Bolivia’s current water crisis is the tip of a melting iceberg

The Bolivian government has declared a “national emergency” as water shortages grip five of the country’s nine departments, and severe rationing has been imposed on La Paz–El Alto, the two-city metropolis that is the seat of government and center of highland life in the country. (Coverage: Guardian 1 | 2| photos; La Razón 1)

As La Razón reports:

It all began in an inopportune manner on November 7, when a rumor unsettled the residents of La Paz: water was getting scare. One day later, the Public Water and Sanitation Company (Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento; EPSAS) began to apply a rationing plan that would grow harsher and harsher until this Sunday regular 72 hour cutoff of water supply were set, with just three hours of running water for 94 neighborhoods in the city.

In many cases the schedule was not kept, provoking neighborhood complaints, and now long lines of residents in the affected neighborhoods await the few tanker trucks that are available in the city.

In the last few hours, the supply plan has spread to other neighboroods in La Paz and El Alto.

Todo comenzó intempestivamente el 7 de noviembre, cuando el rumor de que el agua escaseaba en La Paz inquietó a sus habitantes. Un día después, la Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento (EPSAS) comenzó a aplicar un plan de racionamiento que se endureció progresivamente al punto de fijar este domingo cortes de servicio de 72 horas con solo tres para la dotación de agua en 94 barrios de la urbe.

En muchos casos, el cronograma no se cumplió lo que provocó la queja de los vecinos, que ahora hacen largas colas en los barrios afectados a la espera de los pocos camiones cisterna que hay disponibles en la urbe.

En las últimas horas el plan de suministro también se ajustó en otros barrios de La Paz y de la ciudad de El Alto.

The crisis combines a periodic drought, which last hit Bolivia this hard 25 years ago, and the worsening effects of climate change. The 1980s drought set off the explosive urbanization from the Altiplano into La Paz’s twin city El Alto and spurred migration to the Chapare, soon to become a coca growing center and the home base of current president Evo Morales.

Climate change is the slower, but more inexorable threat. As a World Bank report, Turn down the heat: Confronting the new climate normal, observed:

Major population centers, such as Bogota and Quito, rely on páramo water as a significant supply source. The melting of the Andean glaciers, increasingly unpredictable seasonal rainfall patterns, and the overuse of underground reserves are affecting the urban centers of the highlands (e.g., La Paz, El Alto, and Cusco), which rely to some extent on glacial melt for dry season water supplies and are already facing dire shortages. The arid coastal plain of Peru faces similar challenges. Water shortage has become a huge risk and a source of tension in Lima, which is dependent on water from the Andes. (v. 2, p. 92–94)

screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-9-48-44-amThe high altitude of the Andes Mountains has allowed significant glaciers to exist for thousands of years, even in the warm Holocene epoch when human civilization flourished. As we enter the Anthropocene, however, industrial changes to the atmosphere are likely to clear nearly all permanent ice cover from the tropics of South America. Glaciers are now declining at 3%/year throughout the region (see graph, right from p. 57 of the World Bank report).

Even optimistic scenarios for climate action leave little hope for tropical Andean glaciers. Between 66  and 94% of the ice mass from Venezuela to Bolivia is expected to be gone by 2100, provided that global warming is limited to 2C. A 4C warming would complete eliminate tropical glaciers, and leave just half of the Patagonia ice in Argentina and Chile by 2100 (p. 58–59).In the coming decades, glacial meltwater may temporarily offset some water crises, if supplies are managed effectively and kept clean.

Climate scientists have recently offered stark warnings to the Bolivian government on the threat of climate change to generate flash floods and to imperil water supplies.

The Bolivian government seems to have been caught off guard by the current crisis, however. Research documenting new mining concessions on the ice of La Paz’s iconic Mount Illimani has touched off public alarm and official denials. (Additionally, the venerable Cochabamba-based research group CEDIB has suffered online harassment in the wake of its revelations).

In the long run, however, the Altiplano capital’s vital resources are in question. As climate scientist Simon Cook asks, “Most glaciers will be gone or much diminished by the end of the century – so where will the water come from in the dry season?” Bolivia’s recent and long-term history has been marked by massive internal migration among its regions. The last of these has quadrupled the size of La Paz–El Alto metropolis. It remains to be seen whether the twenty-first century climate migrations that are likely in the region will come in the form of sudden tragic crises or a collectively managed transition to sustainable living. This month has offered cautionary rather than hopeful signs.

Photo above: The dried-up reservoir of the Ajuan Khota dam near La Paz. By David Mercado-Reuters.

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