La Paz is currently suffering from the first water restrictions I’ve seen since moving here. Every third day this November, the water is being turned off for large parts of the city until 8 p.m, causing huge crowds of people to queue up for water trucks with as many buckets as they can carry. Officials claim this is a temporary measure until reservoirs up in the mountains fill up with rainwater again. Unfortunately, the rainy season hasn’t really kicked off yet so I doubt this will be the last of the water restrictions.
The effects of climate change on the country’s delicate network of high altitude glaciers is a long term issue that must be confronted. Bolivia’s glaciers are particularly vulnerable to global warming because they are situated so close to the equator and their existence is only made possible due to extreme altitude, which means they are very sensitive to even minute increases in temperature. Let’s look at Chacaltaya as an example, a glacial ski resort that completely melted back in 2009. This once snow covered winter wonderland is now a dried up husk of its former self.
In fact, Bolivia’s glaciers have receded 43% since the 1980s and are estimated to be completely gone by the end of the century.
There is surprisingly little concern in the local media considering nearby glaciers supply a considerable amount of La Paz and El Alto’s water. During the wet season when there is plenty of rainfall, about 15% of water consumed in these cities is glacial. However, in the drier months from May to October, that figure almost doubles. If something is not done soon, severe and continuous water shortages will undoubtedly cause havoc on Bolivia’s largest urban area.
Another worrying aspect of Bolivia’s receding glaciers is the very real possibility of devastating glacial floods. The earth beneath glaciers is typically fairly unstable and over time it becomes weaker and weaker as melt water slowly erodes it away. Eventually, a section of a glacial lake could collapse and send a huge amount of water rushing downhill.
Another risk is that a large chuck of rock or an ice avalanche could fall into a glacial lake and cause a huge wave to breach its perimeter. This phenomenon is known as a “glacial lake outburst flood” and has been responsible for the death of thousands of people around the world.
Faced with the reality of having to forgo their morning shower, it seems many Bolivians are now waking up to the fact that water is a precious and limited resource in this part of the world. The government is talking about building large dams in nearby valleys to provide an alternative supply, but these will take some time to materialize.
As for glacial floods, a team of British scientists is currently modelling the risk and exposure of nearby towns. The surrounding areas are thankfully fairly sparsely populated, although towns such as the tourist hub of Sorata remain at risk.