Foretelling a Post-Water Future

March 1, 2017

It seems like a passage from Latin American fiction—a surreal scenario in which citizens awaken to find their country dry, and a mustached general rationing their water. But for citizens of La Paz, Bolivia, this is not a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel—it is their reality.

For eleven years, scientists like Edson Ramirez warned government officials that climate change would create water shortage on the Andean Plain. Global organizations like Oxfam and the Stockholm Environmental Institute issued warnings and reported the effects of climate change.

Ramirez, a professor at the Institute of Hydraulics and Hydrology of the Higher University of San Andres in La Paz, began measuring the Chacaltaya glacier in 1998. At that time, it measured 15 meters thick and was shrinking at a rate of 1 meter per year. He predicted that it would disappear by 2015. In 2005 he met with politicians to voice his concerns. They dismissed his claims. By 2009, the glacier had vanished.

As he explained to Popular Science’s Leslie Kaufman, Bolivia is responsible for 0.35 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (compared to the US’s 14.4 percent), but because of the country’s location and elevation, it is experiencing the impact of those carbon emissions at a faster rate than the US.

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La Paz is located in the high tropics at nearly 12,000 feet in altitude. Its position there means that it sees the effects of climate change sooner than many other places. With a warming planet, many of the world’s glaciers are disappearing. In fact, 37.4 percent of the Andes’ tropical glaciers melted between 1980 and 2009 according to Kaufman’s article. Temperatures on the Altiplano rose 2 degrees Celsius. And the reality is that the same forces that are causing La Paz’s water scarcity are not limited to the Andean Plain, they’re affecting the environment worldwide.

In early November, the Bolivian government declared a state of emergency. Overnight officials cut water to 94 of the city’s neighborhoods, leaving half of its 800,000 residents without any water source. The government promised to turn the taps back on but days went by and nothing came out of the faucet.

Citizens commandeered the tanker trucks that distributed the city’s dwindling supply. The government sent in the Water General, Brig. General Mario Enrique Peinado Salas, to manage the rationing system and quell civil unrest. Today, citizens skip work and forgo plans to line up to fill any container they can when the tap flows, which in some cities is every three days for a few hours.

“La Paz has now entered a post-water world,” writes Kaufman, “where strict rationing is a way of life for many.” Could Bolivia’s water scarcity portend the future of life elsewhere on our planet? What lessons can we extract from these circumstances in order to prevent similar situations?

About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.