A Lake in Bolivia Dries Up

Boats on the dry bed of Lake Poopó (source: D. Hoffmann)

In December 2015, while the world’s eyes were on the UN Climate Conference in Paris, Bolivia’s Lake Poopó—once the country’s second-largest lake, with an area of 2700 square kilometers–dried up completely. This event was first recognized by the regional government, located in Oruro, and soon drew national and international concern. This attention has opened a discussion on the causes of this event and on the troubling possibility that the lake may never return to its earlier size.

Some people, like Bolivian President Evo Morales, were quick to attribute the drying of Lake Poopó to natural cycles, pointing out that the lake had previously dried out, but always recovered. But others claim that climate change has played a role that will continue into the future, and also note the negative impact of human activities–irrigation schemes and mining activities–which are very unlikely to end.  

Map of the Poopó basin, with Lake
Map of the region. Lake Poopó immediately below the city of Oruro (source: Sayri)

Based on available documentation and a field visit earlier this month,  we are now in a position to share some preliminary conclusions on what happened to Lake Poopó, as well as to the perspectives for its recovery.

The current sharp decline is due most immediately to the strong El Niño event of 2015-16, which has greatly reduced rainfall in the November-March wet season, now reaching its final weeks. But the problem is rooted in long-term processes, which will not be reversed when the current El Niño event ends, most likely later this year.

The Physical Environment of Lake Poopó

Lake Poopó, like all other lakes, can be characterized by what limnologists–fresh-water ecologists–call a “water balance,” the relation between the water that enters the lake, and the water that leaves it. If unimpeded, a negative water balance will lead to the drying up of a lake. The water balance of Lake Poopó is influenced by its location in a semi-arid area (the average annual precipitation is about 370 mm) and its shallowness (the greatest depth is only 2.4 m).

Sajama, a glaciated peak in the Lake Poopó basin (source: D. Hoffmann)
Sajama, a glaciated peak in the Lake Poopó basin (source: D. Hoffmann)

Historically, Lake Poopó receives around two thirds of its water from a sole source, the Río Desaguadero; the remaining third comes from smaller rivers that flow directly into the lake and from rainfall onto the lake’s surface. The Río Desaguadero originates in Lake Titicaca, a large lake that straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru. As this river flows towards Poopó, it receives water from other tributaries, particularly the Río Mauri, an international river whose sources lie in Peru and Chile. Lake Titicaca and the other tributaries of Río Desaguadero receive water from rainfall, snowmelt and runoff from the glaciers on the cordilleras that ring the entire Titicaca-Poopó basin.

These sources provide Lake Poopó with water inputs that fluctuate from year to year, reflecting variations in the precipitation that the region receives. A set of locks that were constructed on Lake Titicaca in 2001 could permit the Binational Commission charged with managing the lake to release more water to the Río Desaguadero in dry years, but this possibility has never been realized and, given the water scarcity on the Peruvian side of the Titicaca basin, it seems very unlikely.     

Group interviewing fishermen at the dry bed of Lake Poopó (source: D. Hoffman)
Group interviewing fishermen at the dry bed of Lake Poopó (source: D. Hoffmann)

Local residents report a decrease in rainfall over the last 10-15 years, a pattern that is confirmed by data from weather stations for the last few decades and by tree-ring records that track rainfall over several centuries. Moreover, glacier retreat has diminished the contribution of meltwater to the lake–a valuable component of the water budget, since it historically compensated in part for the scanty rainfall in dry years. Bolivia has lost about half of its glacier area in the last 40 years, with particularly rapid retreat in the eastern portions of the Titicaca-Poopó basin, where the largest glaciers are located.  

Moreover, climate change affects another component of the lake’s water budget: its losses. Higher temperatures lead directly to higher evaporation rates, a significant effect in this extremely shallow body of water.  

Human Activities Impact Lake Poopó

In addition to these physical factors, human activities have reduced the water input into the lake. These activities begin far away, since new irrigation facilities draw from rivers on the Peruvian side of the basin, diverting water away from it.

In the last 10 years, new irrigation systems for small farmers have been built closer to the lake as well. During our trip around and onto Lake Poopó, we saw a large number of canals, many of them of makeshift construction, which  divert water from the Río Desaguadero for agricultural purposes. According to Eduardo Ortíz, the Oruro regional government’s director for watershed management, there are around 250 irrigation schemes legally established on the Río Desaguadero. Other experts estimate that the total number of irrigation projects is closer to 1,000, suggesting that many of them lack legal authorization. Further down its course, the Río Desaguadero was entirely dry. When we came to the former shores of the lake, we found many small villages half-abandoned, especially on the western side of the lake. The final concern is the deterioration of water quality in the lake because of contamination from nearby mines at Huanuni and other site. Salts containing lead, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals leach into the lake. Local communities have protested this pollution in recent years. These toxic substances become concentrated in periods of low lake levels, and could affect the restoration of lake ecosystems even in years of heavier rainfall.

