Climate Change Claims a Lake, and an Identity, in Bolivia

Nicholas Casey, Climate Change Claims a Lake, and an Identity. The New York Times, 7 July 2016. Part 3 of an 8-part series on Carbon’s Casualties. “Articles in this series explore how climate change is displacing people around the world…. After surviving decades of water diversion and cyclical El Niño droughts in the Andes, Lake Poopó [in Bolivia] basically disappeared in December [2015]. The ripple effects go beyond the loss of livelihood for…hundreds of…fishing families, beyond the migration of people forced to leave homes that are no longer viable. The vanishing of Lake Poopó threatens the very identity of the Uru-Murato people, the oldest indigenous group in the area. They adapted over generations to the conquests of the Inca and the Spanish, but seem unable to adjust to the abrupt upheaval climate change has caused.”

Only 636 Uru-Murato are estimated to remain in Llapallapani [Bolivia] and two nearby villages. Since the fish [in Lake Poopó] died off in 2014, scores have left to work in lead mines or salt flats up to 200 miles away; those who stayed behind scrape by as farmers or otherwise survive on what used to be the shore….

Lake Poopó is one of several lakes worldwide that are vanishing because of human causes. California’s Mono Lake and Salton Sea were both diminished by water diversions; lakes in Canada and Mongolia are jeopardized by rising temperatures….

The Uru passed down knowledge about living on and around the lake. Crowds of large black birds on the horizon were an easy sign that fish were congregated below. They counted three distinct winds that could help or hurt: one from the west, another from the east, and a kind of squall from the north called the saucarí, which can sink boats….

The lake offered algae called huirahuira, which seemed to relieve coughs. Flamingos were like a pharmacy: In addition to the pink fat used to relieve rheumatism, the feathers fought fevers when burned and inhaled….

…[S]everal threatening trends developed….

First, as quinoa became popular abroad, booming production of the grain diverted water upstream, lowering Lake Poopó’s level. Second, mining sediment was quickly silting the lake from below.

And it was getting hotter. The temperature on the plateau had increased 0.9 degrees Celsius, or about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit, from 1995 to 2005 alone, much faster than Bolivia’s national average….

In the summer of 2014, a rotten smell hung in the air. The surface of the lake had fallen so low that when the saucarí wind hit from the north, the gusts kicked up too much silt for the fish to survive.