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Bolivia’s Disappearing Lake

As Lake Poopó vanishes, depleted by water diversions and warming temperatures, it leaves behind an uncertain future for Indigenous Urus

Battered by the blinding sun that reigns supreme in Bolivia’s arid high plain, Urus-Muratos villagers from three Lake Poopó communities waited impatiently. In an otherwise soundless sky, a helicopter’s approach galvanized the morning crowd into a flurry of activity. Indigenous President Evo Morales, who grew up close to the lake’s western edge, stepped out of the chopper onto the remains of the salty lake, which almost completely dried up in late 2015 and has yet to recover. Dozens of Urus and fisherman from the same ethnic group as Morales, the Aymara, rushed to greet him.

photo of dry lake poopophoto by Linda FarthingLake Poopó's dry lakebed. The lake dried up almost completely in December 2015.

Evo Morales came here to inaugurate 14 new houses in the Urus community of Puñaka Tinta Maria that were built by the government’s housing agency. Each one is rounded like a traditional Urus home, with two bedrooms, indoor plumbing, and water taps.

The Urus did their traditional Dance of the Fish for the President with huge fish and birds constructed from local lake reeds called tortora, the men dressed in black and white stripped ponchos and rough handspun wool pants, the women in wide skirts and tight blouses The towering puppets displayed an inevitable nod to the increasingly present modern world: all the creatures were given old CDs for eyes.  

None of the national and regional government officials present made any mention of the dusty residue of the lake just half a mile away. Only Urus leader Evarista Flores beseeched the audience to remember that “We who lived in the lake are the ones who most need our lake back.” Abandoned boats dotted the lake’s edges, reminders that many of those who once depended on the lake have fled to make a living elsewhere.

The 150 Urus living here share only 10 acres of land — just enough to accommodate their houses. With the lake gone for a year now, they can’t fish, and there are no birds, ducks, or flamingos around, all of which they have hunted for millennia.

“What worries me most about the disappearance of Lake Poopó is the uncertain future of the Urus,” says Victor Antonio Guevera, guide to a permanent exhibition on the Urus at MUSEF in Bolivia’s southern city of Sucre.

***

The Urus-Muratos culture revolves around the Lake Poopó. Historically, the Uros have lived on the lake, fished on the lake, and turned to the sturdy tortora reed — found on the lake — for everything from food, to boats, to houses. They even fashioned islands from the reeds, islands their houses sat on. (Urus near the Peruvian city of Puno, which borders Lake Titicaca, still live on these floating islands, which have become a lucrative tourist attraction, although they earn little from it.) Lake Poopó’s disappearance impacts the Uros-Muratos more than anyone.

photo of Lake TiticacaPhoto by Unukorno Floating Uros islands, fashioned out of tortora reeds, in Lake Titicaca.

“This situation is worse for the Urus because Lake Poopó is central to their survival and their culture. They never had any land,” explains Apolinar Flores, lawyer for the environmental non-governmental organization CEPA, which is headquartered an hour’s journey north of Puñaka in Oruro.

“The lake used to go up to the end of those mountains,” an older Urus woman explained to me at the inauguration event, pointing about 500 yards behind her. “We lived in the lake then, on tortora reed islands, not on the land like we do now. We miss our lake very much.” 

Some of the men in the crowd carry models of their now abandoned boats. “We were good with the lake before. It fed us and took care of us,” Urus leader Emilio Huanaco told me.

“Part of the current difficulty is that the Urus are fisherpeople, not agriculturalists,” explains Limber Sanchez, Director of CEPA. Now that the lake has dried up, “They need training to be able to produce food.”

Young people are migrating in record numbers. “About half the families here have gone to the town of Machamarca ten miles further north,” says Flores.  “They’re there because there is still some water in neighboring Lake Uru Uru.”  But Lake Uru Uru is in the trouble too, shrinking steadily in the face of Bolivia’s worst drought in 25 years.

“They see the fish like miners see a vein,” adds journalist Alfaro Abenor who has broadcast on Oruro’s mining issues for decades with local station Radio Pio XII. “Once the vein has run dry, it’s time to move on to the next.”

Three groups of Urus still survive, two in Bolivia and one in Peru near Puno (known as Uros). Their name, which means the people of water, may seem an oxymoron in such an arid landscape, but reflects the thousands of years they have lived along the self-contained watershed between Lake Titicaca and Lake Poopó. The Urus numbered 80,000 when the Spanish invaded 500 years ago. Now the indigenous group is down to 1,800 members. The community on the eastern side of Lake Poopó is known as the Urus Moratos and numbers about 800 people. The better-known Uru Chipaya live on the western side of Lake Poopó where the lake’s disappearance has forced about 100 families have been force to abandon their village of Untavi.

The loss of Lake Poopó has added to the challenges already faced by the Urus. Access to land and discrimination at the hands of the Aymara, the largest local ethnic group, are at the heart of the Urus’ struggle for survival. They have lost their language, which they called pukina, and now speak Aymara like their neighbors. They tend to marry among themselves, but the steady reduction in their numbers has meant that a strong sense of collective identity eludes them.

