The president of Bolivia has declared a state of emergency amid a deepening crisis due to the worst drought experienced in at least 25 years. The capital of the South American nation, and a neighboring city, is experiencing severe water shortages, caused by a striking reduction in the glaciers that feed the water supply. Rain is not expected to until next month, when it is hoped that the reservoirs will, to some degree, be topped up.
This, however, is not solving the fundamental problem that is being caused by the dramatic retreat of the glaciers that used to fill the dams, a direct result of climate change. Between 1983 and 2006 alone, the two main glaciers that have historically provided drinking water for the capital, La Paz, and adjacent El Alto have shrunk by a staggering 39 percent. With the populations of the two cities growing rapidly, and average temperatures continuing to climb, the threat to water security is only set to be exacerbated.
Bolivia is the poorest South American nation, and El Alto the poorest city in the country. The worrying situation with their water supply is yet another example of how as climate change sets in, it is often those most disadvantaged who are affected first. The situation has already led to protests in the community, which culminated in residents taking hostage authorities from a local water company, demanding to be told why they were being limited to three hours of water every three days as the severity of the drought hit.
The average temperature in Bolivia has increased by 0.5°C (0.9°F) between 1976 and 2006, enough to cause two of the most important glaciers in the surrounding mountains to melt by an average of 0.24 square kilometers (0.09 square miles) per year. Coupled with the historic El Niño experienced earlier this year, it has meant that two of the main reservoirs feeding the two cities have dropped to just 6 percent capacity, while a third is teetering at 1 percent.
But it is not only those living in the cities who are at major risk. Melt water from the Andes is used to water the country’s crops and cattle and support those far from city centers. The ongoing drought has put at risk an estimated 290,000 hectares (716,605 acres) of agricultural land, and up to 360,000 cattle.
While imminent rain is hoped to ease the current struggle, it is not thought to be anywhere near enough to replace the water that is now no longer trickling into the reservoirs from the glaciers. Conflicts are already arising between farmers and miners for access to the country’s aquifers, something which will only become more common globally as the world continues to warm.