Environment

Enormous Lake In Bolivia Has Nearly Dried Up

January 24, 2016 | by Josh L Davis

Photo credit: The picture on the left shows the lake in 2013, while the one on the right was taken this year. NASA

Teeming with fish and wildlife, it used to be Bolivia’s second-largest lake, but now Lake Poopó has been reduced to little more than a dusty plain. In just a matter of years the water body that used to support hundreds of families living on its edge has been reduced to around just two percent of its original size. While the Bolivian officials are putting it down to climate change and the continuing impact of El Niño, others are blaming the government for mismanaging the vital water source.

Located on the Bolivian altiplano at an altitude of 3,700 meters (12,139 feet), in the 1990s it used to cover an area of 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles), making it second in size only to the well-known Lake Titicaca. But due to repeated droughts and the diversion of tributaries for mining, the level of the salt water lake has continued to drop, until last year when El Niño, which some consider to be the worst in a century, virtually finished it off. Millions of fish are thought to have died, as well as hundreds of birds that used to live in the wetlands.  

The lake in 2009, teeming with flamingoes, fish, and other wildlife. green_lava/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

This isn’t the first time that the lake had dried up – it did so in 1997 – giving some people hope that it could return at some point. But others warn that with the melting of the glaciers high in the Andes, and the ramping up of climate change, this scenario is now unlikely. When the current drought lifts and the rains return, it is expected to fill up a little, but it is not thought that it will last. This had led to calls for the government to do something to try and help ease the situation.

So far it’s estimated that two thirds of the families, some 500 in total, have left the community that used to exist on the lake shore. Made up of fishermen and farmers raising sheep and alpaca, there is now little left for them to make a living from, forcing the government to provide at least 3,000 people with humanitarian aid just for them to survive.

The lake used to get most of its water from the Desaguardero River, which flows from the larger Lake Titicaca, and considering Titicaca still has plenty of water it seems odd that Poopó is now so arid. The heavy build-up of red silt where the river used to enter the lake gives a hint as to what might also be going on. It is largely thought that this silt has come from the multitude of mining outfits which take place further up the river and divert it. The silt is thought to be a result of the mining, which has also added toxic tailing into the mix.

Despite this, the government still maintains that the blame lays on the changing climate, and has requested that the European Union provide the country with $140 million (£97.5 million) to dredge the tributaries such as the Desaguadero, as well as to build water treatment plants in the rest of the lakes watershed. All these schemes, however, are probably too little, too late. 

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