Bolivia and Britain - a tale of two floods

| 11th March 2014
Before the rain: Laguna Colorada, Bolivia. Photo: Robin Fernandes via
Before the rain: Laguna Colorada, Bolivia. Photo: Robin Fernandes via
Living between southern England and Bolivia, Maddy Ryle finds inconsistent media attitudes in reporting extreme weather and climate change - and searches out new narratives that engage and empower communities across the world.
We that need to build bridges of solidarity between and among ourselves and fight for real change.

In a recent blog a Bolivia-based climate commentator referenced media commentary on the aftermath of floods in the UK - as a way of drawing comparison with the extreme weather that has been causing devastation in parts of Bolivia in the last few weeks.

I normally live in the south of England but have been in Bolivia during this torrential period for both countries. The impact in both places has been severe, but undoubtedly more so here, in South America's poorest nation.

The flooding in Bolivia - particularly dire in the Beni region that borders Brazil in the northeast - has resulted in close to 60 deaths, affected close to 60,000 families (including many homes lost entirely), and done away with nearly 40,000 hectares of crops and around 100,000 head of cattle in this significantly agricultural economy.

Increasing severity

Floods are not unusual in Bolivia (or in the UK), although their severity and regularity in recent years is something new. I work for an organisation here that was doing field work back in 2010 about floods, drought and glacier loss.

The work focused on the fact that Bolivia was an 'early impact' country for the effects of climate change, and that its matrix of vulnerabilities (geographic, topographical, economic, social and political - amongst others) mean that as climate change gathers pace, people in Bolivia are going to be exposed to a wide range of problems and insufficient resources to deal with them.

Now maybe we don't need to talk about 'early impact' countries any more. The extreme weather that we are witnessing across the globe, in rich countries and poor - and especially in the last couple of months - has put climate change back in the headlines, or at least the comment pages.

Are we worried about money? Or people?

Of course, it is notable (and infuriating) that it takes a flood in southern England or a drought in California to do that, when Bolivians, Pakistanis, Somalians, Filipinos and millions of others exposed to the deadly combination of poverty and climate change have been suffering for some time now.

And it remains the case that people in the so-called 'developing world' will always be harder hit by these events. As British Prime Minister David Cameron and the UK insurance industry knows, it costs money to deal with the impacts of flooded businesses and homes, the loss of crops, the cleaning up ...

It also costs money to take measures to prevent these occurrences. Bolivia's president Evo Morales was quick to emphasise the responsibility of the "powers" - the rich industrialised countries of the global North - to deal with the climate crises affecting the global community.

We that need to build bridges of solidarity between and among ourselves and fight for real change.

Physician, heal thyself

But there have been others in Bolivia who have turned the spotlight on the government itself, asking that it assume some mantle of responsibility.

Various commentators have pointed to the administration's lack of preparedness despite the fact that some flooding occurs virtually every year during the rainy season in Bolivia.

Others point the finger at the rapid rate of deforestation in Bolivia's Amazonian region, which both alters the country's local climate and causes erosion that worsens the impact of heavy rains.

Hydroelectric projects across the border in Brazil are also thought to be contributing to the severity of flooding further down on the Río Beni.

Mixed into all that are some complicated domestic politics which see some accusing the Morales government of being wilfully slow to offer the needed help to the Beni (including in its refusal to declare the region an official disaster zone) or various indigenous communities for, it is claimed, partisan reasons.

It is hardly the first time of course - just think Katrina - that we have seen accusations of official prejudice intermingling with climate-related states of emergency.

The climate change agenda

Both domestic and international climate politics will undoubtedly be thrown into relief as adaptation now rises urgently up the agenda, just as the world gears up for the meeting that will supposedly decide a new raft of global policy on climate change in Paris next year.

Recent impacts in the wealthy nations have produced a moment of increased, long-overdue consensus and public discourse on the reality of climate change. John Kerry called it a "weapon of mass destruction", and military personnel in both Europe and the US is issuing stark warnings about its impact on national security.

Yet one wonders whether the implications for the climate-spend agenda will be so positive for those of us who still push for justice.

Even though it was dismissed by the UK Government, the fact that one popular British paper was petitioning for foreign aid to be diverted to help domestic flood victims is perhaps an early warning sign of the kinds of pressures that will be brought to bear as extreme weather takes an increasing toll on national resources.

The Green Climate Fund - where's the money?

The Green Climate Fund - the international money pot designed to fund global solutions to climate change - has been agonisingly slow to get filled and activated - and there are legitimate fears about its capture by corporate interests.

It seeks to raise around $100 billion of donations from across the globe, which sounds like a lot of money. But to put things in perspective, the US Congress passed a $60bn aid bill just for the the clean-up of Hurricane Sandy.

Financial crisis or no financial crisis, it seems it is political will that is lacking when it comes to international solidarity on the problem of climate change, not the hard cash itself.

So as we look to a future in which extreme weather and all its concomitant impacts on humanity are only set to increase, how do we proceed from a basis of solidarity and not selfishness?

Increased genorisity cannot be taken for granted

As climate change hits ever harder it will be politically easy for politicians in countries like the UK to withhold adaptation funds in order to look after 'their own'.

And it will be politically easy for countries like Bolivia to keep pointing the blame at those Northern politicians for the sufferings of its own people while continuing to drag their feet on their own mitigation efforts at home.

Historical responsibility for emissions is real and the inequality in terms of resources is stark. Yet the fact is that the powers that be - leaders of all stripes, and the corporations that buy their goodwill in order to continue extracting, polluting and profiting - are failing flood victims in Bolivia, Britain and elsewhere.

And wherever they are, it is always the most vulnerable that suffer the most. When it comes to climate change it is ordinary people across the globe - 'the 99%' - that risk getting shafted by the selfishness of these elites.

One way or another, our man-made eco-disaster will affect us all in the end. It is we that need to build bridges of solidarity between and among ourselves and fight for real change.

As Vanessa Spedding recently wrote in The Ecologist, the time has come for a new narrative on climate change. Solidarity is built on hope, and too much of the current discourse on climate produces inertia through despair or dislocation.

A media bias? Resilience abroad, suffering at home

In an interesting piece of reportage on a recent study it was found that the Western media tend to use images that display human resilience when reporting on climate change impacts in 'faraway' places, while they use images of suffering when the story is about those closer to home.

The implication is that natural disasters are part of life for those in 'other' countries: there is nothing to be done and anyway - they'll survive one way or another. Which of course a great many don't.

Overall the report found that images of weather-related destruction actually tended to turn people off engagement in the issue of climate change; the pictures lack agency and induce a sense of hopelessness.

It seems we all know that the 'doom and gloom' scenario is not strategic nor empowering, so the question now is how do we tell the stories and make the connections on climate change that do enhance agency and do promote empathy and collective action?

Narratives of empowerment

My organisation, the Democracy Center, is engaged in raising narratives about climate change in Bolivia. Some of our recent work focuses on resilience; we are also acutely aware of the real vulnerabilities and threats that those same communities face.

What is clear is that there is much that could be usefully shared in all directions between people trying to find genuine solutions to the climate crisis and its causes, both in terms of adaptation / resilience and mitigation.

Our hope is that together we can find a new way of telling this story (and thank you to Spedding for her ideas on this score) that empowers all those threatened by climate change to challenge those who profit from maintaining the status quo - wherever they may be.



Maddy Ryle is the Communications Director for the Democracy Center. Follow us @DemocracyCenter



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