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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The Struggle for Water in the Andes

A version of this post originally appeared in the University Post, University of Copenhagen, on May 17, 2018.

It is four o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday. The 25-year-old Peruvian man, whom we will call Jhonatan, closes the door to his small cabin, in which his parents also are beginning their daily chores. The cabin is located at 3,700 meters altitude in the Andes Mountains. Jhonatan begins his journey up the mountainside in front of him with a pickaxe on his back.

After a four hour hike in the chilly mountain air, he arrives at his final destination– the place where the canal splits in two. Jhonatan begins shoveling mud and stones from one of the two water passages into the other. Soon, the water changes its course, and Jhonatan’s work is done.

During the next eight hours, the water will find its way to Jhonatan’s fields. Then a new villager will have reached the canal to take his turn on shoveling mud and stones to the benefit of other fields in the local community. The water users in the community will keep taking turns every eight hours until it once again is Jhonatan’s turn to climb the mountain.

”They are poor but well-organized,” the young assistant professor Mattias Borg Rasmussen says. He continues, ”The amount of work they every day put into getting water to their fields and out of their taps is amazing.”

The Abandonment by the State

Rasmussen has followed two Peruvian village societies in the Andes Mountains in order to understand how they value water and claim authority over it. The love for Peru is clearly visible in his office, with Latin American maps and colorful tapestry on the wall. The enthusiasm began during a visit in 2001 and developed during his year as an exchange student in Peru in 2003 to 2004. It made him come back to do his M.A., Ph.D. and postdoc. Over the years, great changes have happened.

“In the 2000s, Peru experienced an enormous economic development. You could see how Lima changed as a city in the 10 years. More and more shopping malls and great restaurants appeared,” Rasmussen says.

Lake Palcacocha above the main city of Huaraz is drained using siphons to avoid Glacier Lake Outburst Floods. In 1941, a GLOF levelled Huaraz to the ground (Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen).

Not everybody in Peru enjoys the benefits of the economic growth. In the small societies in the mountains, Rasmussen witnessed a growing inequality. Still more than half of the children were chronically undernourished, and the villagers were on their own when it comes to the increasing difficulties to access and distribute water. Difficulties were exacerbated by the acceleration of melting glaciers in the Andes Mountains due to climate change. At first, the glaciers will create larger amounts of water streaming down the mountainside, but after a certain amount has melted, smaller amounts of water will be flowing downhill. The small mountain villages Rasmussen worked in have less water compared to before.

”They do not experience an equal and fair access to water… There is a lot more attention to meet other parts of the Peruvian society’s needs,” Rasmussen says. “There are great state-sponsored irrigation systems at the coast, which they know exist and they know how much money is spent on them. So they ask: why do we not get a share of this?”

The Peruvians in the villages said they were “abandoned by the state.” This abandonment combined with a “troublesome geography” makes Peru “one of the most vulnerable countries in the context of climate-change,” according to Rasmussen.

Adding Anthropology into a Scientific Calculation

As an anthropologist, Rasmussen belongs to a minority at the faculty of science at the University of Copenhagen. At the Department of Food and Resource Economics, he is part of an interdisciplinary group working on development issues in the global South. Here different worlds of academia intertwine and support each other. When talking about the effects of melting glaciers in Peru, Rasmussen cannot make complex calculations of glaciers, but still his knowledge is valuable in order to understand how people manage the water available. The management has great influence on the actual consequences of the melting ice. This sort of contribution is shown in an article he made with glaciologists.

”I think and hope that when we keep trying to explain and understand other peoples’ reality, we may be able to include them when we undertake new measures,” Rasmussen elaborates.

In the mountain villages, the small communities manage their water through systems of committees and commissions. Jhonatan participates in one of the area’s local committees in which he and other users of the canals collaborate to improve existing canals by, for example, cementing the ground of the canals to improve the water flow. The committees also organize the construction of new canals and collaborate on maintenance of existing ones.

A community member inspects the construction of a new irrigation canal (Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen).

“Every once in a while the users of the canal would meet up with bucket, shovel and donkey– ready to clean up the canal,” Rasmussen says. On top of the committees, Jhonatan is also part of the local commission in which 20 committees collaborate to get the largest amounts of water possible to the area. The immense collaboration emerges from cultural ideas.

