 2002 (Iwanciw, 2007).

Although some effects are clear, there is a lack of knowledge of the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on biodiversity, forestry resources and ecosystem services in the lowlands and the natural capacity of these ecosystems to adapt to climate change.


The correlation between health and climate is highly complex due to the multi-causal origin of the first and the multi-systemic influence of the second as a determining factor (McMichael and Kovats, 1999). Moreover, the impacts on human health caused by climate change depend on the socio-economic development and organizational capacity of a community and the state of the natural system in the area. In this sense, human health vulnerability to climate change effects is influenced by the state of the ecosystems, the level of social, institutional and technological adaptive capacity, and by the level of awareness of climate change risks.

Bolivia has a high epidemiologic profile of vector borne diseases that makes human health in the country highly vulnerable to climate change. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the existence of multiple ecosystems and microclimates in the country with suitable conditions for the development of vectors, as well as by the migration processes of people between disease endemic areas and areas that are not endemic. Climate change may increase the re-emergence of diseases that were previously under control or had already disappeared, and also the geographic and altitudinal expansion of disease endemic areas. This is particularly true in the case of vector borne diseases such as Malaria and Chagas, since the incidence and prevalence of these diseases are increasing. A preliminary evaluation at the national level estimated that climate change is a contributing factor in 27.4% of Malaria cases (11.3% produced by P. vivax and 43.6% by P. falciparum). The assessment established an increase in Malaria cases caused by P. falciparum since 1993 and in cases produced by P. vivax since 1994 (Aparicio, 2007). From 2000-2002 there were more than 62,000 cases of malaria (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007) and it is estimated that Malaria might increase its endemic area between 12 and 20% over the next decade due to climate change. The Malaria outbreaks since 1998 in the Lake Titicaca region are clear examples of the altitudinal expansion of this disease in areas that were not considered endemic due to their altitude and climatic conditions (Aparicio, 2007).

Not only will vector borne diseases expand due to climate change, but also other climate sensitive and water-related diseases. As much as 80% of the country’s diseases are estimated to be transmitted in water which contributes to the high rate of child mortality (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). With an infant mortality rate of 5.7%, two times the average in Latin America, Bolivia ranks low in the region in terms of health indicators. Child diarrhoea is the principal reason for mortality, especially in the rural areas. Also, respiratory infections affect more than 20% of children under the age of 5 and represent a key environment-related health problem (Slunge and Jaldin, 2007). Strong changes in precipitation patterns, water availability and temperature are increasing the risk of acute diarrheic diseases and acute respiratory infections, particularly in rural areas and poor communities where access to improved drinking water and sanitation is deficient (MPD, 2007).

Malaria in the Lake Titicaca region

The cases of Malaria outbreaks in the municipalities of Mocomoco, Ancoraimes, Batallas and Carabuco are vivid examples of the vulnerability of human health to climatic variability and extremes in the highlands. In 1998 the disease impacted oncommunities in non-endemic areas. During the Malaria outbreak the local authorities and communities communicated the situation to the health centres in the area. The centres lacked capacity and equipment to respond to this type of emergency, however, three medical campaigns were carried out in Tuntunani, where the majority of Malaria cases were registered, to evaluate and treat people suffering the disease. Blood samples were sent to the Epidemiological Centre in La Paz to confirm the diagnosis (P. Vivax was positive).

Surveys conducted in 2006 revealed that 71.4% of the population in the area know about Malaria, locally called “Chujchu”. At present, the local population identifies the mosquitoes as vectors of the disease. According to the locals, mosquitoes in the area appeared between 1990 and 1998.

The increase in temperature and rain intensity (within a few months) in the Lake Titicaca region over the past two decades has increased the vulnerability of the local population to vector transmissible diseases such as Malaria. The year 1998 coincides with the “El Niño” event 1997/98 that strongly impacted the region, causing an increase in temperature and in rain intensity concentrated within few months. The outbreak of Malaria during the rain season in 1998 is attributable to the climatic events of that year. The Malaria outbreak caused by the El Niño event can be seen as a proxy for further outbreaks as the climate warms.

Between 1998 and 2006 new Malaria cases appeared sporadically in the area: 10 cases in 1999, 1 case in 2001, 2 in 2002 and 3 cases in 2005. These cases suggest an altitudinal and geographical expansion of the disease associated to climate change in the area that is modifying the ecosystems and creating suitable conditions for the development of vectors. As a result, areas in the high semi-arid mountainous region of Bolivia are becoming endemic for vector transmissible diseases.

Source Rada and Iwanciw 2007

More Information

  • Case studies of adaptation in the Lake Titicaca and Vallegrande regions can be found here