Sorry, Bolivia!


NASA satellite images show Bolivia’s Lake Poopo filled with water in April 2013 (left), and almost dry in January 2016. PHOTO: NASA/AP

Drying rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Fancy a list? Here and here, you go. The world’s waters are rapidly running dry, threatening wild habitats and human civilization, exacerbating climate change. In turn, livelihoods, ecosystems, energy generation are all affected. Like in Bolivia, which just lost its second largest lake.

Overturned fishing skiffs lie abandoned on the shores of what was Bolivia’s second-largest lake. Beetles dine on bird carcasses and gulls fight for scraps under a glaring sun in what marshes remain. Lake Poopó was officially declared evaporated in December. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have lost their livelihoods and gone.

High on Bolivia’s semi-arid Andean plains at 3,700 metres (more than 12,000 feet) and long subject to climatic whims, the shallow saline lake has essentially dried up before only to rebound to twice the area of Los Angeles.

But recovery may no longer be possible, scientists say.

“This is a picture of the future of climate change,” says Dirk Hoffman, a German glaciologist who studies how rising temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels has accelerated glacial melting in Bolivia.

Poopo is now down to 2% of its former water level, regional governor Victor Hugo Vasquez calculates. Its maximum depth once reached five metres (16ft). Field biologists say 75 species of birds are gone from the lake. Environmentalists and local activists say the government mismanaged fragile water resources and ignored rampant pollution from mining, Bolivia’s second export earner after natural gas. More than 100 mines are upstream and Huanuni, Bolivia’s biggest state-owned tin mine, was among those dumping untreated tailings into Poopó’s tributaries.

After thousands of fish died in late 2014, the Universidad Tecnica in the nearby state capital of Oruro found Poopó had unsafe levels of heavy metals, including cadmium and lead.

The president of Bolivia’s National Chamber of Mining, Saturnino Ramos, said any blame by the industry was “insignificant compared to climate change.” He said most of the sediment shallowing Poopo’s tributaries was natural, not from mining.

In hopes of bringing it back, Morales’ government has asked the European Union for $140m for water treatment plants for the Poopó watershed and to dredge tributaries led by the Desaguadero, which flows from Lake Titicaca.

But critics say it may be too late.

“I don’t think we’ll be seeing the azure mirror of Poopó again,” said Milton Perez, a Universidad Tecnica researcher. “I think we’ve lost it.”

The Guardian has more details here.

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