Andean glaciers imminently threatened
Melting of tropical glaciers in the Andes is increasing the concern about water resources in the region. Scientists and local communities report a decline in high mountain areas' permafrost, snow cover and glacier mass due to climate change in recent decades (IPCC, 2019). There is ample evidence that high altitude glaciers are at risk:
- Small glaciers, such as those in the Tropical Andes, will lose most of their total mass at only 1.5°C warming (IPCC,2022).
- Several glaciers will disappear completely regardless of emissions scenario (IPCC, 2019).
- Projected warming pathways will most likely entail exceeding 1.5°C or 2°C warming around mid-century, putting glacier ecosystems at risk of irreversible impacts (IPCC, 2022)
Tropical glaciers shrinking and disappearance leads to damaging effects, such as water insecurity and changes on cultural uses of water, on communities and species who rely on cryospheric resources (IPCC, 2022). How will the water resources of La Paz-El Alto, the second biggest urban center in Bolivia, be affected by such drastic changes?
La Paz-El Alto geography and demographics
Bolivia is an Andean country in South America. Its capital, La Paz, is the highest in the world, lying nearly 3,625 m (11,811 ft) above sea level, having rainwater runoff and thawing glaciers as their main water resources (Norah et al, 2020). El Alto is a city adjacent to La Paz, together they form the second biggest urban center in the country. Communities in La Paz-El Alto, Bolivia are highly exposed to climatic impacts because tropical glacier retreat is prevalent in the Bolivian Andes and is projected to accelerate in following years (Rangecroft et al, 2015).
Plurinational State: Quechua, Aymara and other nations
Bolivia is a plurinational state, status adopted after the ratification of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 and a new constitution in 2009 (IWGIA). There are around 36 recognized indigenous nations, mainly of Highland Aymara and Quechua groups (Minority Rights). Over 41% of Bolivia's population is of direct Indigenous origin. In 2006, Bolivians elected their first Indigenous president, Evo Morales, a member of the Aymara people that stayed in power until 2019 (Britannica).
Even so, Indigenous groups in Bolivia still suffer from marginalization as a result of imperialism and current logics of global capitalism. Rural indigenous groups in particular suffer with search of new oil and gas reserves, as well as hydroelectric projects (IWGIA). Climate change will disproportionately affect indigenous livelihoods and the disappearance of glaciers threatens their ancestral lands and cultural rituals deeply associated with the mountains and cycles of nature, such as winter solstice ceremonies.
- Andean glaciers are among the fastest shrinking in the world (Dussaillant et al, 2019)
- Temperatures in the region have risen 0.5°C only between 1976 to 2006, one glacier on Chacaltaya mountain has completely disappeared whilst El Tuni and Condoriri glaciers—which provide resources for La Paz-El Alto—have shrunk 39% between 1983 and 2006, at a rate of 0.24 km2 per year (Buxton et al, 2013)
- Predictions are that, under current trends, the Condoriri will disappear by the year 2045 and El Tuni will be gone by the year 2025 (Quezada, 2011)
- Acute glacier melting may increase runoff initially (peak water), however glaciers are not being restored and their loss is causing changes in stream-flow and supply (Bradley et al, 2006; Painter, 2020)
Image: Landscape of La Paz, by Guillermo A. Durán.
Exposure of La Paz-El Alto
The residents of La Paz-El Alto receive potable water from mainly three systems: El Alto, Achachicala and Pampahasi, all of which 30% is fed solely by glacial melts (Quezada, 2011). During the dry season, rainfall is limited and glacier meltwater becomes a crucial source of usable water for the population (Rangecroft, 2015). A UNESCO report on Andean Glaciers estimates that in a normal year, 61% of regional water comes from glacier melts, whilst in drought years that number goes up to 84% (Johansen et al, 2018). As such, glacial retreat imposes major concerns for the water supply of the largest urban fabric in Bolivia.
Water shortages worsened by shrinking glaciers are already a reality and have increased conflict over water resources between and within urban and rural areas, indigenous groups and farmers (Moloney, 2016), pointing to a rising socio-political challenge due to climate change.
Water from glacier melt also supports agriculture, power generation and ecosystems throughout the surrounding region (Hoffman, 2008; Buxton et al, 2013). Glacial retreat can lead to the disruption of paramos and wetlands that store water and regulate local climate (Hoffman, 2008). All of those can bring associated impacts to water availability and quality and increase the vulnerability of La Paz-El Alto as energy and food sources are threatened and natural water cycle is disrupted. Glacial retreat is also intensifying rural exodus in Bolivia, as agricultural communities struggle to sustain their livelihoods:
"A lot of people have been migrating to the city, mainly because of a lack of water here. No one else comes back to the community. There were around 60 of us, but more than half have migrated to the city"
Alivio Aruquipa, resident of the agricultural community of Khapi (Painter, 2020)
Andean communities have also cultivated social and spiritual relationships with glacier mountains throughout the millennia (Johansen et al, 2018). Their disappearance imposes a loss of regional identity (Kaenzig, 2013) and threatens several ancient indigenous rituals (Chemnick, 2018). In the artwork to the right Caroline Green depicts a transition from generational knowledge and tradition to stone and cracks denouncing the climate change disruption.
Bolivians living in La Paz-El Alto are particularly vulnerable to socio-economic and environmental impacts of glacier melt (Quezada, 2011).
