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During the last week of August a snowstorm hit the high plains of Peru and Bolivia. In the news (what news there was, this may be the least reported natural disaster in modern history) there were reports of 1 to 2 metres of snow, and my colleagues at CENDA told me in some parts there was over 4 metres. There were early reports of 80,000 people affected between Peru and Bolivia including six human deaths (caught in the snow with their animals or their roof collapsing on them) and 30,000 animals dead. I have since heard unsubstantiated reports of a dozen people dying and 250,000 animals. This is a horrible disaster. Large animals (sheep, llamas, cattle, alpaca, pigs) are the “bank accounts” of the rural poor and losing their animals is a direct loss of their wealth and a threat to their food security. It is because of the importance of animals to the rural people that we have been working with CENDA on improving animal husbandry to improve the well being and nutrition of the farming households. The communities we work with (Department of Cochabamba, Provinces of Ayopaya, Tapacari and Arque) were isolated for about a week due to the amount of snow on the roads. CENDA colleagues were able to finally visit our project communities over the last few days. The level of damage is highly variable. Some of the communities are somewhat sheltered in highland valleys and were less impacted. Other communities on the high plains, were harder hit, losing perhaps 30% of their livestock, although this ranges from none to all. CENDA is visiting the communities this week to assess damages and determine if we can continue with our work.

There are two possible silver linings. First, the snow should ensure that soil moisture levels are higher than normal leading to higher than normal crop and pasture production. Secondly, and more tentatively, there may have been some culling of the weaker animals that may be beneficial for herd health. The pasture land is probably above its ideal capacity – having fewer, younger, healthier animals can lead to higher production levels than are currently attained. But of course from the communities’ perspectives this is tarnished silver at best.

Finally, can somebody explain to me how media coverage of natural disasters works? I happened to stumble upon the small Globe and Mail article but I could find almost nothing more than that. American colleagues who conduct research in the Andes had not heard of this. In fact, colleagues in neighbouring Ecuador had not heard of the disaster! Even the online versions of Bolivian papers had sparse details if any. I found one onlinephoto gallery which is dominated by photos of snowmen and snowball fights which trivializes the seriousness of the snowfall.