Covering Climate Now

Melting snow caps spell water trouble for world's highest capital

Indigenous women in La Paz washing clothes at a municipal laundry, which uses spring water in order to save supply from the public distribution system. Hit by climate change and a water crisis caused by droughts and bad administration, some communiti
Indigenous women in La Paz washing clothes at a municipal laundry, which uses spring water in order to save supply from the public distribution system. Hit by climate change and a water crisis caused by droughts and bad administration, some communities in Bolivia have learnt to adapt to the scarcity of the vital natural resource. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LA PAZ (Bolivia) • Water resources are drying up in the world's highest-elevation capital due to the effects of the Andean glaciers melting, drought and mismanagement.

The 2.7 million people of Bolivian capital La Paz have already been jolted by climate change: A severe drought that lasted for several months from 2016 into 2017 was Bolivia's worst in 25 years, leading to water rationing and widespread protests in several cities.

In a sign of possibly worse to come, the Andean snow caps - which have been relied on to fill the city's reservoirs - are disappearing at a rate that has alarmed scientists.

The severe drought that ran from November 2016 to February 2017 was blamed on the combined effects of the El Nino weather cycle, poor water management and climate change.

President Evo Morales declared a "state of national emergency" and tens of thousands of people in La Paz faced water rationing for the first time, while surrounding mountains that were once covered in snow turned brown and barren.

The steps were expanded to at least seven other cities, and in the countryside, farmers clashed with miners over the use of aquifers.

As part of a contingency plan, Mr Morales doubled down by embarking on a vast investment programme in a bid to ensure future water supplies.

Recent data from the national water company Epsas shows the government has spent US$64.7 million (S$89 million) to construct four water reservoirs and supply systems from the lagoons of the surrounding Andean highlands.

The new systems will in part ease reliance on the Inkachaka, Ajunkota and Hampaturi dams that have until now supplied drinking water to around one-third of La Paz's population.

 
 
 
 

The drought had left the dams almost depleted, resembling open-cast mines, and it took months for them to recover ample water levels.

Ms Patricia Urquieta, an urban planning specialist at the University Mayor de San Andres, said that despite the hardships it brought, the drought did not lead to an increased collective awareness of the need to manage water resources.

Once water curbs were lifted "this awareness of the need to preserve water fizzled out", said Ms Urquieta. "There has been no public policy to raise awareness about water usage, even though reports show that La Paz could end up without water because of the decrease of water in the mountains."

Unesco introduced an "Atlas on the retreat of Andean glaciers and the reduction of glacial waters" to map the effects of global warming last year. It said "global warming could cause the loss of 95 per cent of the current permafrost in Bolivia by 2050, and 99 per cent by 2099".

A recent study published in the scientific journal Nature, citing analysis of satellite images, reported that "the Andean glaciers are among those that shrink the fastest". Between 2000 and last year, the glaciers lost an average of 23 billion tonnes of ice a year, according to Nature.

The Chacaltaya glacier - once the world's highest ski resort - has already disappeared. Scientists said the glacier started to melt in the mid-1980s, and by 2009, it had vanished.

The Inkachaka dam, a few miles outside La Paz, is more than half-full, fed by snowfalls during the austral winter. But the year-round snow caps on nearby mountains, visible as recently as 30 years ago, no longer exist.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2019, with the headline 'Melting snow caps spell water trouble for world's highest capital'. Print Edition | Subscribe