”They have a very strong cultural understanding that water is a common good… They see water as life,” he says.

This is one of the reasons why the villagers feared the state would put prices on the water, as seen in Chile, for example. Knowledge on local ideas and thoughts is crucial in order not to let one perception of life (for example, a western idea of water as a resource with a price) rank above another.

“You start to erase other peoples’ lifeworld. You establish a hierarchy where our valuation of something is more important and valid than theirs,” Rasmussen says.

The Whole Family on a Field Trip

During his research in the Peruvian mountains, Rasmussen faced some challenges. “It is a hard place to work. It is not the easiest people to get on close terms with, it takes a lot of patience and attention,” he explains.

His toughest challenge, though, emerged far from the Andes Mountains. Rasmussen recalls the sacrifices on the home front during his three-month fieldwork in his postdoc when his oldest son was one year old. “There is no doubt that is my biggest challenge,” he says, referring to balancing life at home with long-term fieldwork.

But, it seems that he may have found a way to kill two birds with one stone. In 2017, Rasmussen took the family with him on his field trip to Argentina. The family had grown a member, and the eldest turned four during their stay. Apart from not being separated from the family, the family trip had another surprising bonus.

”I had my big boy with me in the field most of the days, where I was out talking with people. Because I had him with me, it was easier to talk with people because they could see what sort of character I was,” Rasmussen says. He continues, “If you come as a stranger to an unfamiliar place, people want to measure you to know what sort of person has arrived. To have my boy with me meant I already was shaped in a sort of familiar picture.”

In the future, Rasmussen might repeat the family-fieldwork success in Patagonia in Argentina, where his next project takes place. The subject is natural resources, and this time he and colleague Marieve Pouliot will focus on the resource conflicts with the local citizens on one side and national parks trying to control the resources on the other.

”It is a very good place to understand what kind of mechanisms– it can be legal, institutional or cultural– open up a region to extraction of natural resources,” Rasmussen explains. He says about his future hopes for his research on frontier dynamics, something which he has already written about with Christian Lund, “I want to do something larger on how Patagonia is made into a place favorable for extracting natural resources.”

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Roundup: Hazard Films, Water Scarcity, and Peace Building

Roundup: Films, Water and Peace

 

Films Raise Awareness in Volcanic Regions

From Science Direct: “The medium of film is well established for education and communication about hazardous phenomena as it provides engaging ways to directly view hazards and their impacts… Using volcanic eruptions as a focus, an evidence-based methodology was devised to create, use, and track the outcomes of digital film tools designed to raise hazard and risk awareness, and develop preparedness efforts. Experiences from two contrasting eruptions were documented, with the secondary purpose of fostering social and cultural memories of eruptions, developed in response to demand from at-risk communities during field-based research. The films were created as a partnership with local volcano monitoring scientists and at-risk populations who, consequently, became the leading focus of the films, thus offering a substantial contrast to other types of hazard communication.”

Read more about it here.

A map of St. Vincent showing the main road, water courses and volcanic hazard zones (source: Hicks et al.).

 

An Overview of Water Issues in Mountain Asia

From Cambridge Core: “Asia, a region grappling with the impacts of climate change, increasing natural disasters, and transboundary water issues, faces major challenges to water security. Water resources there are closely tied to the dramatic Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) mountain range, where over 46,000 glaciers hold some of the largest repositories of fresh water on earth. Often described as the water tower of Asia, the HKH harbors the snow and ice that form the headwaters of the continent’s major rivers. Downstream, this network of river systems sustains more than 1.3 billion people who depend on these freshwater sources for their consumption and agricultural production, and increasingly as a source of hydropower.”

Learn more about the HKH area here.

View from Cholpon-Ata across the lake towards the Tian-Shan Mountains in Asia (source: Thomas Depenbusch/Flickr).

 

The Pathway of Peaceful Living

From Te Kaharoa: “This paper traces the peacebuilding efforts of Anne Te Maihāora Dodds (Waitaha) in her North Otago community over the last twenty-five years. The purpose of this paper is to record these unique localized efforts, as a historical record of grass-roots initiatives aimed at creating a greater awareness of indigenous and environmental issues… The paper discussed several rituals and pilgrimages. It describes the retracing of ancestral footsteps of Te Heke Ōmaramataka (2012), the peace walk at Maungatī (2012) and the Ocean to Alps Celebration (1990). This paper also discusses the genesis behind cultural events such.”

