In Bolivia, Water and Ice Tell of Climate Change

Published: December 13, 2009
EL ALTO, Bolivia — When the tap across from her mud-walled home dried up in September, Celia Cruz stopped making soups and scaled back washing for her family of five. She began daily pilgrimages to better-off neighborhoods, hoping to find water there.

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Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Edson Ramírez measuring water flow from a glacier.

Ángel Franco/The New York Times

The Milluni reservoir has receded as glaciers that provide some of Bolivia’s water and electricity have melted and disappeared.

Though she has lived here for a decade and her husband, a construction worker, makes a decent wage, money cannot buy water.

“I’m thinking of moving back to the countryside; what else can I do?” said Ms. Cruz, 33, wearing traditional braids and a long tiered skirt as she surveyed a courtyard dotted with piglets, bags of potatoes and an ancient red Datsun. “Two years ago this was never a problem. But if there’s not water, you can’t live.”

The glaciers that have long provided water and electricity to this part of Bolivia are melting and disappearing, victims of global warming, most scientists say.

If the water problems are not solved, El Alto, a poor sister city of La Paz, could perhaps be the first large urban casualty of climate change. A World Bank report concluded last year that climate change would eliminate many glaciers in the Andes within 20 years, threatening the existence of nearly 100 million people.

For the nearly 200 nations trying to hammer out an international climate accord in Copenhagen, the question of how to address the needs of dozens of countries like Bolivia is a central focus of the negotiations and a major obstacle to a treaty.

World leaders have long agreed that rich nations must provide money and technology to help developing nations adapt to problems that, to a large extent, have been created by smokestacks and tailpipes far away. But the specifics of that transfer — which countries will pay, how much and for what kinds of projects — remain contentious.

Last week, a group of the poorest small countries debated whether they would stage a walk-out in Copenhagen if rich nations failed to provide enough money. Todd Stern, the lead negotiator for the United States, while reiterating that the United States would help pay, bridled at the idea that the money was a “climate debt.” And on Friday, the European Union made an initial pledge to pay $3.5 billion annually for three years to help poor countries cope — though economists project the total cost to be $100 billion or more.

An Angry Voice

With its recent climate-induced catastrophes, Bolivia has become an angry voice for poor nations, demanding that any financing be paid out in full and rapidly.

“We have a big problem and even money won’t completely solve it,” said Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations. “What do you do when your glacier disappears or your island is under water?”

Scientists say that money and engineering could solve La Paz-El Alto’s water problems, with projects including a well-designed reservoir. The glaciers that ring the cities have essentially provided natural low-maintenance storage, collecting water in the short rainy season and releasing it for water and electricity in the long dry one. With warmer temperatures and changing rainfall, they no longer do so.

“The effects are appearing much more rapidly than we can respond to them, and a reservoir takes five to seven years to build. I’m not sure we have that long,” said Edson Ramírez, a Bolivian glaciologist who has documented and projected the glaciers’ retreat for two decades.

The retreat has outpaced his wildest dreams. He had predicted that one glacier, Chacaltaya, would last until 2020. It disappeared this year. .

But global warming alone cannot be blamed for the longstanding woes of this exotic but desperately poor landlocked country, where per capita income is around $1,000. Urban water supplies are also taxed by population growth as well as checkered management, in part because there is little money to manage anything, but also because the government nationalized the water company a few years ago, having declared water a human right. El Alto still does not employ a full-time water technician.

Populations at the Brink

“These are populations at the brink of surviving anyway, and then you have the extra stress of climate change and you have huge social problems,” said Dirk Hoffmann, head of the climate change program at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz. “What’s at stake is conflict — you wouldn’t talk about civil war exactly. But it will be unrest.”

In fact, when taps dried up in Celia Cruz’s neighborhood, the Solidarity District of El Alto, rich La Paz residents still had water. In a nation that has rallied behind socialist rhetoric and indigenous rights, there were complaints. “The sense of injustice is palpable,” said Edwin Chuquimia Vélez, an official in El Alto formerly in charge of water.

Glaciers are part of the majestic landscape here, visible from almost everywhere in the neighboring cities of La Paz and El Alto, each with one million people. Their disappearance from certain vistas is as startling to Bolivians as the absence of the twin towers is to New Yorkers.

“To see this change fills me with sadness. It fills me with pain,” said Gonzalo Jaimes, a climbing guide from La Paz.

Source: The New York Times


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