UPDATE: Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America. Despite its contribution to global greenhouse emissions being only 0.03%, it will be one of the first to bear the consequences of climate change, writes Rebecca Zhou.
Bolivia’s leading glaciologist, Edson Ramirez, and his team of researchers began studying the Chacaltaya Glacier on South America’s Andes Ranges in 1991 after it showed signs of decline in the late 1980s. They forecasted a complete meltdown by 2015. But in May 2009 it vanished into scarcely more than a shiny sliver, six years premature to Ramirez’s prediction. The rate of thaw had tripled in the last ten years.
The glacier was over 18,000-year-old and was one of the highest ski resorts on Earth. Skiing stopped altogether in about 1989 with the only remnant of a once robust ski culture being an old ski lodge. In 1998 when the ski lift finally shut down, Chacaltaya was still 15 metres thick and losing one metre a year. In 2007 when Mark Corcoran from ABC’s Foreign Correspondent paid a visit to the region and spoke to Edson Ramirez, there were still 3-4 metres of ice left. Ramirez told Corcoran that he would give the remnants some two years to disappear. This time he was right.
Alex Sen Gupta, a researcher at the Climate Change Research Centre of the University of New South Wales believes that it is a combination of high altitudes and the nature of rainfall characteristic of the region which serves to accelerate the melting of tropical glaciers.
“In the tropics you get more rainfall. More rainfall means more snowfall which is supposed to replenish the glaciers, but it is proving to be insufficient to counter the elevation of temperature levels at high altitudes,” he said.
More than 25 percent of global tropical glaciers, including the Himalayas and the Kilimanjaro have already disappeared.
“We are expecting the same socio-economic problems particularly in Peru and Bolivia already being experienced in India, especially with the guaranteed population expansion in both countries. They will be the first people to feel the impacts of climate change without having the infrastructure to adapt,” he said.
The Chacaltaya is part of Bolivia’s Tuni Condoriri glaciated mountain system. Over the past decade the glaciers have been hit by an unprecedented number of El Ninos, a complex water phenomenon triggered by erratic patterns of rising and cooling temperatures on opposite ends of the Pacific Ocean. The hot air in Australia moves down the Peruvian coast and the effect on Boliva is a constant state of low cloud and subsequent low precipitation and high radiation causing the glacier to absorb massive levels of that radiation. The low levels of snowfall resulting from low rainfall deprive the glacier of a chance to replenish from the harsh suns of high altitudes.
Bolivia has long been the poorest and most under-developed country in Latin America with an average annual income in rural areas of only US $150.
The glacier system provides more than half of the water used in the cities of La Paz and El Alto. El Alto will be more severely affected due to higher levels of poverty primarily in the indigenous migrant population. In the next decade, the population residing in the city’s vast slums is set to double as indigenous people migrate in search of work. The lack of water has always been an issue with an estimated 2.3 million people in deprivation of safe water or sanitation. The issue however, resonates from a history of civil conflicts over the resource.
The politics of water in Bolivia
In 1997 the Bolivian government began privatising water systems under pressure from the World Bank. The Bank had argued that its intention was to improve the water situation of the country by removing it from the control of corrupt local governments. But the World Bank’s ideals failed to live up to reality. The final privatization occurred in 1998 in the country’s third largest city of Cochabamba with the water contract with Bechtel and the Abengoa Corporation of Spain. It paved the way for rate increases of double and more for poor water users. The market then determined the pricing of water and prices were hiked up suddenly and steeply in the necessity of financing the 16 percent annual profit demanded by the companies. In 2005 protestors filled the streets of El Alto en masse and the Bolivian government declared martial law in a last resort to save the company’s contract. The riot led to over a hundred casualties.
In 2006 a socialist left government was elected and water privatisation was abolished to make way for a new law that would be negotiated with the public and social organisations. An official special council, the Consejo Interinstitucional del Agua (CONIAG), was created at the suggestion of civil society and social organizations and was charged with drafting a water management law based on public consultation. This was an unprecedented gesture as Bolivia had rarely sought public input into policy-making.
But the lofty leftist ideals of Morale’s government about water being state property and a non-profitable right of the citizens does not solve the cash problem as private investments represent Bolivia’s only leverage from the crisis.
Infrastructure projects totaling US$60 million may guarantee El Alto-La Paz enough water for the next decade or so, said EPSAS director Victor Rico, but the utility has no more than US$1.5 million a year to invest. Rico has secured a US$5.5 million Venezuelan loan and said he has promises of a US$5 million grant from the EU, the possibility of US$8 million in mixed Canadian financing and possibly some Japanese and InterAmerican Development Bank money.
Now, the rapid disintegration of the cities’ primary source of water will only complicate the issue.
What this means for Bolivia’s water supply
More than 11 million people now live in the twin cities, and El Alto alone is expanding at 5 percent a year with migrants coming into the city in search for work. More than 60 percent of their drinking water comes from the glaciers.
The UNIPCC (United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change) report on the regional impacts of climate change suggests that arid and semi-arid areas are particularly vulnerable to changes in water availability as hydropower generation and water supply for humans and livestock largely depend on local water catchments.
