By Carlos Valdez, with additional reporting by Frank Bajak
21 January 2016
UNTAVI, Bolivia (AP) – Overturned fishing skiffs lie abandoned on the shores of what was Bolivia's second-largest lake. Beetles dine on bird carcasses and gulls fight for scraps under a glaring sun in what marshes remain.
Lake Poopo was officially declared evaporated last month. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have lost their livelihoods and gone.
High on Bolivia's semi-arid Andean plains at 3,700 meters (more than 12,000 feet) and long subject to climatic whims, the shallow saline lake has essentially dried up before only to rebound to twice the area of Los Angeles.
But recovery may no longer be possible, scientists say.
"This is a picture of the future of climate change," says Dirk Hoffman, a German glaciologist who studies how rising temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels has accelerated glacial melting in Bolivia.
As Andean glaciers disappear so do the sources of Poopo's water. But other factors are in play in the demise of Bolivia's second-largest body of water behind Lake Titicaca.
Drought caused by the recurrent El Niño meteorological phenomenon is considered the main driver. Authorities say another factor is the diversion of water from Poopo's tributaries, mostly for mining but also for agriculture.
More than 100 families have sold their sheep, llamas and alpaca, set aside their fishing nets and quit the former lakeside village of Untavi over the past three years, draining it of well over half its population. Only the elderly remain.
"There's no future here," said 29-year-old Juvenal Gutierrez, who moved to a nearby town where he ekes by as a motorcycle taxi driver. […]
Poopo is now down to 2 percent of its former water level, regional Gov. Victor Hugo Vasquez calculates. Its maximum depth once reached 16 feet (5 meters). Field biologists say 75 species of birds are gone from the lake. […]
Florida Institute of Technology biologist Mark B. Bush says the long-term trend of warming and drying threatens the entire Andean highlands.
A 2010 study he co-authored for the journal Global Change Biology says Bolivia's capital, La Paz, could face catastrophic drought this century. It predicted "inhospitable arid climates" would lessen available food and water this century for the more than 3 million inhabitants of Bolivia's highlands. […]
"Something could have been done to prevent the disaster. Mining companies have been diverting water since 1982," he said. [more]