Three Months of Flooding and Isolation in La Leona, Paraguay

Climate change is increasing the recurrence and intensity of extreme phenomena such as cyclones, hurricanes, floods and droughts, making disaster risk reduction (DRR) paramount. As the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP20) kicks off in Lima, Peru, we look at the humanitarian consequences of weather-related disasters in South America, especially those which do not make headlines, and how European solidarity responds to them. Two of our colleagues from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) travelled to a remote region of Paraguay and spoke with a long-time resident about the recent flooding and devastation.

View of Yukyty. Photo credit: EU/ECHO
View of Yukyty. Photo credit: EU/ECHO

“We called the village La Leona (the lioness), because when we settled here 34 years ago, a female puma used to live in the area”, recalls 65-year-old Don Alejandro, indigenous to the Angaité ethnicity and one of the founders of this village located in a remote area of the Paraguayan Chaco. Its inhabitants have lived on farming, fishing and hunting, selling wooden posts and sporadic jobs on cattle ranches in the area. Its remoteness in terms of municipalities, governorates and access to the main road have kept the community in relative isolation.

In April 2014, the family of Don Alejandro and 780 others suffered the worst floods in living memory. “The water came up to our chests, we did not have enough food and it was hard to reach families who were more isolated. Some people could not be helped on time”. Five people died of hunger, including two children.

After the floods, La Leona and 16 other villages in the area remained, for three months, completely isolated. Access roads were cut off by water. Crops and small livestock were lost in the floods and food stocks declined rapidly. Despite increasingly drawing upon fishing and hunting, families ended up drastically reducing their daily food consumption. Trucks with merchandise could not enter the village, and the inhabitants could not go to work in the haciendas to earn income. The floods also damaged water storage tanks and filled wells with contaminated water.

La Leona was not featured on international news. During those three months of flooding and isolation, they received little support, due to the inaccessibility of the area. It is a typical example of a small scale disaster event that fails to cause an emergency at national level nor create an international appeal, but causes huge damage to a group’s food security, thus compromising their livelihood and survival.

With funding from ECHO, the Italian organisation COOPI has begun to support the most affected families. They have received food baskets for three months, with each basket covering half of the food needs per person during that time (1074kcal) and also including soap for personal hygiene. European aid focuses on the 500 most vulnerable families, and the National Emergency System provides packages for the remaining 281, thus reaching all the families affected. “These are still very difficult months for us”, says Jacinta Barreta, mother of six children. “These baskets have helped me to feed my family”.

The Chaco is the largest forested area on the South American continent after the Amazon. Climate change, deforestation and inadequate land use make it suffer from opposite extremes: severe droughts and heavy rains resulting in floods. This affects families’ access to potable water and food. These floods have also made communities realise they need to be better prepared, with emergency shelters or tents, food stocks, canoes to be able to move if they become isolated, and emergency healthcare.

The above article was written by ECHO and originally appeared here.

ECHO has a specific funding tool to address Small Scale Disasters wordwide, which on average dedicates €5 million yearly to unheralded emergencies such as this one. 40% of the Small Scale Disasters funding is used in Latin America & the Caribbean.

In addition to emergency response to the floods, Chaco is for ECHO a priority area for action; since 2011 nearly €2 million has been allocated — through the Drought Resilience Initiative — to increase the capacity of communities to address and mitigate the effects of drought.