Last month, Bolivia’s second largest lake, Lake Poopo was officially declared evaporated. The result: pure devastation. The absences of this vital saltwater environment has not only left a expanse of death, it is also forcing both the local fishermen and the wildlife to move elsewhere.
Located in the Bolivian altiplano at an altitude of 3,700 metres in the western department of Oruro, the once thriving ecosystem of Lake Poopo now lays waste to fish skeletons, dead birds and abandoned fishing boats.
While the lake is no stranger to droughts—the lake has dried up before only to rebound to a size twice the area of Los Angeles—this time around, scientists fear that the lake will not be able to recover.
Officials cite a drought caused by the recurrent El Nino meteorological phenomenon as the primary cause of the evaporation of the lake. In addition, the continued diversion of the lake’s water is also considered to be a contributing factor to the lakes disappearance. Since 1982, mining companies have been diverting the lake’s water and some are believed to have regularly dumped untreated tailings into Poopó’s tributaries. As a result, the sediments have shallowed Poopo’s tributaries.
“The El Nino phenomenon used to show itself every ten years,” said Milton Perez, a professor at the Oruro Technical University. “So you have it one year and then another, and the Lake Poopo had eight years of normal climate behaviour with regards to precipitation and temperature so maintained its normal status.”
“But now because of global warming, and the currents of the Pacific Ocean, the El Nino phenomenon occurs every three years,” Perez said. “So, one year of El Nino, one year La Nina, and in the best of cases one normal year. One year is not sufficient for the lake to recover. And it’s only going to get worse.”
As the communities within the area are largely dependent on the body of water, whether it be for fishing or agricultural upkeep, many have fled the desolate area in search of a new home. In late 2014, the government declared the area a “disaster zone,” however, many believe this action was too little too late.
“Just 40 days ago there was water, and flamingos were there. There was some water, where there’s now those small, dark patches,” said Valerio Calle Rojas, one of 150 fishermen from the Untavi community.
“In the 90’s there was at least 2,000 square kilometres of water. After that, the water level began going down,” he said. “In 1995, 1996, there was a drought as well, and the water dried up, but it came back quickly. (…) There should be some rain. But that’s not happening.”
To assist those currently suffering from the crisis, local non-government organisations are facilitating the construction of wells and replacement farms. In addition, some organisations are also selling the clay that has developed from the build-up of sediment from local mining.
“There’s no water, no fish,” said Norma Mollo, of the Centre of Ecology and Andean Villages. “This is definitely affecting the local communities. They now have no way of surviving.”
It has been estimated that millions of fish and 500 or so birds, including flamingos and ducks, have died as a result of this crisis. Over the past three years, more than 100 families have sold their sheep, llamas and alpaca, set aside their fishing nets and have left the land their ancestors once thrived in. More than half of the population of the former lakeside village of Unntavi have been displaced. Only the elderly remain.
Government officials have since dismissed all claims that the mining industry is to blame for this disaster, and have requested $140 million in aid from the European Union in hopes of replenishing the lake.