Will Bolivia's Lifeless Lake Poopo Ever Return?

It was once Bolivia’s second biggest lake but climate change and industrial negligence has left it desertified. Bolivian’s fear this latest setback could be permanent.

A two-hour drive from the western Bolivian city of Oruro takes you to a series of beaten off-road dirt tracks through small farms and isolated communities. It’s common to see farmers herding their llamas and sheep in the parched countryside, and locals camped on the road hoping a passing motorist will give them a ride to the closest shop or town.

And up until two or three months ago you wouldn’t be able to miss Lake Poopo either, Bolivia’s second biggest lake after Titicaca.

But today, throughout that same journey, all you will find is a scarred and dusty crop of desert stretching as far as the eye can see. There is no longer a Lake Poopo: it has dried up.

“We are in a state of emergency. We have no water. Lake Poopo is completely dry,” says Vladimir Challa Huaca from the Lake Poopo Provincial Authority.

This isn’t the first time that Lake Poopo, perched at an altitude of 3,700 meters and stretching for an estimated 4,000 square kilometers, has run dry. A similar event happened in 2015, when thousands of fish died within days. It also dried up in 1984, 1990 and 2000.

But the speed at which the water has evaporated this time has surprised both the authorities and the local communities that surround Poopo, raising the question whether the lake will return.

“This crisis is affecting several families who have lived off Lake Poopo for generations … the lake provided water for the animals and for the villages,” Challa Huaca tells teleSUR.

The lake’s ecosystem was already in a fragile state after years of running dry and then replenishing. In the months before it dried up, the lake was at its most shallow point – an estimated three metres or just over 9 feet.

The governor of Oruro, Victor Hugo Vazquez, has no doubt what caused Lake Poopo to disappear:

“The main cause of this disaster is the attitude and irresponsibility of the industrialized countries who are polluting 365 days of the year,” he says.

The mining industry has long been accused of adopting a reckless attitude in Bolivia in the pursuit of profit. Taking water from Lake Desaquadero that supplied Poopo or turning a blind eye as runoff from mining activities seeped into Poopo contaminating the sprawling saltwater lake.

But environmentalists are convinced there is another culprit: climate change and the phenomenon of El Niño, which promises to be as powerfully destructive in 2016 as it was in 1998.

Temperatures in the western Andean Highlands, where Lake Poopo is located, have risen about 0.9 degrees Celsius over the past two decades, causing accelerated evaporation of the water at three times faster than normal, according to scientists.

“Definitely climate change is a factor which is affecting all of our planet,” Eduardo Ortiz, a Lake Poopo expert and engineer at governor’s office, tells teleSUR. “And its these eco-systems, that are becoming more vulnerable, places like Lake Poopo.”

But yet another possible factor is the location and geography of the lake.

“One problem we have here is that the topography is quite flat, with clay soil, that contains a lot of sediment that also depletes the water,” Ortiz explains.

If climate change is to blame, one major casualty of a desertified Lake Poopo is the wildlife as 200 species have been wiped out, including birds, mammals, fish and reptiles in this once-thriving lake. Now all thats left behind is the rotting carcasses of wild duck and fish in the lifeless lake.

Poopo was home to more than 500 flamingos and wild ducks. It also sustained a variety of fauna and flora, those plants unique to the Andean region have also withered away. Fishing boats lie abandoned, turned upside down, the fishermen that once rowed them have long since fled, possibly never to return.

Because the fishing industry in the region has collapsed, Vasquez has passed a law declaring it a natural disaster. This should speed up funds to help the communities struggling to survive as their livelihoods evaporate, much like the waters of Lake Poopo.

For small, rural villages like Untavi, the crisis has hit them hard. 250 people used to live here but now it’s streets are deserted, the young people have left and are reluctant to return.

Trifon Huanca, 65, has lived in Untavi all his life. With a large family to support he worked for many years as a fishermen as did his sons. They depended on Lake Poopo to earn a living. But after years of setbacks, this latest incident has been a catalyst for change.

“‘When the lake was full of water we still had a chance to live but now in these past few few years as it has slowly disappeared there’s no chance for us to make a living,” Trifon explains. Most of his family have left Untavi in search of better opportunities.

It’s a similar story in other villages dotted around the lake.

“Here, the people in my community are suffering, every family is looking for work to survive and to keep our children, to help them study, we will keep on looking,” says Trifon.

Bolivia’s government estimates that at least US$115 million are needed to save Lake Poopo. Locals say that might be enough, fearing the water will never return to Poopo.

As another year draws to a close, all they can do is wait and see if the water will return to Poopo in 2016, bringing life and opportunity back with it.

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