Warming and human hands transformed an Andean lake into a desert

Warming and human hands transformed an Andean lake into a desert

When he came across this huge body of water in the Bolivian Andes, at almost 3,700 meters above sea level, British geographer Jim Allen wrote in 1998 that he had found Atlantis. The vast plain enclosed by mineral-rich mountains with an inland sea-like lake coincided with the mythical island that Plato describes.

That lake called Poopó, which was the second largest in Bolivia after Titicaca, today is almost dry and is turning into a desert due to the climatic phenomenon known as El Niño, the hand of man and global warming, experts and authorities say.

Of the shallow body of water that once reached 2,337 square kilometers in length, only small wetlands and pools remain. A few trapped seagulls fight for the little food under a leaden sun.

Recovering the lake, it seems, will not be possible. "It's a picture of the future of climate change," lamented glaciologist Dirk Hoffmann.

A barren and salty land remained from the blue mirror that was the lake. The fishermen have also left and abandoned their boats, which little by little the land has been covering. The shoes sink into the flabby earth from which vapors emanate that, when diluted under the burning sun, reveal mirages of blue water on the horizon.

The only living things are beetles that feed on dead birds. Miles from here, on what used to be the riverbank, graze alpacas, llamas, sheep and wild rhea. The wind sweeps and prays the abobe walls of a few abandoned domes that were home to the Urus, one of the oldest peoples on the continent who call themselves "men of water." They have also migrated.

"The lake has not dried up overnight," says Martín Colque, mayor of the small western town of Toledo 210 kilometers south of La Paz, one of the poorest municipalities in the country. “Now people are selling their sheep, which was their only capital, and they have gone to the cities. Due to the drought, there is no grass to feed the cattle ”.

Meteorologists anticipate that the El Niño phenomenon will be more severe this year. The locals say they were not heard by the authorities when they alerted of the retreat of the lake. “Something could be done to prevent the disaster. Mining companies have diverted the water since 1982 and that has been reducing the flow, which was also reduced by the drought ”, says Angel Flores, a leader of the area.

For millennia, El Niño has plagued this arid region of the altiplano with droughts, which has caused drastic declines in the Poopó like the one that occurred in the 1940s and mid-1990s. In the last 30 years, the phenomenon has been added to diversion of water for mining and agricultural use, pollution and accelerated evaporation due to the increase in temperatures due to global warming, according to experts, authorities and locals.

The oldest records on the behavior of the water level date from 1920. There are no previous records. At its peak, there were 30 fishermen's cooperatives with some 900 members. Today there are no fishermen. Fishermen migrated or changed jobs.

The increase in temperatures in the Andes is a fact and is also causing the retreat of Bolivian glaciers, says Hoffmann, in which the biologist of the Florida Institute of Technology Mark B. Bush agrees that global warming and droughts threaten everything the Andean highlands.

A study he did with other specialists in 2010 for the journal Global Change Biology says that La Paz could suffer a catastrophic still this century. He predicted "arid and inhospitable climates" that will affect the availability of food and water for the more than three million people who live in the Bolivian highlands.

Another study by the German Gitec-Cobodes consortium indicated that in 2013 the Poopó received 161,000 million liters of water less than it requires to maintain a natural balance.

"Irreversible changes can occur in ecosystems, causing massive emigrations and major conflicts," warned the study commissioned by the Bolivian government.

The Poopó and the Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world shared by Bolivia and Peru, are linked by the Desaguadero River that comes from Peru and runs for 400 kilometers. Titicaca contributes 20% of the water and that flow has not decreased, the other 80% is contributed by other tributaries. Titicaca's level is in the middle range because 2015 was a dry year, says Alfredo Mamani, president of the Lake Titicaca Authority.

The diversion of water for use by more than a hundred large and small mining operations, for agriculture and human consumption of nearby towns accelerated the disaster.

Mamani says that the Poopó has always had cycles of ups and downs and that people only see the present.

Evo asks for calm. President Evo Morales, defender of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and a harsh critic of the environmental record of the powers, agrees with Mamani. Born in a rural village near Poopó, the president called the reactions exaggerated.

Since 1920, the Poopó has been sub-optimal. Its level dropped drastically between 1940 and 1948. In 1984 it had a flood that reached its peak in 1988, with more than one meter above its normal level, and from there began a decrease whose record stops in 1992.

"We may be in another critical moment of climate variability that affects periods of 10 years that we have already passed and surpassed, but if it were also due to climate change, it would be more severe," said hydrologist Mamani.

The recent boom in mineral prices fueled a fever in this mining region as environmental controls were relaxed. The largest state tin mine does not have a tailings dam and dumps polluting waste into a river that feeds the Poopó. Environmental studies say that only two mining companies used 22 million liters of water a day from rivers that feed the Poopó in the last 15 years.

"The rivers no longer provide enough fresh water and what they bring is polluted ... it is more sand and mud than water," says a study carried out by organizations in the area.

At the end of 2014, a study by the Technical University of Oruro found levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and zinc above normal in the lake's water and sediment. The water contained seven times more chloride.

That year a dramatic event occurred that left “millions of fish dead,” according to Flores.

"The waters were low and overheated when strong winds arrived that stirred the waters," said the leader. "So much sediment entered for years that the hole in the center of the lake is clogged." There were no lawsuits and no known sanctions against mining operators, say farmers 'and ranchers' organizations.

The health of the Poopó has exposed the weaknesses of an economy highly dependent on raw materials. Minerals rank second in exports after natural gas.

As the lake bed dries further the winds will rip up and disperse heavy metal contaminated soil affecting the food chain, Hoffmann says.

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