Dried bed of Lake Poopó (source: D. Hoffman)
Dried bed of Lake Poopó (source: D. Hoffmann)

The drying of the lake has led hundreds of fishermen to lose their source of income, accelerating migration by the local population to urban areas.  Antenor Rojas Flores, a local fisherman from the village of Untavi in his late 50s, has begun to work as a laborer in construction in the nearby city of Oruro to support his family. He says that he hopes that water and fish will return, so that he can go back to his life as it was before, but “only God knows” whether that will happen.  

The decline of fishing has also impacted the commercial activities of women, many of whom have participated in local and regional markets. These people are members of the indigenous Uru Murato, an ethnic group with ancient roots in the region. Their livelihoods have always centered on the water, and the drying of the lake is threatening their continuity as a community; the barter relations with neighboring agricultural and pastoral communities, which supported them during dry spells in earlier historical periods, have weakened as these communities also face climate change and other pressures.

Worrying Perspectives for Lake Poopó

This set of circumstances leads to a bleak outlook for the lake. Its full recovery seems rather unlikely. The strong El Niño event of 1991-92, followed by a weaker event in 1994-95, led the lake to dry up as well; in the decades since then, it recovered neither  its full size nor its full potential in terms of productivity and biodiversity. Historic lake sizes ranged between 2,500 and 2,700 square kilometers; for the current century it has been closer to 1,500 square kilometers, reflecting the impacts of climate change on evaporation and on glacier retreat. The irrigation facilities are likely to continue to divert water. It would take strong political will to reallocate water extensively throughout the international Titicaca-Poopó basin to bring the lake back to even a semblance of its state in the last century.

Dirk Hoffmann is a researcher with the La Paz based Bolivian Mountain Institute – BMI and can be contacted at: dirk.hoffmann@bolivian-mountains.org

Understanding Glaciers through Indigenous Cultures

Climate change is viewed as an economic, political, and physical problem. But a study in WIREs Climate Change by Elizabeth A. Allison (found here) shows that there is a mental aspect to climate change that is being ignored by the major communities invested in the issue: the spiritual and religious importance of glaciers to mountain cultures.

Glaciers are bound to the culture of humans who have lived in harmony with them for centuries, the study found. According to Allison, evaluations made by bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimate the true cost of climate change by overlooking the emotional, spiritual, and psychological connections that people assign to changing conditions.

Understanding climate change without the implications it has on culture silences the voices and perceptions of minority communities, Allison found. These are the people who are the most affected by climate change. To diminish the cultural loss of these communities is an injustice not only to the communities involved directly but also to our shared cultural understanding of climate change, she wrote. As part of her research, Allison looked at communities in order to better understand their connection to the glaciers they live alongside.

On the west coast of North America such indigenous cultures as Alaska’s Tlingit people and First Nations people of the Yukon understood glaciers as snake-like beings. These creatures were thought to have particular preferences and requirements. According to an indigenous observer in 1904, “in one place Alsek River runs under a glacier. People can pass beneath in their canoes, but, if anyone speaks while they are under it, the glacier comes down on them. They say that in those times the glacier was like an animal, and could hear what was said to it.”

Dancers at the Qoyllur Rit'i festival
Dancers at the Qoyllur Rit’i festival. Courtesy of AgainErick wikipedia/commons

In the Peruvian Andes, the Quechua who live near the declining glacier on Mt. Ausangate believe that the disappearance of the glacier is associated with the mountain god’s departure. It used to be that during the annual Qoyllur Rit’i festival (meaning Snow Star), honoring an appearance of the Christ child, nearly 70,000 people traversed the Sinakara glacier. Ritual leaders would communicate with the glacial god and cut out large blocks of glacial ice thought to have magical healing properties.

Concern for the receding glacier prompted changes in local custom. In 2000 local leaders set regulations along with installing guards, disallowing ice to be removed from the glacier. Even pilgrims lighting candles at the edge of the glacier in prayer have begun to use smaller candles in an effort to preserve the glacier. Once having relied on the glacier to protect and heal them, this community now sees to the well-being of a god that to them, appears dying.