Explore more about the Maori nation here.

Tasman Glacier at Mount Cook NP, New Zealand (source: Paco/Flickr).

 

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When Glaciers Melt, Engineers Build Artificial Ones

Artificial glaciers may not serve as a permanent solution to glacial melting, but the technology is still helping subsistence farmers in high mountain ecosystems continue farming with diminishing water supplies, according to a new study from the University of Massachusetts and the University of Pittsburgh.

For the past three decades, certain Himalayan communities have used artificial glaciers, engineered systems that rely on gravity and freezing temperatures to collect and store a seasonal stock of ice in the wintertime. This allows the increasingly water-scarce region to cope during the summertime.

An artificial glacier in Ladakh, India
An artificial glacier in Ladakh, India. (Photo courtesy of Carey Clouse.)

This technology, designed to harvest and regulate water in dry, desert regions that face rapid glacial melting, has been utilized in nine different Himalayan communities since their invention in 1987. During the summertime, the accumulated ice block slowly melts to provide downstream communities a seasonal water supply in the absence of glaciers.  

Scientists and engineers have long written about the promise of artificial glaciers to adapt to climate change. In 2014, GlacierHub published an article about discussions about importing artificial glacier techniques to Oregan to cope with glacial loss.

However, little research exists to substantiate their actualized benefits. The new study aims to fill this gap and show how useful this technology has been and could prove to be in the future.

The study examined six artificial glaciers in the high, dry Himalayan mountains of Ladakh, India, located the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The region, which receives only 100 to 250 mm of precipitation annually, has historically relied on glacier melt water to irrigate its subsistence agriculture crops.

Seventy percent of the region’s workforce depends on farming for their livelihoods. Future glacial melt during the summertime threatens the community’s natural water supply, as well as subsistence agriculture production.

Ladakhi civil engineer Chewang Norphel designed the first artificial glacier in 1987 for the village of Phuksey in North India. He garnered the nickname “Ice Man” after building eleven more artificial glaciers in the region.

The technology usually costs from $6,000 to $22,000 to build, much less than other water infrastructure costs in the area, the study notes.

Artificial glacier design and construction hasn’t yet been standardized, according to the study. Engineers have tested new structures, such as diversion channels, regulator gates, and retaining pools, but continue to test structures through each new project. After their construction, the structures are usually managed by NGOs.

Two locals damming a stone embankment that will serve as an artificial glacier the Ladakh region.
Two locals damming a stone embankment that will serve as an artificial glacier the Ladakh region. (Source: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images.)

Of the six separate artificial glacier sites examined in the study, three were in operation and three were abandoned or not in use. The study aimed to investigate the factors that influenced the artificial glaciers’ respective performances in Ladakh.

The most successful artificial glaciers were located in a north-facing, shaded valley, placed at an altitude of roughly 4,000 meters, and close enough to the village for water access, maintenance, and operation, the study concluded from its six case studies.

The study emphasizes a need for better design and construction of artificial glaciers, as well as more robust management and upkeep. The three artificial glaciers no longer in use failed because of faulty construction or a lack of upkeep, according to the study.

Regardless of their design, artificial glaciers can only serve as a temporary solution to water shortages, the study argues.

“While they may be useful in the short term as a means of stretching the dwindling water resources available to mountain communities, in the long term, artificial glaciers will be vulnerable to the same environmental stresses that impact nature glaciers,” wrote lead author Carey Clouse in an email to GlacierHub.

An artificial glacier in Ladakh, India.
An artificial glacier in Ladakh, India. (Photo courtesy of Carey Clouse.)

Artificial glaciers can only operate with the presence of a natural host glacier. As Indian Himalayan glaciers retreat at a rate of 3.5 percent annually, the region’s more than 2,000 glaciers could disappear within the next few decades. When a glacier disappears, artificial glaciers can no longer be used to trap and regulate water resources.

However, the study still argues for the benefits of well-designed artificial glaciers now and into the distant future. It cites benefits such as providing Ladakhi farmers with greater water control, the ability to maintain subsistence agriculture with lessening water reserves, and the attention the artificial glaciers bring to villages’ water issues.

