drought in Bolivia

According to Popular Science, La Paz, Bolivia has been devastated by the near-total loss of its glacier-fed water supply. The military has stepped in to restore order and ration water.

At nearly 12,000 feet in altitude, La Paz sits in a zone—the high tropics—suffering the effects of climate change quicker than the rest of us. The glaciers that once fed the city are in retreat; the seasonal rains that should replenish the reservoirs from November through February are increasingly unreliable. In early November, the federal government declared a state of emergency. Overnight, officials cut water to 94 of the city’s neighborhoods, leaving about half of its roughly 800,000 residents caught completely off-guard…

For years, scientists predicted that climate change would cause a devastating water shortage in the Andean plain. Like the ominous rumblings of a movie soundtrack before the T. rex appears on-screen, there were persistent warnings. Nongovernmental organizations like Oxfam (2009) and then the Stockholm Environmental Institute (2013) put out increasingly dire pleas for water management. Lake Poopó, whose waters sustained the indigenous Uru-Murato for millennia, dried up last year. At the same time, the normally robust winter rains shrank by more than 25 percent. And through it all, a local paleoglaciologist named Edson Ramirez tried persistently to get someone to act.

A soft-spoken professor at the Institute of Hydraulics and Hydrology of the Higher University of San Andrés in La Paz, Ramirez did not want to be the Cassandra for this catastrophe. But the science left him little choice. In 1998, he began measuring Chacaltaya, a glacier an hour’s drive from the city, which held a world-famous attraction: the world’s highest ski resort. Ramirez expected shrinkage. But the reality surprised even him: Just 15 meters thick, the glacier was disappearing at a rate of at least 1 meter a year. Ramirez calculated it would be gone by 2015. In 2005, he went to city officials to warn them and discuss the consequences for a city that relies on glacial runoff for water. He laid out a dire timeline. The bureaucrats politely listened but were unconvinced. They told him: “Maybe it will happen, but maybe it will not.”

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