Bolivian Glacier. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis wikipedia/commons
Bolivian Glacier. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis wikipedia/commons

In Bolivia, the people depend on glaciated mountains to provide water for agriculture and day-to-day survival. They see them as life-giving deities, on whom they depend, calling them Achachilas. Within a few decades 80% of Bolivia’s life-sustaining glaciers are expected to be gone. A Bolivian charitable foundation called Fundación Solón, has stated that the loss of glaciers would be a loss for Bolivians surpassing that of the Twin Towers in the 9/11 attacks.

In Tibetan Buddhist communities in the Himalayas, people have begun avoiding cooking or eating certain odorous foods (such as garlic and onions), burning meat, experiencing strong emotions, breaking vows, or physically fighting for fear of unleashing the wrath of mountain deities. On April 18, 2014 when 16 Sherpas climbing Mount Everest were killed by a falling block of ice, locals believed it to be the result of an angered mountain deity feeling disrespect due to the accumulated trash, fighting, helicopters, and the attitude of foreigners.

Mingyong Glacier
Mingyong Glacieris one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. Courtesy of Chen Zhao/Flicker.

Mingyong Glacier is one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. Located below Mount Khawa Karpo in the Meili Snow Mountain Range in northwest Yunnan at the Tibet border, it is among the most sacred mountains to Tibetan Buddhists. Local cultures do not allow foreign scientists to step out onto the ice of the Mingyong Glacier, out of concern for observed loss of glacial mass, instead allowing scientists to measure glacial recession only through repeat photography. A number of different reasons have been offered up by the locals for the glacial decline: lack of proper prayer on behalf of the local citizens, disrespectful tourists, and the incline of global material greed. Even though the scientific findings indicate an increasingly doomed outlook for the glacier, the locals believe it’s impossible for the glacier to die because their existence is intertwined with that of the glacier.

Aspects of climate change include more than an economical or physical understanding, but an understanding of the cultural importance of the effects of a changing climate such as glacier loss. Allison’s research found that people are more likely to accept and incorporate discussions of environmental and scientific issues, when issues match their own preconceptions. She suggested that scientists could be more effective in educating the public about climate change if they included local conceptualizations of glaciers in their reports, rather than relying purely on scientific data and technical language.

Roundup: Black Carbon, Winds, and Supraglacial Lakes

Light-absorbing Particles in Peru


“Glaciers in the tropical Andes have been rapidly losing mass since the 1970s. In addition to the documented increase in temperature, increases in light-absorbing particles deposited on glaciers could be contributing to the observed glacier loss. Here we report on measurements of lightabsorbing particles sampled from glaciers during three surveys in the Cordillera Blanca Mountains in Peru.”

Read more here.

Winds on Glaciers


“We investigate properties of the turbulent flow and sensible heat fluxes in the atmospheric surface layer of the high elevation tropical Zongo glacier (Bolivia) from data collected in the dry season from July to August 2007, with an eddy-covariance system and a 6-m mast for wind speed and temperature profiles. Focus is on the predominant downslope wind regime.”

Read more here.

Supraglacial Lakes in Central Karakoram Himalaya


“This paper discusses the formation and variations of supraglacial lakes on the Baltoro glacier system in the Central Karakoram Himalaya during the last four decades. We mapped supraglacial lakes on the Baltoro Glacier from 1978 to 2014 using Landsat MSS, TM, ETM+ and LCDM images. Most of the glacial lakes were formed or expanded during the late 1970s to 2008. After 2008, the total number and the area of glacial lakes were found to be lesser compared to previous years.”

Read more here.


Roundup: A New Documentary, Ice Worms, Timelapse Videos



“Glacial Balance,” A New Documentary by Ethan Steinman on Climate Change

“Water and its sources have historically been the key factor in the establishment of cities, of civilizations. But we are at a critical point in the environment and mankind’s existence. . . GLACIAL BALANCE takes us to Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador, getting to know those who are the first to be affected by the melting glacial reserve.”

Read more, here


A picture of the Sholes Glacier
Photo By, Martin Bravenboer, Via Flicker


Glacier Ice Worms Thrive in the Coastal Ranges of the Pacific Northwest

Relying on alga from snowpack to survive, being vulnerable to death from exposure to sunlight, and only being able to move vertically, these worms face many challenges to survival.

Read more, here 



“Requiem of Ice” Amazing Timelapse Video Shows Melting of the Largest Glacier Cave in the Country

 “The cave systems have been mapped and surveyed since 2011 by Brent McGregor and Eddy Cartaya of the Oregon High Desert Grotto and in that time they have discovered more than a mile of caves and passages beneath the Sandy Glacier.”