Aymara expansion into Urus regions began in the 1930s when they introduced a non-native and the highly marketable fish species, silverside, known locally as pejerrey. By the 1960s, Aymara fishing cooperatives had formed and actively competed with the Urus for fish.

“We like the new houses very much,” insists local resident Natalio Zuna Aguilar, referring to the 14 new homes, “but it is hard for us to live in them all time because the land here belongs to the Aymara. Up to about 4 or 5 years ago [when the lake started drying up], we could fish in the lake. But now we have to travel to work for the Aymara making bricks or herding animals.”

photo of uros islandsphoto by Linda FarthingAn old Urus house, with fishing boats outside, include one fashioned from tortora reeds.

The northern boom in quinoa consumption during the 2000s only contributed to the conflict, putting additional pressure on local lakes for irrigation. Apolo Flores recalls, “With the expansion of quinoa, the Aymaras wanted the land like never before. The Urus found their access to the lake restricted and struggled to get title to land in narrow corridors between the lake and their communities.”

In 2013, reflecting a longstanding Bolivian tradition, the Urus marched on La Paz because, in the words of Urus leader Eriberto Choque Flores, if things don’t change “we will disappear.” They demanded that Lake Poopó be declared their territory. Territory designations have in the past been used to protect some of the 30 smaller ethnic groups in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. While this demand went unanswered, in 2015, the Urus won a significant victory when they gained the right to select a parliamentary representative to the regional assembly in Oruro, gaining some representation in local government.

***

Lake Poopó, at 12,000 feet above sea level, historically spread over an area double the area of Los Angeles. It forms part of a closed water basin that originates in South America’s largest and highest lake, Lake Titicaca. Tititcaca, in turn, feeds into the 250 mile-long Desaguadero River, which used to provide Lake Poopó with two thirds of its water. The rest came from tributaries that flow directly into the lake, particularly Rio Maure (spelled Mauri in Bolivia), which originates in Peru. Only during heavy rainy seasons does water from Poopó flow into the final part of the system, the salt lake Coipasa further south and west.

While shifts in the level of Lake Titicaca have always provoked fluctuation in Poopó’s water levels, biologist Carlos Molina at the Ecology Institute of La Paz’s public university describes the lake currently as “about the depth of a plate.” In the past it has had as much as 16 feet of water. Poopó is highly saline, a result of its closed drainage, the dry climate, and rapid evaporation in the intense sun.

In December 2015, when the government officially recognized the lake’s disappearance, the international press mostly identified climate change and Bolivia’s retreating glaciers as the culprits. And climate change did indeed play a role: 2015 was the warmest year on record in the region and 2016 was even hotter. Research by Rutgers University climate scientist Jim Miller demonstrates that temperatures at altitudes above 13,000 feet, like that of Lake Poopó’s, have climbed 75 percent faster than at lower elevations over the last 20 years. Limber Sanchez notes that while the balmy temperatures are often welcomed in notoriously chilly Oruro, “it is very worrying that our average temperature has risen two degrees Celsius in the past several years.”

Immediate responsibility for the dry lake, however, lay with the recurring El Niño weather pattern, which heats up the Pacific Ocean, amplifying temperatures over land. “Lake Poopó is the victim of a perfect storm of El Niño and climate change,” Jim Shultz from the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center said via email.

Local interventions have played a big part too. A severe drought in the early 1980s made water levels in Lake Titicaca drop and local Aymara peasant farmers successfully pressured the Bolivian government to construct a dam where the Desaguadero River meets Lake Titicaca. Water levels plunged throughout the basin to the south, including in Lake Poopó.

Much of the remaining water has been diverted by peasant farmers downstream through as many as 1,000 legal and illegal channels — around Poopó, people grow more than 100 varieties of quinoa, barley, alfalfa, the Andean grain cañahua, as well as 40 medicinal plants in a sparse land which boasts cacti as tall as 40 feet, and agricultural production has intensified over the past several decades. In 1994, Peru built a tunnel to direct water to the southern city of Tacna from the Rio Maure, cutting water flow to the lake even further.

photo of Lake PoopoPhoto by Pattrön, FlickrLake Poopó a decade ago.

Poopó’s demise means the destruction of an entire eco-system, and with it the loss up to 200 species of fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals. The lake is famous as the home of three types of flamingos. Ornithologist Carlos Capriles told Bolivia’s national newspaper, La Razón, that “Fish are particularly affected because of the closed drainage system. As well, the lake was a resting place for migratory birds.”

The lake suffers other woes as well. Oruro has been a land of mines for hundreds of years, and according to Tom Perreault, who teaches environmental studies at Syracuse University, toxic runoff, particularly from state-owned Huanuni and Bolivar mines, contaminates every water body in the region with heavy metals. Eighty-five-year old Maria Lopez told the Oruro newspaper La Patria that she remembers families renting boats in the 1940s and ‘50s on the Targarete River, which flows through downtown Oruro. Now it is Oruro department’s most polluted river and no longer safe  for recreation. 

