Disappearance of Bolivian lake signals change

UNTAVI, Bolivia - 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.

See Full Article

Lake Poopo was officially declared evaporated last month. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have lost their livelihoods and gone.

High on Bolivia's semi-arid Andean plains at 3,700 metres 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.

As Andean glaciers disappear so do the sources of Poopo's water. But other factors are in play in the demise of Bolivia's second-largest body of water behind Lake Titicaca.

Drought caused by the recurrent El Nino meteorological phenomenon is considered the main driver. Authorities say another factor is the diversion of water from Poopo's tributaries, mostly for mining but also for agriculture.

More than 100 families have sold their sheep, llamas and alpaca, set aside their fishing nets and quit the former lakeside village of Untavi over the past three years, draining it of well over half its population. Only the elderly remain.

"There's no future here," said 29-year-old Juvenal Gutierrez, who moved to a nearby town where he ekes by as a motorcycle taxi driver.

Record-keeping on the lake's history only goes back a century, and there is no good tally of the people displaced by its disappearance. At least 3,250 people have received humanitarian aid, the governor's office says.

Poopo is now down to 2 per cent of its former water level, regional Gov. Victor Hugo Vasquez calculates. Its maximum depth once reached 16 feet (5 metres). Field biologists say 75 species of birds are gone from the lake.

While Poopo has suffered El Nino-fueled droughts for millennia, its fragile ecosystem has experienced unprecedented stress in the past three decades. Temperatures have risen by about 1 degree Celsius while mining activity has pinched the flow of tributaries, increasing sediment.

Florida Institute of Technology biologist Mark B. Bush says the long-term trend of warming and drying threatens the entire Andean highlands.

A 2010 study he co-authored for the journal Global Change Biology says Bolivia's capital, La Paz, could face catastrophic drought this century.It predicted "inhospitable arid climates" would lessen available food and water this century for the more than 3 million inhabitants of Bolivia's highlands.

A study by the German consortium Gitec-Cobodes determined that Poopo received 161 billion fewer litres of water in 2013 than required to maintain equilibrium.

"Irreversible changes in ecosystems could occur, causing massive emigration and greater conflicts," said the study commissioned by Bolivia's government.

The head of a local citizens' group that tried to save Poopo, Angel Flores, says authorities ignored warnings.

"Something could have been done to prevent the disaster. Mining companies have been diverting water since 1982," he said.

President Evo Morales has sought to deflect criticism he bears some responsibility, suggesting that Poopo could come back.

"My father told me about crossing the lake on a bicycle once when it dried up," he said last month after returning from the U.N.-sponsored climate conference in Paris.

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 Poopo's tributaries.

After thousands of fish died in late 2014, the Universidad Tecnica in the nearby state capital of Oruro found Poopo 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 is "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 $140 million for water treatment plants for the Poopo watershed and to dredge tributaries led by the Desaguadero, which flows from Lake Titicaca.

Critics say it may be too late.

"I don't think we'll be seeing the azure mirror of Poopo again," said Milton Perez, a Universidad Tecnica researcher. "I think we've lost it."

-----

Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.



Advertisements

Latest Tech & Science News

  • Selfies with seal pups a no-no: U.S. science agency

    Tech & Science CTV News
    PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- U.S. officials are warning people not to take selfies with seals, no matter how tempting. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries office says seal pupping season is underway in New England and that means people might see seal pups on the beach during Memorial Day weekend. Source
  • Planting trees can't counter carbon emissions: Bob McDonald

    Tech & Science CBC News
    A new report from the Potsdam Institute in Germany shows that planting trees and other plants to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere cannot substitute for cutting carbon emissions. Growing trees and other kinds of "biomass" have been thought of as an effective countermeasure against our rising global carbon emissions. Source
  • Ontario community's work to prevent turtles, snakes being killed a model for others

    Tech & Science CTV News
    A rural Ontario community's work to prevent endangered reptiles from being killed on a 3.6-kilometre stretch of road -- once considered among the world's deadliest for turtles -- is being held up as a successful example of how to protect vulnerable wildlife. Source
  • 'Far Cry 5' sneak peek: 5 things we've learned [Photos]

    Tech & Science Toronto Sun
    MONTREAL – The action-heavy Far Cry video game series has always been known for its exotic settings: tropical Pacific islands, sun-baked African savannahs, the lush valleys and snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. And now… uh, Montana? Game studio Ubisoft Montreal is taking Far Cry into unexplored yet timely territory with next year’s Far Cry 5. Source
  • Europeans try to convince Trump not to pull out of climate accord

    Tech & Science CBC News
    European leaders have mounted a last-ditch effort to stop President Donald Trump from abandoning the Paris climate accord, using multiple meetings this week to sell the American leader on the global agreement to reduce carbon emissions. Source
  • Endangered turtles saved by citizens of Ontario hamlet

    Tech & Science CBC News
    Long Point is a popular camping destination in southern Ontario, a rich ecological site with an abundance of wildlife, and part of UNESCO's World Biosphere Reserve. It is full of marshes, dunes, beaches and forests. Source
  • D.C. zoo officials hoping get panda Mei Xiang pregnant again

    Tech & Science CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- Zoo officials in Washington are hoping to get panda mom Mei Xiang pregnant -- again. Smithsonian National Zoo officials say they performed two artificial inseminations Thursday on 18-year-old Mei Xiang. Officials say they were closely monitoring her for when to do the procedure. Source
  • D.C. zoo officials hoping to get panda Mei Xiang pregnant again

    Tech & Science CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- Zoo officials in Washington are hoping to get panda mom Mei Xiang pregnant -- again. Smithsonian National Zoo officials say they performed two artificial inseminations Thursday on 18-year-old Mei Xiang. Officials say they were closely monitoring her for when to do the procedure. Source
  • Using the wrong emoji can cost you — literally

    Tech & Science CBC News
    Imagine if an emoji — one casually fired off in a text-message conversation — ended up costing the sender thousands of dollars. Or $3,000, to be exact. That's what happened in Israel recently, after a judge determined that a message containing a string of emojis conveyed clear intent. Source
  • Yukon looks to preserve and manage grizzly bear population

    Tech & Science CBC News
    Grizzly bears are generally doing "quite well" in Yukon, according to government biologist Tom Jung — and wildlife officials are aiming to keep it that way. The territorial government is developing a conservation and management plan for the species, and it's asking Yukoners to weigh in on what that plan might look like. Source