Without the glaciers, scientists fear that the region will have to depend on the scarce 400mm rainfall per year. The issue of electricity is also a pressing one with the hydroelectric dam sitting atop the Andes relying on glacier run-off to drive its turbines. The dam provides 80 percent of La Paz’s power.
“Tropical glaciers act as a reservoir of water for the dry seasons and moderators of rainfall throughout the wet ones,” said Dr Sen Gupta.
“They spread the rainfall so that you get gradual rain throughout the year. Without those glaciers, what will happen is that rain will come in irregular patterns and in larger flows during wet seasons and become even scarcer during dry ones.”
“Those effects are vital during September and November, when ice is melting and water demand is at its maximum. The discharge from basins is critical during those months as the nearby Altiplano basins begin emptying.”
He says that to counteract the sporadic rainfall melting glaciers would cause, more dams and catchments would have to be constructed at strategic areas. This will increase the cost of water supply to Andean cities and potentially trigger civil conflicts as the issue of water prices has done in the past. The additional costs of flow regulation in basins would also manifest in increased water tariffs for small to medium-sized irrigation systems, rendering the poor more vulnerable.
A Bolivian government climate change planner, Javier Gonzalez told ABC Foreign Correspondent in 2007 that the city cannot afford to build catchment dams due to the government funding that would be required to build such infrastructure in a highly complex earthquake-prone zone.
“The crux of the problem is that these people are so incredibly poor and they simply can’t afford the infrastructure that’s needed to counter these impacts,” said Dr Sen Gupta, “And we see this in cities around other tropical glacier regions like the Indian communities around the Himalayas and the Tanzanian ones near Mount Kilimanjaro.”
The meltdown of these glaciers causes problems of water quality as well. Mining is often conducted without consideration of environmental impacts. The runoff from the glacier flows into a dam that’s been built beside an abandoned mine from which toxic effluent continues to flow. The authorities have been dealing with the problem by filtering the contaminants downstream but as the run off grows scarce the concentration levels of toxins will increase and that solution will no longer be viable.
Natural disasters and infectious diseases
Glaciers have always acted as reservoirs and floodgates, storing water as snow and ice, and gradually releasing it throughout the year. Now water often arrives in unregulated torrents. Flash floods have been a regular occurrence, destroying homes and killing over 70 people in 2008.
Carlos Céspedes, head of planning for the National Naval Hydrology Service, said in an interview with Tierraamerica that climate change has exacerbated the El Nino effect and caused heavier and more constant rainfall. The Ranchers Federation in the north-eastern department of Beni estimates at least 22,000 head of cattle dead. Other losses, not yet quantified, are related to the farming sector there and in Santa Cruz and Pando, where rice and soybean crops were hit.
The increase in infectious diseases is another factor for concern. In 2008, Marilyn Aparicio, a physician at the state National Program for Climate Change discovered a new strain for malaria near Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake 12,507 feet.
The change in the entire ecosystem around Lake Titica is evident in the outbreak of malaria in all sectors of the population, not just in migrating peoples. In 1998 there was an outbreak of 50 cases in a town of 250 citizens at an altitude of 11,000 feet
Her studies showed that some anopheles mosquitoes have adapted to living at altitudes between 2,620 and 3,590 metres — conditions very different from their usual environment: warm, tropical and subtropical regions below 2,600 metres.
Four cases were announced by the Ministry of Health in November 2008 confirmed scientists fears that the malaria will spread across the high plains of altiplano, home to one-third of the nation’s population.
“Most of Bolivia is over three or four thousand feet above sea level. It’s hard because you’ve already got cases of dengue and malaria,” said Dr Sen Gupta, “What will happen now is a widening of the temperature belt outwards from the more tropical regions, carrying vectors along to even higher altitudes.”
Paul Begg, an environmental scientist at Macquarie University has been studying the potential impacts of climate change on allergy and has concluded pollen levels are expected to rise, guaranteeing an increase in asthma and hay fever.
“Studies show that we are already seeing a prevalence in pollen levels during seasons where they should be very low,” said Dr Begg, “Currently allergy diseases are primarily a concern for developed countries because children are raised in more sterile environments that cause their immune system to develop in irregular ways but developing countries are also at risk as they continue to westernise.”
With 2.3 million people already facing a lack of clean water, ill-equipped healthcare facilities and a population that is set to double in the next decade, the people of La Paz and El Alto are facing their direst situation yet.
Only 30% of the rural areas in Bolivia have access to electricity. The irony of global warming is that those communities are paying the highest price for a luxury they’ve never experienced.
South America’s glacier crisis
The Pantagonian ice-fields of Chile and Argentina are melting faster than any other glacier on Earth. They have lost 42 cubic kilometers of ice every year over the past seven years, which is equivalent to the size of ten thousand large football stadiums. They account for nearly 10 per cent of global sea-level change caused by mountain glaciers, according to a new study by NASA and Chile’s Centro de Estudios Cientificos, and the rate at which they are melting is accelerating…