Mining effluent makes the lake’s already salty waters even saltier. Concentrations of arsenic, lead, and cadmium are all above safe drinking water guidelines. Hardly a day goes by without a story in the Oruro press about a rural community protesting contamination from mining operations.

The state-operated Huanuni mine is Bolivia’s largest tin mine. “Until about a year ago, Huanuni dumped everything directly into the river, which runs into Lake Poopó,” says Tom Perreault, who has been conducting research in the region for over 10 years. 

In 2000, around 29,000 barrels of refined crude oil and mixed gasoline spilled into the Desaguadero River, which feeds Lake Poopó, when a flash flood ruptured the pipeline that transports oil from Bolivia to Chile. The pipeline was operated in part by the infamous US-based Enron, and environmental groups widely accused the company of inadequate cleanup. Tamara Stenn, part of an ad hoc US-based group called Friends of Poopó said, “The Urus suffered considerably from the spill but gained very little in the way of compensation.”

Lake Poopó was made subject to the Ramsar Convention, an international agreement on the conservation of wetlands, in 2002 with help from the World Conservation Society. Of the 2,252 wetlands designated under the Convention, 11 are in Bolivia. Locally, Ramsar is hampered by a lack of enforcement capacity.

***

Poopó’s myriad problems do not lend themselves to simple solutions. A restoration effort initiated in 2010 with $15 million in funding from the European Union is largely considered a failure. According to Limber Sanchez of CEPA, “the project was poorly conceived and funds spent unwisely on scattered projects that had little impact on salvaging the lake.”

CEPA proposes reducing Lake Poopó’s size, in part to mitigate rapid evaporation rates provoked by the dry climate and accelerated by the higher temperatures resulting from climate change. Sedimentation of the lake is extreme, estimated by CEPA to be the equivalent of 200 hundred truckloads of soil being added to the lake every day. “If we dredged the lake center to a reasonable depth with channels so water can come in from the Desaguadero River, there would be less evaporation, and the resulting dry land could be titled to the Urus so they would have space to farm,” argues Sanchez.

This land would be salty but quinoa has a high salt tolerance. However, the heavy metals accumulated in its soils would need removal. Biologist Carlos Molina who has studied the impact of the lake’s evaporation, is concerned that dredging “could be a mistake because stirring up the sediment will activate the heavy metals and sulfates and transform them into toxic compounds that can be easily assimilated by living organisms.” He contends that it is essential to treat the water because even if dredging is successful the water left behind will be highly contaminated.

Tom Perreault urges dredging the tributary rivers too. “This will move water more quickly down to the lake, and help remediate the braiding and widening of rivers provoked by the dumping of processed ore,” he predicts. “This has eaten the banks, covering agricultural fields with toxic sediment, making the rivers shallower and more susceptible to evaporation — once again, shrinking the amount of water in the system.”  

In early 2016, the Bolivian government announced that it would direct $3.25 million in funds to Lake Poopó, but most of this is for humanitarian aid. The government also announced plans to seek $140 million in aid from the European Union for water treatment plants and to dredge the lake’s tributaries.

Tom Perreault believes the government must act soon. “All mining companies should be required to undertake environmental remediation and compensation projects,” he says. In November, Peru’s President Pedro Kuczynsiki announced that investments would be made to ensure the environmental remediation of Lake Titicaca within five years, a move that should indirectly benefit Lake Poopó as well.

In October 2016, dredging of an eight-kilometer canal between Lake Uru Uru and Poopó began. Designed to increase water flow into Poopó and prevent seasonal flooding in Uru Uru, it is financed by the Oruro departmental government. This built on a US $47 million project begun in February 2016 through the international consortium, the Global Environment Facility, to promote conservation and sustainable water use in the Titicaca – Desaguadero – Poopó – Salar de Coipasa (TDPS) basin.

As well as remediation, Perreault urges the government “to develop programs that address the specific and quite unique needs of the Urus people.” CEPA’s Limber Sanchez agrees. “If they Urus disappear, our history is gone,” he says. “For the people of Oruro, they represent our roots.” 

***

As President Morales came out of the newly blessed and inaugurated houses, those who greeted him were all Aymaras. The Urus had faded towards the back of the crowd. His helicopter lifted off, setting off an enormous whirl of salty dust that sent the enthusiastic crowd rushing out of the way, their waving arms and smiling faces gone. This seems an apt metaphor for the mixed blessing the President’s programs often bring: wild enthusiasm over the commitment to improve life, followed by dismay when people realize they are not the programs most needed. In a community they can no survive in, the Urus have new houses and a better school.

The lake has dried out at least twice before, but gradually recovered. This time, no one can guarantee that the lake will recuperate, especially as ongoing drought is forcing water rationing throughout the country. But the Urus are counting on it. “We are really worried about our future but we believe the lake will return,” says Urus leader Emilio Huanaco, “It always has in the past.”

Limbert Sanchez thinks it will take time: “The lake isn’t coming back in a year or two; maybe [in] five to ten [years].”

Once Morales was gone, I tried to find another Urus to interview. No one was around. They were all far out in what has become a vast salt flat, determined to find one of the few remaining patches of water where they could continue fishing.

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