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Farewell to glaciers
Martin Garat
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Important water and energy sources in capital dwindling to a trickle.

Máximo Lawra Vargas says the high Andean peaks that tower over his village of Batallas outside of the Bolivian capital are not what they once were. They are rapidly losing their snow-cover, Lawra Vargas observes.
An agronomist for the human development department at the village’s mayor’s office, Lawra Vargas has been monitoring the effects of global warming on his village, 4,000 meters above sea level.

Most Batallas residents grow potatoes, quinoa and barley. “Because of global warming, the rainy season has become shorter. We have to plant later and the harvests are smaller,” Lawra said, adding that production here has decreased 30 percent.

Predictions for future effects are dismal. Lawra thinks that in 10 years the water courses which irrigate the fields of Batallas will have completely dried up from a lack of glacier runoff — an important water source that is essential in the dry season.

“Without glaciers, we can’t water. Without watering there’s no production. We’re going to starve,” Lawra said.

The World Bank-financed Andean Climate Change Adaptation Program has been monitoring South America’s glaciers for 10 years, and has some alarming findings: the glaciers are melting, and quickly. Bolivia’s famed Chacaltaya glacier, known for having the world’s highest ski run at 5,300 meters (17,400 feet), may vanish soon.

According to Edson Ramírez, Bolivia’s top glacier expert, glacier melt has increased significantly since the 1980s because both of the planet’s natural cycle, in which cold eras are followed by warm eras, and man-induced climate change.

“The emission of greenhouse gases has increased the natural warming of the planet, and this warming at the same time makes phenomena like El Niño to be more frequent and violent,” Ramírez said. He added that the glaciers lose a square meter of thickness every year, but that in 1998, they lost four meters of thickness because El Niño was so much stronger that year.

A problem throughout the Andes
The consequences of this rapid glacier melt could be catastrophic for inhabitants of the Andes. Glaciers are an important source of drinking water for Quito, Ecuador. Peru, home to 70 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, predicts that electricity production could diminish as the waters that feed the hydroelectric plants decrease. Bolivia’s altiplano, home to more than 2 million people, could be left without energy and water, a particular sore spot for Bolivians.

“The Tuni and Condoriri glaciers that provide drinking water and energy to El Alto and a large part of La Paz will disappear between 2025 and 2045,” Ramírez said.

“The glaciers regulate the flow of water to the cities,” he said. “They only receive precipitation during the rainy season, while thanks to natural glacier melt, they let water go down all year long. When they disappear, El Alto and La Paz will only receive water in the rainy season.”

But in a few years, the demand for water will surpass the supply. El Alto receives a steady flow of migrants from other areas of the altiplano looking for work, and the mushrooming urban population is putting more pressure on the water supply.

There are some solutions to put off the shortage, although temporarily. The Bolivian government has plans to build a dam on the Huayna Potosi glacier, and the water grid for El Alto will need to be reconfigured since it loses 50 percent of the supply in leaks, but the government lacks funds for that project.

“Bolivia doesn’t have the economic resources to take on this situation. Replacing the current infrastructure with another will be extremely costly,” said José Luis Gutiérrez, of the National Climate Change Adaptation Program.

Bolivians take water seriously. In 2000 in the highland city of Cochabamba and in El Alto in 2005. Bolivians rebelled against foreign water companies that charged residents excessive fees for water.

Not even a thought
But while Bolivians were busy throwing private water companies out of the country, very few people were thinking about the natural loss of water.
“When people turn the faucet and no water comes out, there could be violent reactions,” warned Gutiérrez.

After Haiti, Bolivia has the lowest contribution to global warming in Latin America and the Caribbean, and according to Gutiérrez, Bolivia is starting to pay for the errors of the other countries.

“Our greenhouse gas emissions are minimal, and taking into account the large forests in the eastern part of the country, Bolivia helps to stop global warming,” he said, referring to the fact that plants absorb carbon dioxide.
But there is no quick and easy solution to stop global warming. An immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would only produce tangible results after many years.

The glacier melt only stopped in one case, in 1992, following the eruption of the Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines a year earlier. The quantity of volcanic dust that was shot up in the atmosphere was enormous, and they formed a shield protecting the land from the sun, lowering the world’s temperature by half a degree.

At the current pace, the Earth’s temperature may rise by 5 degrees by 2100, according to Ramírez. His future glacier expert colleagues will have nothing to do in South America. “There won’t be any glaciers in the Andes,” he said.

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