Foretelling a Post-Water Future

Lessons from the Andean Plain

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It seems like a passage from Latin American fiction—a surreal scenario in which citizens awaken to find their country dry, and a mustached general rationing their water. But for citizens of La Paz, Bolivia, this is not a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel—it is their reality.

For eleven years, scientists like Edson Ramirez warned government officials that climate change would create water shortage on the Andean Plain. Global organizations like Oxfam and the Stockholm Environmental Institute issued warnings and reported the effects of climate change.

Ramirez, a professor at the Institute of Hydraulics and Hydrology of the Higher University of San Andres in La Paz, began measuring the Chacaltaya glacier in 1998. At that time, it measured 15 meters thick and was shrinking at a rate of 1 meter per year. He predicted that it would disappear by 2015. In 2005 he met with politicians to voice his concerns. They dismissed his claims. By 2009, the glacier had vanished.

As he explained to Popular Science’s Leslie Kaufman, Bolivia is responsible for 0.35 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (compared to the US’s 14.4 percent), but because of the country’s location and elevation, it is experiencing the impact of those carbon emissions at a faster rate than the US.

La Paz is located in the high tropics at nearly 12,000 feet in altitude. Its position there means that it sees the effects of climate change sooner than many other places. With a warming planet, many of the world’s glaciers are disappearing. In fact, 37.4 percent of the Andes’ tropical glaciers melted between 1980 and 2009 according to Kaufman’s article. Temperatures on the Altiplano rose 2 degrees Celsius. And the reality is that the same forces that are causing La Paz’s water scarcity are not limited to the Andean Plain, they’re affecting the environment worldwide.

In early November, the Bolivian government declared a state of emergency. Overnight officials cut water to 94 of the city’s neighborhoods, leaving half of its 800,000 residents without any water source. The government promised to turn the taps back on but days went by and nothing came out of the faucet.

Citizens commandeered the tanker trucks that distributed the city’s dwindling supply. The government sent in the Water General, Brig. General Mario Enrique Peinado Salas, to manage the rationing system and quell civil unrest. Today, citizens skip work and forgo plans to line up to fill any container they can when the tap flows, which in some cities is every three days for a few hours.

“La Paz has now entered a post-water world,” writes Kaufman, “where strict rationing is a way of life for many.” Could Bolivia’s water scarcity portend the future of life elsewhere on our planet? What lessons can we extract from these circumstances in order to prevent similar situations?

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Comments
  • Jim Newman.

    And how many articles have been written about future wars being about water rather than oil, some of which are already happening?
    I wonder how long it’s going to take the U.S. government to figure this out…
    After all is said and done, most humans can go up to 3 weeks without food , not feeling very well of course, but only 3 days without liquids.

    Reply
  • Milt Burgess.

    Setting aside the climate change issues, there is no suggestion in the piece that the Bolivian government has employed either direct or indirect potable recycling. Apparently the residents of La Paz are still treating their water once and then discharging the wastewater without IPR or DPR processses to reclaim wastewater. Rationing seems to be the only government action. No question the effects of climate change, whether manmade or not are happening. The question for the Bolivian government is, do they have the will to provide water by recycling or not? If not, then the migration of their people will be to where there is water.

    Reply
    • Laura S.

      Indeed. From what I’ve read, financial constraints are a major hurdle for the Bolivian government, as well as a history of complex water politics. In the 1990s, many Bolivian cities privatized their water systems, hoping that outside investment from American and French companies would solve their problems. But prices climbed and people rebelled by ousting the corporations. In 2009, Bolivia’s new constitution described water as a fundamental human right and gave the Bolivian government the responsibility of defender. Figuring out a way to finance that is the challenge.

      Reply
  • Edo McGowan.

    People seem to misplace critical trust by handing over control to political and bureaucratic processes. This is but an example. I oversaw the environmental comings and goings for 22 nations in Africa. Politicians by their nature and function have to deal with compromise, half-truths, spin, and kicking cans on down the road. Bureaucrats often deal with inadequate funding and a form of make believe coming out of the political levels which is reflected by non-action. Bureaucratic statements like “not on my watch” or “it’s above my pay grade” help assure non-action. The example discussed in this blog will be seen to repeat itself globally starting at first in the developing and economically stressed areas and then one day, those in the in the developed world will find it at their door step. It was also once said that politically, people get what they deserve. Churchill noted, however “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.”

    Dr Edo McGowan

    Reply
  • Rob McCoy.

    I have often thought that water resource professionals would one day wear a badge and have a fire arm. Water is a precious resource. The Bolivian crisis is a foreshadow of what is to come. However, shortages of water can be the result of many things other than greenhouse gas emissions. I would be curious as to what is the rate of deforestation in the area of concern. Oftentimes, illegal mining operations go into a protected forest area and clear cut an area in order to mine for gold. The civilization at Nazca ended due to water shortages. This was long before the invention of the combustion engine. Deforestation was at the root of their demise. Could the same be said for Bolivia? Just curious.

    Reply
  • I wonder if the Professor has researched what the glacier thickness was 100 years ago, and maybe 200 years ago. I’m guessing he would be surprised to find out the glacier has been shrinking for hundreds if not thousands of years. Of course that wouldn’t fit his agenda.

    Reply

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