Fire in Cochabamba’s mountains

Letter From...
Bolivia

Cochabamba is in a valley, cupped tightly in the hand of the Andean cordillera. From everywhere in the city, you can see the green mountains of the Tunari National Park stretching into the distance. One Sunday night, I noticed a bright string of lights climbing the hillside. I had heard there were some informal settlements quite high up, so I assumed streetlights had just been installed there.

It wasn’t until the next day that the smoke and ash started to cloud the city centre. They weren’t street lights: the mountainside was on fire. Throughout the day, firefighters rushed to the fire and two helicopters dropped water on the site. People were urged not to go and tackle the blaze themselves, but to bring sweets (for a quick energy fix) and other essentials as donations to the fire station in town.

Cochabamba fire. Illustration by Sarah John
Illustration by Sarah John

Sheep and dogs were caught in the flames and isolated cottages high up the hills were destroyed. Local media reported that, in the year to mid-August, 2,860 hectares had been damaged by 19 fires in the Cochabamba department. This isn’t the first time there have been fires in the mountains around Cochabamba: they have happened for several years running. Hiking last year in Tunari, the vast national park of mountains and forests that surrounds Cochabamba, we passed through an eerie area where all the trees’ trunks were a uniform, blackened colour: a reminder of the inferno that had razed the hillside months earlier.

Each year, Cochabamba has a rainy season followed by a dry season, during which rain is rare, verging on non-existent. Like the onset of autumn back in the UK, the colours and hues of the mountainsides change when the dry season rolls around. First, the plants lose their brilliant green lustre as the omnipresent dust settles after the rains. Then, gradually, it goes ochre yellow – the world turned sepia.

It is little surprise that there are forest fires here. During the dry season, the ground is parched, cracked and dusty, coated in fallen eucalyptus bark. Fields of dry straw in smallholdings up in the mountains form a natural tinderbox, which is alarming in a country where many people still dispose of their rubbish by burning it.

This desiccated landscape used to change every year with the onset of the rains. Without fail, these would start in October or November and spend months nourishing the dehydrated earth, soaking the ground every day until the dried grass was revived. But the rains no longer come when they used to.

In November 2016, Bolivia hit international headlines when the government declared a state of emergency due to drought. Water rationing was introduced in La Paz, and hard-hit rural areas were receiving emergency food aid. It was the second time water issues had been in the news in less than a year: Lago Poopó, the country’s second-largest lake, dried up completely in early 2016.

Beyond the headlines, Cochabamba has a long history of water shortages. It is normal here for homes to have running water two or three times a week for a few hours, if they have piped water at all. If they can afford it, families buy large tanks to store the water that does come; but even so, it is common to turn on the tap in homes, restaurants and bars to find there is no water. In my flat, we save the water from the washing machine in a large dustbin and use it to flush the toilet.

When I was at school, we were taught about climate change as something that would happen in the future. It sounded far-off and remote, like the plot of a dystopian novel. But changing rainfall patterns, drought and forest fires are all symptoms of the same sickness: climate change is no longer the future, it is now.

First, climate change was theory. Then, it started to affect me personally in small ways; like when forest-fire smoke clouds the city I live in or not being able to wash my hands because of water shortages. For others in Bolivia, it has already proved devastating. We can no longer afford to dismiss it: for Cochabambans, next time it could be our homes going up in flames.

Amy Booth is a freelance journalist and circus instructor living in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

mag cover This article is from the November 2017 issue of New Internationalist.
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