Photo Friday: Glacier Melt in Bolivia Exacerbates the Nation’s Water Crisis

Photographer James Whitlow Delano has created a series of powerful images of Bolivia’s ongoing water crisis. His photos focus on the Altiplano, the high plateau where the Andes Mountains are at their widest and which crosses the borders of Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, is the largest city on the plateau. Families from rural areas are moving into La Paz and its largest satellite city, El Alto, because the agricultural way of life they rely on is no longer viable due to a lack of water. These families move into slums in the cities, like the one captured below, hoping to find better paying jobs.

Rural areas are struggling because the glaciers they rely upon are melting, which means less water for farming or snow for skiing. The lodge shown below was formerly a part of the highest ski resort in the world, but now sits empty because the Chacaltaya Glacier, which filled the adjacent valley, melted entirely in 2009 due to warmer and more frequent El Nino events.

Mountains in the Andes, like Condoriri, currently show what the region would look like without the effects of climate change. Glaciologist Edison Ramirez conducted a study that predicted, however, that the glaciers on the mountain may completely melt over the course of the next thirty years.

The melting of the glaciers has already had negative effects; along the shores of the dried up Lake Poopo sit quinoa plants in desiccated soil. Migration from rural areas to Bolivia’s cities is driven by drought. The difficulties created by drought are contributing to residents’ moves into bigger cities.

Lake Poopo was previously the second largest lake in Bolivia. As of 2015, it sits empty. 

Other lakes and ponds in the Altiplano are at risk of suffering the same fate; below is a pond in the process of drying up. The melting of the glaciers and the lakes they feed is significant because the Altiplano does not get enough rain to support those who live there—It relies on glacial melt to support the human population.

Since the series on Bolivia was posted in late June, @everydayclimatechange has highlighted water shortages in Chennai, India; wildfires in Yosemite; and youth climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish youth climate activist.  

All photos by James Whitlow Delano @jameswhitlowdelano for @everydayclimatechange.

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New Report Documents Pakistan’s Water Insecurity

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A map of the mean annual precipitation in Pakistan, illustrating the country’s aridity (Source: United Nations Development Programme).

Water security is a pervasive issue in Pakistan, a largely arid country. The majority of the country receives less than 300mm of rain per year, while a small region in the north receives upwards of 1000 mm per year. The Indus River provides much of the water to the area, but its flow is irregular due to the variable precipitation. Moreover, the river originates partly in Pakistan and partly in India, creating additional political challenges that stem from the decades-long history of tension between the two countries.

Last month, the United Nations Development Programme released a Development Advocate Pakistan report that describes the uncertain future of water in Pakistan, which is impacted by changing climate and melting glaciers, as well as political issues with neighboring India. The report’s editors suggest several ways to increase water stability in Pakistan. They advise increasing public awareness because the lack of trust stems in part from incomplete access to data and information. They also recommend high efficiency irrigation systems and updating academic curriculum in the country to include sustainable development.

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A road passes through Tharparkar, a region in southern Pakistan (Source: Rcbutcher/Creative Commons).

As the report describes, the region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan provides most of the water in the glaciated parts of the country. Altitudes exceed 5000 meters with annual snowfall of approximately 5000 millimeters in the highest regions. This zone is the largest area of perennial glaciers outside the polar regions; nearly one third of the Gilgit-Baltistan area is glaciated. The meltwater of these glaciers contribute a massive volume of freshwater, which forms a significant component of the flow into the Indus River.

The variability of river flows as a result of monsoon seasons has led to water crises and conflicts between provinces, as well as neighboring countries. The Indus Water Treaty has allowed for peaceful relations between Pakistan and its neighbor India for the past 40 years. As Justin Rowlatt describes in his BBC report from September 2016, the Indus Water Treaty has survived two wars and numerous military impasses between the two countries. However, the increased water stress in the Indus River basin since the early 1990s has strained the treaty. 

Coverage of the UNDP report in Indian and Pakistani newspapers has unsurprisingly varied. A recent article in the Times of India covering the report emphasized Pakistan’s negligence and delays in presenting cases to the Indus Water Treaty. An article in the Hindustan Times reports that, “Pakistan has cleverly employed the IWT to have its cake and eat it too” by receiving the larger amount of water the treaty allots for downstream States, while also using the treaty to sustain conflict with India.