Geographical location: The Andean highlands of Bolivia have a semi-arid climate with marked seasonality as well as niched hydrological capacities and resources due to high altitudes (Johansen et al, 2018). Bolivia is one of Latin America’s hotspots of water stress (Painter, 2020). As such, the loss of glacial meltwaters increasingly inflicts severe water stress since geographic location does not favor the diversification of water resources in the region.
Socio-economic status: socio-economic background will also impact vulnerability to water scarcity in the communities of La Paz and especially El Alto, as it is the poorest municipality in the whole country (Buxton, 2013). Rural mountain communities, Indigenous peoples and poor urban populations, all represented in La Paz-El Alto demographics, are disproportionately vulnerable due to systematic exclusion, lack of access to political decision making as well as to land, water and other resources (Johansen et al, 2018).
Inadequate water management: environmental leaders in Bolivia are denouncing that growing intensive agriculture and mining projects in the country divert water supplies and pollute water bodies, which may put citizens at even higher risk of water insecurity (Moloney, 2016).
Population growth and migration: population growth is increasing water demands whilst water supplies are decreasing, generating even more water stress and vulnerability to the loss of glacial meltwaters (Quezada, 2011). The population of El Alto alone is growing 5% each year (Machicao, 2021), and it has historically experienced a boom during droughts, floods and bad harvests, signaling that climate change will likely increase influx to the area (Buxton et al, 2013). Alivio's quote in "Associated impacts" also illustrates how migration from rural areas will impose an burden on water availability in La Paz-El Alto, as surrounding agricultural communities are severely impacted by lack of irrigation (Hoffman, 2008; Johansen et al, 2018).
Adaptation: strengthening water resiliency
Planning for climate uncertainties
Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI)
Bolivia cannot rely on new water sources to manage its looming water crisis, due to feasibility issues associated with climate change and high costs of projects (Buxton et al, 2013). They suggest:
- Reducing water loss in urban and agricultural areas
- Recycling industrial waste water in El Alto
- Water management based on watersheds and not municipal boundaries
- Development of more studies and maps about the use of water in the city
In 2017, SEI partnered with Ministry of Environment and Water and local universities to develop a Water Evaluation And Planning (WEAP). It includes database and tools that help planners to assess current and future water availability, advancing the knowledge.
Índice de Adaptación al Cambio Climático, La Paz
Instituto de Hidráulica Ambiental de la Universidad de Cantabria
This comprehensive water cycle management focus on the development of a new water culture in La Paz. The plan also touches on ecosystem conservation and strengthening information and governance (Alvarez Diaz et al, 2021). They suggest:
- Creation of a Control Center for the Supply Network of La Paz and El Alto
- Develop a water saving plan and implement a municipal law for responsible water consumption
- Management measures to reduce losses in the supply system
- Create a Climate Change Resilience Center for the area
This plan takes into considerations areas of surrounding rural areas and ecosystems, such as the Bofedales, and how adaptation will play out in those regions. This is important to reduce the need for migration and hapazard growth in La Paz-El Alto, which is one of its key vulnerabilities.
Transboundary Adaptation: Andean Water Atlas
Glacial melt is affecting the whole Andean region, ranging from Venezuela to Argentina, as such adaptation measures can be developed, shared and implemented across national boundaries. UNESCO elaborated an Andean Glaciers and Water Atlas that included the following policy recommendations (Johansen et al, 2018):
- Work on adaptation specific to mountain areas
- Finance measures such as water storage and distribution and natural retention systems
- Establish financial mechanisms such as municipal water funds
- Diversify the range of livelihood options to spread the risks
- Assess options of decentralized small-scale hydropower systems
- Increase coordination and integration between Andean countries
Banner Image: La Paz from above, Hugo Solar
Bolivian people are an example of resistance. The 2000 Water War in Cochabamba was one of the most significant moments in the struggle for the right to water in Latin America (We Are Water). Resiliency aspects include:
- Water Committees in which people "gather knowledge about water, climatology and actions in emergencies, and transmit it to the community" (WeAreWater)
- Growing numbers of organizations led by women in indigenous and agricultural communities and active role of young people in environmental issues (Painter, 2020)
- Revival of traditional Andean technology such as terraces and irrigation channels (Johansen et al, 2018)
The feeling of distress and melancholia caused by environmental change shall become a reality for residents of La Paz-El Alto. As their mountain and glacier environment degrades, the foundations of their identity and cultural life are shaken too. The song below reflects on this shift and invites us to a reflection: how many more environments will climate change turn into a lost cause?
"We learned to keep warm by measuring ourselves with the ice
And we gave it names, we said: Stone of heaven
And the planet shivered seven thousand generations
Going from water to ice and from cold to songs
And when the time comes let's honor our wounds
Let's raise our glasses to a lost cause
And a hallelujah runs through the screens of the bars
And let's find a way to farewell the glaciers"
About the author
Amanda Barreto Salgueiro graduated from St. Lawrence in 2023 as an Environmental and Global Studies major. As a Brazilian student, her aim is to shed light on climatic impacts affecting the South American region and address issues related to water and environmental justice. She was a contributing editor of Confluence Series, which highlights stories of river guardians around the globe and took part in the Voice of Rivers committee aiming to implement Nature Rights in the North Country.