Bolivia faces water crisis as drought accelerates glacier loss

Gabriel Romano

Chacaltaya, Bolivia, Sept 27 (EFE).- The drought faced by Bolivia in recent months has accelerated the extinction of several Andean glaciers, triggering a water crisis in the country.

Western Bolivia has been hardest hit, where the high plateau is surrounded by mountains that feed several rivers, part of the Amazon basin to the north, and the La Plata River to the south.

In the city of Potosí, warnings have been issued about the depletion of the lagoons that provide water for human consumption, while in El Alto and its neighbor La Paz, local authorities are monitoring the decline of dams and preparing contingency plans.

The valleys and tropical areas of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz departments, in the center and east of the country, also feel the effects of the drought.

“If we don’t have water security, it can affect food security and hydroelectric security,” glaciologist and researcher at Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (UMSA) Edson Ramírez told EFE.

Drought and glaciers

“Bolivia experienced intense precipitation for the last three years thanks to the La Niña phenomenon, but in 2023, the lack of rain has become the norm in the highland region characterized by “heavy rainfall,” Ramírez said.

The expert pointed out that the country is now moving toward the El Niño phase, associated with a “rain deficit.” Bolivia is expected to go “from a drought to a worse drought.”

He explained that El Niño will cause glaciers to have less accumulated snow that turns to ice and that the “most vulnerable” will be the snow-capped mountains below 5,400 meters.

By the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024, “we will have a powerful impact on the glaciers, especially the smallest ones of less than 2 square kilometers, representing almost 80% of the glaciers in the country,” he added.

Between 1980 and 2010, Bolivia lost “40% of its ice surface,” according to a 2012 study, Ramírez said, while emphasizing that the current period will soon be known to have “more dramatic” results.

The case of Chacaltaya

The Chacaltaya mountain, over 5,400 meters of altitude, was the “highest ski slope in the world” until its glacier melted almost two decades ago due to global warming.

Alpinist Bernardo Guarachi, speaking to EFE, regretted that Chacaltaya is now “pure rock” and that the days when hundreds of tourists came to test their mountaineering skills are over.

Guarachi, who has climbed Mount Everest, the European Alps, and some of the highest mountains in South America, said he has also seen other Bolivian glaciers such as Illimani (6,438) or Huayna Potosí (6,088) thaw.

He has recently held conferences to raise awareness about the loss of snow-capped mountains, warning people of the “sad” future if nothing is done.

In Chacaltaya, only two old abandoned shelters remain, with collapsed roofs and broken windows. Occasionally, groups of tourists hike to the rocky peak where the ski slope used to be.

“The ski slope disappeared in 2006, and since then, this place has only been used as an altitude acclimatization center for walking and climbing,” says Adolfo Mendoza, 70, who worked at the shelters for 38 years.

The preference for Chacaltaya was replaced by Mount Charquini (5,390), whose thaw was also warned in early 2022.

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