The coverage of the issue by Pakistani newspapers is sparser. In one editorial published in Pakistan Today, the author calls the UNDP report a “wake-up call” and urges cooperation between Pakistan and India to resolve the dispute.

The treaty itself fails to address two important issues. The first is that it does not provide for a division of water during shortages in the dry years between India and Pakistan. The second is that it does not discuss the cumulative impact of reservoirs on the flows of the Chenab River, a major tributary of the Indus, into Pakistan.

On a fundamental level, the government of Pakistan does not think the Indus Water Treaty is effective because its people are not satisfied with the amount of water received, but the government of India does not wish to amend the treaty or address water conflict between the countries in other contexts. The treaty allows India to create reservoirs on nearby rivers to store water for hydropower and flood shortages. This provision has created conflicts between Pakistan and India, since India controls the flow of most of these dams and reservoirs.

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The Jhelum River in Pakistan (Source: Myasinilyas/Creative Commons).

The Jhelum River also presents a problem to Pakistan’s water security. The river is controlled by India, but is a major source of irrigation and hydropower for Pakistan. If India were to close the gates of the river for long periods, it would have a detrimental impact on Pakistan. As relations between Pakistan and India continue to decline, India has threatened to use water as a political weapon. The “possibility of turning off the taps has been raised before, but never as forcefully as this,” explains Rowlatt in his BBC article,

Pakistan itself contributes to the dysfunction of the treaty. As the editors explain in the UNDP report, “Pakistan’s negligence in conducting sound analysis and delays in presenting cases to the Indus Water Commission of World Bank” has slowed progress.

The Times of India reports that following the release of the UNDP report, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with the World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva to discuss the dispute over the Indus Water Treaty. Sharif hopes that a Court of Arbitration helps solve the dispute, while the government of India requested the World Bank nominate a neutral expert to solve the disagreement. The World Bank Group is a signatory to the Treaty and has encouraged both India and Pakistan to agree to mediation on the issue. It is clear that without some sort of institutional change, Pakistan’s water security will become less certain as climate continues to change and tensions with India escalate. 

 

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Roundup: Modeling Floods, Water Security, and Farmland

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news. 

Modeling glacial lake outburst flood process chain: the case of Lake Palcacocha and Huaraz, Peru

From Hydrology and Earth System Sciences:

“One of the consequences of recent glacier recession in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru, is the risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) from lakes that have formed at the base of retreating glaciers. GLOFs are often triggered by avalanches falling into 5 glacial lakes, initiating a chain of processes that may culminate in significant inundation and destruction downstream. This paper presents simulations of all of the processes involved in a potential GLOF originating from Lake Palcacocha, the source of a previously catastrophic GLOF on 13 December 1941, killing 1800 people in the city of Huaraz, Peru.”1

To learn more about the research, click here.

Forum reveals new possibilities for water-induced disaster management in the Koshi basin

From ICIMOD:

“Top officials and experts from the Koshi region gathered in Patna, Bihar on Thursday for a two-day forum to discuss solutions around water security and water-induced disasters in the Koshi basin. Coming after years of devastating floods in southern Nepal and Bihar, the forum emphasised regional cooperation and collecting evidence-based data that can be translated into policy.”2

To learn more about the research, click here.

The Changes in Regional Structure and Land Use Related to External Factors in Hussaini Village, Northern Pakistan

From Mapping Transition in the Pamirs:

“This study describes changes to regional structure and the use of farmlands in Hussaini village, Pakistan, caused by two events. The first event was the opening of the Karakoram Highway in 1978 that introduced commodities and a money market economy. The enhanced transportation increased access to markets, which spurred a transition from subsistence wheat cultivation and vegetable crops to potato cash crops. The second event was the catastrophic landslide in Atabad which occurred on 4 January 2010 that submerged part of the Karakoram Highway and created a dammed lake. The loss of the highway halted the village’s engagement in the wider agricultural market, and farmlands in the village reverted to traditional agriculture. The changes caused by these outside factors created confusion and disturbance and challenged the villagers to quickly adapt for survival.”3

To learn more about the research, click here.

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