The Pilcomayo has earned an ominous epithet: “the suicidal river.” With a span of more than 1,000 km, it fitfully bisects South America’s vast Gran Chaco region, forming a natural border between Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. When rains are intense in the upper basin, the river drags in massive quantities of sediment – to the point that it can become fully clogged, leading to disastrous floods.
"We never know where the Pilcomayo will flood," says agronomist Mauricio Moresco. "But at least in the last floods, we did not lose a single life."
Moresco refers to the historic flooding that hit the province of Salta, in northern Argentina, in early 2018. Road were submerged, hundreds of homes were toppled, and more than 10,000 people from the indigenous Wichí, Toba, Chorote and Tapiete communities were evacuated. The houses that did not fall were sunk in almost a meter of mud.
"It was raining from something like five o'clock in the morning until three o'clock in the afternoon, and it flooded everything here,” recalls Víctor García, a cattle rancher from the town of La Gracia. "It had been years and years since that amount of water had fallen."
Vastness and Connection
The Gran Chaco, one of the most isolated regions on the planet, is divided among Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Its forests and savannas covers a sparsely populated area larger than France. The basin of the Pilcomayo River is so large that the authorities have found it almost impossible to alert all of the communities, most of which are dedicated to livestock farming and beekeeping, about imminent flood risks.
"One of the phenomena that is evident with climate change is that there are very localized rains. In a small area it rains a large amount, and sometimes in a very short time," says Mauricio. "Meteorological stations cannot capture this rainfall data since they are separated from each other by great distances, and that greatly affects the capacities of these communities to prepare themselves."
"But although we did not have connectivity between stations, nor alert capacity, nor enough meteorological data, we did have a web of social networks that already existed in the Gran Chaco,” he notes.
Moresco began working in the area during 2015 as the general coordinator of Gran Chaco PROADAPT. The initiative has brought together civil society networks, the private sector and the governments of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia to help the region’s people adapt to the reality of a changing climate.
PROADAPT is run by the Avina Foundation, with financial support from IDB Lab, the Bank’s innovation laboratory, and the Nordic Development Fund.
The first step was to enable shared access to meteorological information from more than 150 measurement stations in the three countries, while identifying the remote areas where locals would need to help collect rainfall data. Then, risk maps were prepared based on information provided by the region’s communities and historical satellite imagery. The risk map of the lower river basin alone covers an area of approximately 50,000 square kilometers.
"It is the combination of science, technology and local knowledge that was generating these maps, which are key to alerting the population about the floods," says Mauricio. "Now you can know in advance where the river is likely to move."
The project also integrated new tools to both disseminate alerts and receive information from the region’s people. Alongside local radio, the traditional means of communication, and newer platforms such as WhatsApp, PROADAPT developed its own specialized app.
"We are now building a network among the people who are reporting the rain levels on their farms," Moresco says. "We also have to adapt to climate change with new practices and tools for how to raise livestock and how to make the best use of water. We are also using the app to share this knowledge."
The project proved its worth when the floods hit Salta in 2018. The integration of meteorological data, the availability of risk maps and the early warning system were critical in saving lives.
Warnings were issued four days in advance in the areas that would be hardest hit, and more than fifteen days in advance in parts of Salta and Formosa that the flood would later reach. Farmers in the flooded areas were able to move more than half a million heads of cattle in time.
The results of Gran Chaco PROADAPT are now being used to inform the Master Plan for the Integrated Management of the Pilcomayo Basin, a new IDB technical cooperation that is framed within the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
One of the future goals of the project is to work more closely with the region’s women, most of whom raise goats.
"We want to increase their participation in decision-making on climate adaptation, in the preparation of risk maps, in warning systems and in the generation of adaptive knowledge," explains Moresco.
For Mariel Sabra, a lead specialist at IDB Lab, the project is also a reminder that while technology can be a powerful tool for innovation, new ideas and solutions do not always depend on it.
"In this area of arid lands, of forgotten territories where pockets of rural poverty are concentrated… it is also about creating social innovation," she says. "The shiniest examples of successful development demonstrate that. We need to see those who are often unseen.”