Glaciers in Bolivia - the Problem of Accelerating Melting Snow

We are in a period of unprecedented change, with glaciers around the world shrinking at an alarming rate. The Glacier National Park reported 150 glaciers in 1910, this number has now reduced to a shocking figure of just 30. Glaciers are an important part of the livelihoods of countless populations, especially those in the landlocked country of Bolivia. The Bolivian government was forced to declare a state of emergency in 2016 amid the most severe drought in 25 years. La Paz, the world’s highest capital city, and El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city have been significantly affected by this drought with 125,000 families displaced and 290,000 hectares of agricultural land threatened touched upon by Winters. Both cites situated in the Andes, depend on the glaciers located on the Andean mountains for their water supply, however, climate change is resulting in a shrinking of these glaciers affecting the livelihoods of many. Seiler et al. states that in the case of Bolivia intense climate changing is set to amplify frequency and severity natural hazards such as droughts.

Glaciers are formed where enough snow accumulates over time and compresses to ice. In order for glaciers to form there must be a yearly renewal of snow fall however, in the case of Bolivia there has been a decreasing amount of winter precipitation falling as snow, which means glaciers are melting faster than snow is being accumulated. One global effect of climate change is increasing temperatures, which are felt most significantly in regions of high altitude. The Stockholm environment institute reported that temperatures in the region of La Paz and El Alto rose by 0.5C between 1976 and 2006. The combination of decreased precipitation and increased temperature is causing glaciers to retreat at an alarming rate.

The process of shrinking glaciers is accelerated by the albedo feedback system whereby, snow covered ground will reflect greater amounts of solar insolation, which is short wave radiation emitted from the sun, as opposed to absorbing it. Less snow-covered ground means more solar insolation is absorbed, causing the atmosphere above the bare ground to be warmed, therefore melting more snow and ice and causing the cycle to continue. Establishing a positive feedback such as this is detrimental to communities supported by glacier melt water. Rising temperatures are a problem around the globe however a process known as altitude amplification is causing higher altitude regions such as the Andes to be impacted at an accelerated rate compared to neighbouring lower attitude regions of the same latitude. Altitude amplification plays a significant role in the extensive shrinking of glaciers due to more intense warming in higher altitudes. Further research by Wang et al. found a significant trend in altitude amplification in the Andes. The combination of these two processes has led to the problems present in La Paz and El Alto today. Glacier Chacaltaya, located close to La Paz has seen one of the most dramatic decreases in ice since the early 1980s. Ramirez et al. stated that by 2016 the glacier could be completely extinct. Reports from the NASA identify that Ramirez et al. predictions have become a reality, as the glacier, hosting the world’s highest ski resort has almost completely vanished.

Reservoirs that supply the water to La Paz and El Alto, which are usually fed by runoff from the glaciers, have almost run dry due to the lack of meltwater. This has meant that water rationing has had to be introduced in order to try regain some control over water resources. The elimination of glaciers and the drying up of reservoirs is likely to threaten the existence of over 100 million people as many are left without any access to water. Beyond humans Rosenthal addresses how the scarcity of water and severe droughts are said to have harmed around 100,000 farm animals.

Glacial melting has threatened rural livelihoods in Bolivia as run off from the glaciers provide water for drinking, farming and energy production. The poorest municipalities in Bolivia will be affected more so than any other demographic in the country. Water rationing poses threats to society at many different levels, the obvious threats being lack of access to clean drinking water and limited water for crop growth meaning people may go without food. However, education is also affected as many children are simply too sick to attend school, or they are kept home in order to help retrieve water for their families. Furthermore, individuals may be forced to find water sources elsewhere which are more likely to be contaminated with diseases.

Mcleman and Smit present a concept that addresses migration as an adaptive response to climate change when the net benefit of migration outweighs the costs. Reports from the Guardian shows that times of mass migration in El Alto often occur during droughts, floods and bad harvests. This period of uncertainty in Bolivia is likely to cause an influx of migration into the larger cities as people’s livelihoods are severely disrupted, especially those in the agricultural sector. This influx into the city will exert more pressure on already scarce water supplies. Increasing population within a city not only raises issues of resources but in many cases, it can be seen to cause conflicts within the cities. Reuveny, discusses how conflicts are likely to arise due to already existing fault lines within society whereby migrant pastoralists and resident farmers may compete over land and jobs. These potential conflicts are seen more often in underdeveloped countries as they lack the resources to simply absorb the migrants unlike developed countries. Rosentha addresses how in previous periods of drought the poor in El Alto went without water, whilst the wealthier people in La Paz continued to receive water. This lead to a class divide and protests by the people of El Alto.

Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America and run off from glaciers attribute to important economic functions such as power generation. Winters recognises that forty percent of electricity in Bolivia comes from hydroelectric dams that rely on glacial melt however due to decreasing water resources there may be a need for a shift towards different methods of generation. Vergara et al. highlights how these methods are likely to need large investments in the initial stages and have higher operational and maintenance costs than hydropower, costs that the Bolivian governments may not be able to afford. It is likely that the methods adopted are going to have a higher dependency on fossil fuels which will only add to the climate problems Bolivia is facing.

In order for Bolivia to be able to cope with deglaciation the people and the economy will have to endure tremendous adjustments and will require investments in technology from richer nations. Rosenthal touches upon how the EU has made a bid to provide £3.5 billion annually for three years to aid poorer countries who are at the brunt of climate change The Bolivian ambassador to the UN expressed his concern that money alone will not fix the problem as well-designed reservoirs still take several years to build, and by then, the damage may be irreversible. Without assistance from international communities’ water scarcity is bound to increase disparities between the rich and poor worldwide and within Bolivia. Climate change models suggest that without intervention, problems facing Bolivia are only going to proliferate.  

07 July 2022
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