“Bolivians have to be prepared for the worst.” — President Evo Morales.
Like many countries, Bolivia relies on its glaciers and large lakes to supply water during the lean, dry times. But as Bolivia has heated with the rest of the world, those key stores of frozen and liquid water have dwindled and dried up. Warming has turned the country’s second largest lake into a parched bed of hardening soil. This heat has made the country’s largest lake a shadow of its former expanse and depth. It has forced Bolivia’s glaciers into a full retreat up the tips of its northern mountains — reducing the key Chacaltaya glacier to naught. Multiple reservoirs are now bone-dry. And, for hundreds of thousands of people, the only source of drinking water is from trucked-in shipments.
Drought Emergency Declared for Bolivia
After decades of worsening drought and following a strong 2014-2016 El Nino, Bolivia has declared a state of emergency. 125,000 families are under severe water rationing — receiving supplies only once every three days. The water allocation for these families is only enough for drinking. No more. Hundreds of thousands beyond this hardest hit group also suffer from some form of water curtailment. Schools have been closed. Businesses shut down. 60,000 cattle have perished. 149 million dollars in damages have racked up. And across the country, protests have broken out.
The city of La Paz, which is the seat of Bolivia’s government and home to about 800,000 people (circa 2001) has seen its three reservoirs almost completely dry up. The primary water reservior — Ajuan Kota — is at just 1 percent capacity. Two smaller reserviors stand at just 8 percent.
(Over the past year, drought in Bolivia has become extreme — sparking declarations of emergency and resulting in water rationing. It is the most recent severe dry period of many to affect the state over the past few decades. President Morales has stated that climate change is the cause. And the science, in large part, agrees with him. Image source: The Global Drought Monitor.)
In nearby El Alto, a city of 650,000 people (circa 2001), residents are also suffering from water shortages. The lack there has spurred unrest — with water officials briefly being held hostage by desperate citizens.
As emergency relief tankers wind through the streets and neighborhoods of La Paz and El Alto, the government has established an emergency water cabinet. Plans to build a more resilient system have been laid. And foreign governments and companies have been asked for assistance. But Bolivia’s larger problem stems from droughts that have been made worse and worse by climate change. And it’s unclear whether new infrastructure to manage water can deal with a situation that increasingly removes the water altogether.
Dried out Lakes, Dwindling Glaciers
Over the years, worsening factors related to climate change have made Bolivia vulnerable to any dry period that may come along. The added effect of warming is that more rain has to fall to make up for the resulting increased rate of evaporation. Meanwhile, glacial retreat means that less water melts and flows into streams and lakes during these hot, dry periods. In the end, this combined water loss creates a situation of drought prevalence for the state. And when a dry period is set off by other climate features — as happened with the strong El Nino that occurred during 2014 to 2016 — droughts in Bolivia become considerably more intense.
Ever since the late 1980s, Bolivia has been struggling through abnormal dry periods related to human caused climate change. Over time, these dry periods inflicted increasing water stress on the state. And despite numerous efforts on the part of Bolivia, the drought impacts have continued to worsen.
(In this NASA satellite shot of northern Bolivia taken on November 6, 2016, we find very thin mountain snow and ice cover in upper center, a lake Titicaca that is both now very low and filled with sand bars at upper left, and a completely dried up lake Poopo at bottom-center. Bolivia relies on these three sources of water. One is gone, and two more have been greatly diminished. Scientists have found that global warming is melting Bolivia’s glaciers and has increased evaporation rates by as much as 200 percent near its key lakes. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
By 1994, added heat and loss of glaciers resulted in the country’s second largest lake — Poopo — drying up. The lake recovered somewhat in the late 1990s. But by early 2016, a lake that once measured 90 x 32 kilometers at its widest points had again been reduced to little more than a cracked bed littered with abandoned fishing hulls. Scientists researching the region found that the rate of evaporation in the area of lake Poopo had been increased by 200 percent by global warming.
Bolivia’s largest lake — Titicaca — is also under threat. From 2003 to 2010, the lake is reported to have lost 500 square miles of surface water area. During 2015 and 2016 drought near Titicaca intensified. In an act of desperation, the government of Bolivia allocated half a billion dollars to save the lake. But despite this move, the massive reservoir has continued to shrink. Now, the southern section of the lake is almost completely cut off by a sand bar from the north.
In the Andean mountains bordering Bolivia, temperatures have been increasing by 0.6 degrees Celsius each decade. This warming has forced the country’s glaciers into full retreat. In one example, the Chacaltaya glacier, which provided 30 percent of La Paz’s water supply, had disappeared entirely by 2009. But the losses to glaciers overall have been widespread and considerable — not just isolated to Chacaltaya.
Intense Drought Flares, With More to Come
By December, rains are expected to return and provide some relief for Bolivia. El Nino has faded and 2017 shouldn’t be as dry as 2015 or 2016. However, like many regions around the world, the Bolivian highlands are in a multi-year period of drought. And the over-riding factor causing these droughts is not the periodic El Nino, but the longer-term trend of warming that is melting Bolivia’s glaciers and increasing rates of evaporation across its lakes.
In context, the current drought emergency has taken place as global temperatures hit near 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than 1880s averages. Current and expected future burning of fossil fuels will continue to warm the Earth and add worsening drought stress to places like Bolivia. So this particular emergency water shortage is likely to be just one of many to come. And only an intense effort to reduce fossil fuel emissions can substantially slake the worsening situation for Bolivia and for numerous other drought-affected regions around the world.
Hat tip to Colorado Bob
Hat tip to ClimateHawk1