The study hopes to “stimulate new conversation between the many engineers, villagers, and NGOs working in the region” and to contribute to the growing body of academic research on artificial glaciers.

While artificial glaciers might not be the end-all solution to glacial melt-induced water scarcity, they represent a step forward in using technology to create adaptive, sustainable, and resilient solutions to climate change.

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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.

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Icelandic Richard Branson touts pure water, but at a cost

Icelandic Glacial bottled water founder Jón Ólafsson. (credit: vb.is)
Icelandic Glacial bottled water founder Jón Ólafsson. (credit: vb.is)

Icelandic businessman Jón Ólafsson has some bottled water he wants you to try that’s as clear as can be.

In 2003, when Ólafsson owned 85 percent of all the music recorded in Iceland, he decided to call it quits from his telecom and media empire and try something new. Providing what might be one of the only links between music and bottled water, Ólafsson started Icelandic Glacial, a premium brand of mineral water that has found an audience in Hollywood and caught the eye of Christian Dior, all of which earned him the nickname the “Icelandic Richard Branson.”

Bottles of Icelandic Glacier water have found their way into TV shows like “Dexter” and the “Big Bang Theory“. In 2012, the bottled water company partnered with Christian Dior to include the water in a line of skin-lightening Diorsnow beauty products available in Asia. Earlier this year, Whole Foods announced the brand could now be found in its supermarkets.

Icelandic Glacial water doesn't come from a glacier, but the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland. (source: icelandicglacial.com)
Icelandic Glacial water doesn’t come from a glacier, but the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland. (source: icelandicglacial.com)

Of course, part of the challenge of selling bottled water is you are trying to get people to buy something they can get practically for free. Icelandic Glacier’s marketing revolves around its purported purity; the water comes from the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland that is made up of snow and rainwater that, according to Ólafsson, “goes through lava and takes between 400 and 600 years to reach the river.” In other words, not from a glacier at all, though this is hardly surprising. Some bottled water companies simply use water from municipal supplies.

In an interview with Bloomberg, he said Icelandic Glacier water is “the purest, best, cleanest water there is.” These words show an understanding of different ideas about water. Though scientists can document that distilled water is purer than water from other sources, the strong association of water with nature causes water from remote settings to seem better. And what could be more natural than a glacier from an island like Iceland? The company’s website describes the country as “magical and remarkably pristine.”  Ólafsson may have had some assistance in selecting these adjectives. “Our distinguished partners at Team One captured the essence of Iceland and we’re confident it will be embraced by consumers around the globe,” he said, referring to the advertising group he worked with, a branch of the global advertising giant Saatchi and Sattchi.

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Ólafsson has said in interviews that his water contains a pH of 8.4, which helps the body balance out acidic, low pH drinks like coffee and alcohol. While the alkaline diet has been touted as a way to combat disease and promote health, there have been limited scientific studies to test the validity of these claims.

The company’s website states “We take great pride in running a completely sustainable operation, fueled entirely by geothermal and hydroelectric power.” And it received a “CarbonNeutral” certification from the CarbonNeutral Company, a UK-based consulting group that helps businesses cut carbon emissions through the use of carbon offsets. Offsets themselves are not necessarily reductions in greenhouse gases themselves, but “credits” that can be purchased in projects that reduce such gasses. Nonetheless, the company’s operations pose direct threats to sustainability by encouraging the use of plastic bottles and by promoting long-distance shipping.

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Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Icelandic Glacial shipped 42 tons of bottled water to aid in the relief effort. (photo: Icelandnaturally.com

Of course, Ólafsson’s company is hardly the first to use the cachet of a remote island setting to promote the claim of purity and naturalness in order to market water. Fiji Water bottles its water in the tiny South Pacific nation and ships it all over the world. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Icelandic Glacial water shipped 42 tons of its water to the country. Again the water’s purity and “green energy” were touted as solutions to Haiti’s humanitarian crisis. One wonders if shipping tiny plastic bottles a distance of 4000 miles to Haiti was an effective way to address the problem of providing clean water after that emergency.

You can read here about a Canadian company that does use actual glacier ice in its vodka.

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