A team from Uncage the Soul Productions shot “Requiem of Ice” in two caves named Pure Imagination and Snow Dragon, demonstrating the effect of the changing landscape.

Read more about this story, here

For more on the Sandy Glacier see, “Yes, Glaciers Melt, But Do You Know How?

Indigenous Livelihoods at Bolivia’s Highest Mountain

A new study conducted at Sajama, the highest mountain in Bolivia, shows that local indigenous populations have been able to adapt to the changes in water resources that result from glacier retreat. Other environmental changes, as well as shifting economic and political circumstances, have also shaped their responses. Villarroel and her coauthors describe the area in detail in their recent paper in the journal “Mountain Research and Development.”

Wetland in Sajama National Park (source: Lorini/AguaSustentable)
Wetland in Sajama National Park (source: Lorini/AguaSustentable)

With an elevation of 6542 meters, Sajama, an extinct volcanic cone, rises more than two kilometers above the surrounding plains, known as the altiplano. Precipitation is concentrated in a short rainy season in this semi-arid region. The vegetation varies with elevation and topography, with large areas of grassland, sections with shrubs, and some wetlands, which are concentrated along the streams that are fed by glacial melt and groundwater from the mountain. Though the wetlands are relatively small in area, they have great economic and ecological importance, because the herbs, sedges and grasses that grow in them remain green throughout the year.

The indigenous Aymara of the altiplano have long practiced livelihoods that are suited to this environment, centered on the raising of alpacas, a native ruminant that was domesticated millennia ago in the Andes. They carefully maintain irrigation channels that distribute water from the streams, expanding wetland areas. Though profoundly influenced by Spanish colonial rule and by the policies of the national governments of Bolivia, the Aymara have a high degree of self-government, in which communities govern the affairs of the many hamlets that compose them, through structures of customary leaders and assemblies. These communities gained recognition in the 1950s, and received additional support in the 1990s through constitutional reforms and the creation of a national council of indigenous communities.

Villarroel and her coauthors have traced the shifting patterns of water use and alpaca herding through “rights mapping methodology,” integrating the methods of the Nobel prizewinner Elinor Ostrom for studying natural resource management with participatory mapping based on Google Earth images. They found that the Aymara communities around Sajama had for decades practiced communal grazing. Households had free access to the community’s grasslands, which provide grazing during the rainy season. They also were able to graze their animals on the wetlands associated with their hamlets.

Alpacas at Sajama (source: twiga269/Flickr)
Alpacas at Sajama (source: twiga269/Flickr)

Pasture has become a scarce resource in the last two or three decades, as the water supply in streams has decreased because of glacier retreat. The population of the communities has also grown, increasing demand for pasture. Overgrazing had become a problem. In response, the communities shifted to delimiting grassland areas to which particular households have access, and individual hamlets have fenced off the wetlands. In this way, they can better limit the number of alpacas that graze in any area. They also organize meetings between hamlets and between communities to resolve disputes over access to water from streams. In addition, many households now purchase alfalfa and barley, trucked in from moister regions of Bolivia, to use as supplementary fodder. A number of the men leave the region for several months a year, earning wages to pay for this fodder.

Irrigation canal in a wetland in the Bolivian altiplano (source: Coppock/Rangelands)
Irrigation canal in a wetland in the Bolivian altiplano (source: Coppock/Rangelands)

The Sajama National Park has also influenced the response to water scarcity. Founded in 1939 as Bolivia’s first national park, it began active conservation management only in 1995, virtually eliminating alpaca grazing in the higher grasslands, and reducing hunting as well. These restrictions have led to the growth of populations of pumas and foxes, predators of the alpacas, and have brought about a resurgence of the vicuña, which had become locally endangered.

The loss of access to this area has placed further pressure on the other grasslands and on the wetlands, but it has also brought a new income source to the communities. They conduct annual round-ups of vicuña herds, in which the animals are shorn and then let free, in a kind of “catch and release” program. The wool commands a high price on the world market, and provides a supplementary livelihood. The participation of Aymara communities in the management committees of the park seems likely to assure that this arrangement will continue. Though this and other forms of market involvement allow the Aymara communities to continue other forms of traditional livelihood and self-governance, it adds another source of vulnerability as well, as Villarroel and her coauthors point out. It exposes local populations to price fluctuations, and may provide incentives to weaken community control of resources, at a time when further glacier retreat could water scarcity more acute. The future may well bring additional challenges to these resilient communities.

GlacierHub has also covered the involvement of indigenous communities in national park management in Peru.