Coping with water shortages in Bolivia

CNC report from UN Headquarters
Added On January 5, 2013

Global warming has caused glaciers in Bolivia to recede in recent years.

Facing worsening water shortages, scientists and government officials are working to find ways to cope with the problems through satellite technology.

It seems as cold as ever on Chacaltaya Mountain, 16 thousand feet above sea level outside of Bolivia's capital La Paz.

Yet it is global warming that has brought disaster to business owner Gonzalo Jaimes.

Once this was a ski resort with snow covered slopes all year round, but the glacier that coated the windswept mountainside with ice and snow has melted, leaving behind dry land and an abandoned ski lift.

"It's almost down to zero. I have no business, no work in this sector. We had to completely change our business. I, at least, had to sell the skis. I cannot use them any more."

Tropical glaciers, like those in Bolivia, are more sensitive to temperature changes than glaciers outside the tropical boundaries.

Their melting away is an alert signal for scientists around the world. 

And for the millions living below they are primarily a vital source of water.

When a glacier recedes, people's livelihoods are at stake.

Often disasters happen suddenly, without warning. This disaster has been in the making for decades.

Chacaltaya and the neighbouring Huayna Potosi glacier have receded over the course of 35 years.

"We confirmed, for example, that there has been a 43 percent glacier surface area loss.

With support from the Japan Policy and Human Resources Development Fund, regional scientists have started using sophisticated technology to predict the rate of glacier retreat.

A Japanese satellite known as "Alos" helps create a high resolution stereoscopic image of the unfolding disaster. It's more accurate and less expensive than aerial photography.

When Bolivian researcher Ed Ramirez and his colleagues use 3D glasses, they have a clearer vision of the region's future water supply.

But not everything can be done in the safety of the lab.

The team makes a harrowing trip on Bolivia's high altitude mountain roads. Eight monitoring stations have been set up across four countries in the Andean region as part of the Japan Fund project.

But to get the full picture the team must go even further.

Bobbing on freezing glacial water, they also measure the temperatures at the very bottom of the mountain lake.

"This shows the water temperature at the Tuni Dam. Each sensor is at a one metre distance."

With the scientist's data in hand, public officials can make better decisions, which they need to do quickly.

A substantial part of Bolivia's population is already suffering from water shortages. Especially hard hit is the countryside.

Villages trying to cope with the problem often make the situation worse. Those upstream sometimes retain and divert too much water, leaving those below with little water left.

Farmer Tomas Quispe Cortez is seeing his potato and onion fields wither.

"We could go somewhere else. That would be best. But right now we need to work things out with the water source, because sometimes they cut us off."

One solution, supported by the World Bank administered Japan fund, is to help farmers like Fortunata Laura build individual reservoirs to catch rain water.

Occasional rains help compensate for the dwindling supply of water coming off the mountain.

Better irrigation methods also help ride out the dry spells.

But it's not just agricultural areas that need help. The problem has also reached the city.

The populations of La Paz and the adjoining city of El Alto are swelling – in part with people who are abandoning their farms because of the worsening water shortages.

"These people are migrants. They are our first internal migrants because of the adverse effects of climate change. These are the first effects that we are experiencing from climate change and it logically carries a cost for our country. It has a cost because people are settling in the hills around the city or the city itself, and those people need basic services. Those people need drinking water. They need a sewer system."

The city has no alternative water sources, so they must conserve their dwindling supply.

As part of the Japan Fund project, crews measure and monitor the flow of water in order to identify problem areas caused by poor infrastructure or people illegally tapping into water pipes.

For this neighborhood, it's become a crisis situation.

Residents have to trudge daily to draw water from a single tap they must all share. Some wash their clothes here so they don't have to carry the water home. Others send their kids to fill jugs and bottles. Those who are old and sick come with wheelbarrows to carry water home.

"On this side, 400 families live, and on this side 600 families live. And these 1000 families depend on this public faucet, which is not enough."

Louisa Maria Rita Songo cries as she pleads for more water for herself and her ailing parents.  For 15 years she has been living here, relying on the one tap and on trucks that only deliver dirty water.

"For 15 years I have been asking for water. Till when? I hope we can get it."

An elderly neighbor is equally distressed.

SOUNDBITE (SPANISH) Local resident
"We need water in our homes. I have eye troubles, I can't see well. I'm not well. We need water. I need water urgently. I have no way of carrying it. I need water in my home, we need it at home. We need water urgently. We need water urgently."

Street view or satellite view, for scientists, the perspective remains the same; it takes a global effort to deal with a fragile planet.