Events related to the El Niño phenomenon caused widespread suffering in Bolivia in January through March 2007. Major flooding, freezing weather, and hail affected the departments of Beni, Santa Cruz, La Paz, Chuquisaca, Tarija, Potosí, and Cochabamba. Severe rains and river flooding damaged housing, closed roads, and destroyed crops. The Civil Defense reported (as of June 2007) 50 deaths, 103,595 families affected, and damage to crops on more than 366 thousand hectares. Thousands of people have been displaced to temporary shelters; not all shelters are in conditions to support these numbers.
These events, along with pre-existing conditions of social vulnerability, inadequate sanitation, and limited access to safe water, have increased the potential for outbreaks. Of special concern are severe diarrhea, respiratory infections, dengue, malaria, leptospirosis, yellow fever, skin disease, conjunctivitis, and mental illness.
Bolivia’s health sector developed a response plan and received generous international support to expand assistance to the disaster victims. Aid included providing shelter, health services, drinking water, and food. The U.N. System in Bolivia made a flash appeal for humanitarian assistance in response to the events. The appeal includes a broad set of activities for health care, disease prevention, and health promotion. These include monitoring health risks in shelters, supplying medicines, monitoring water quality, hygiene education, control of vectors, and other post-disaster activities.
More than a year ago, the municipality of Trinidad—the capital of the department of Beni—worked on a project to strengthen the local health sector’s ability to respond in a disaster. Because certain measures were in place at the time of the floods, local authorities were better able to coordinate the different actors responding to the disaster.
This emergency highlights weaknesses in coordination and certain technical activities. For example, donation and supply management and damage assessment are two critical processes that require prior coordination and preparation among institutions. Understanding and standardizing these tools and procedures can increase the efficiency and quality of the response.
The Bolivian government requested the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) to carry out an assessment of the impact of these floods. ECLAC estimated that damage to the health sector amounted to US$ 6.8 million. Their report states that 99% of these costs were unanticipated and accrued during the emergency phase (emergency response, provision of safe water, epidemiologic surveillance, vector control, medication and supplies, etc.). One percent of the costs were for impacts on the physical infrastructure of health facilities. The report can be consulted on the ECLAC website: www.eclac.org/mexico/.