Lake disappears as Bolivia dries up.

By JW Dowey - 01 Feb 2016 9:8:19 GMT
Lake disappears as Bolivia dries up.

Lake Hedionda Bolivian lake image; Credit: © Shutterstock

While Lake Titicaca is a very large lake, the second largest Bolivian body of water (at about one-eighth of Titicaca) is another large lake known as Poopó. Or at least it was a body of water, before January. It has just been declared officially extinct, with only 2% of the water remaining, and at least 161 billion litres of water lost from the lake by 2013. The recurrent drying up over 30 years has finally given in to the demands of the El Niño-inspired drought. In the Andean mountains, rainfall has reduced rivers to a trickle. The result is another loss of water, species and people, resembling the loss of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. There the USSR cotton crop was grown at the expense of water diversion from the Amu Darya. Recent work from many international teams has relieved the pressure on the almost extinct Sea as described inA Better Aral Sea. In Bolivia, the only similar commercial interest is the 100 tin mines, built on the tributaries since 1982. The watershed’s sources are simply dry, with temperatures rising locally by 1oC. over the last few decades.

Glacial melting in the Andes has been accelerated by global warming with strong connections to our burning of fossil fuels around the world. Other factors like the mining and agricultural irrigation are also involved, giving us an early insight into climate change effects as more water shortages are reported in many parts of the earth. More pressing needs in the lakeside village of Untavi have crated depopulation. Fishermen have packed their nets, animals have been sold off and half the population have left, with few youngsters available to carry on with any local industry. They have become taxi drivers in towns and cities, or even resorted to humanitarian aid. 3250 are recorded so far by the local governor, Victor Hugo Vasquez, as receiving this help.

The 5 metre-deep saline lake stretched for around 1000km2. 75 species of bird, including 2 rare species of Phoenicoparrus flamingoes are no longer feeding there, given the mix of the solutes in the remaining water. In 2010, Florida Institute of Technology noted that La Paz itself will face catastrophic drought as water problems build. 3 million people in highland areas will also face famine and drought.

One of the few optimists is President Evo Morales. His father crossed the lake on a bike when it dried up once before, he says. The mining is blamed for pollution and loss of most of the water, but pinning the blame may be less important than trying to deal with people and land that needs to be watered. Tin from places like Huanuni provides vast profits for Bolivia along with natural gas. Untreated tailings are dumped into tributaries with no subsequent treatment, so it is no surprise that fish and birds have been lost. Even the mosquitoes may have been reduced in the polluted saline water. Thousands of fish died in 2014, presumably from cadmium and lead poisoning. The low levels of water would create even higher concentrations than normal, but this does not affect the argument that clean water is needed to be returned to the environment. The pollution is almost a distraction. What effects are these highly toxic chemicals having on the local population.? Hopefully their water supplies come from safe wells.

The mining corporations can be expected to have the same attitude that cotton conglomerates had when extracting all the water from the Aral Sea’s rivers. Saturnino Ramos of the National Chamber of Mining indicated that he thought natural sediments were making tributaries shallow. The EU are being asked to provide $140 million to treat the pollution around the watershed and dredge the river flow from Lake Titicaca to Lago Poopó. Some see this as bolting the stable doors after the river horses have flowed. This high in the mountains, at 3000m (12,000ft), ecosystems are being destroyed simply by the slow warming of climate change. The indicator organisms in this case could be rare flamingos or boring snails. Whichever species we use, such disasters can be predicted through warnings from the ecosystems involved. With El Niño and pollution added to the mix, who knows what the Bolivian government can achieve?