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As Glaciers Melt, Bolivia Fights for the Good Life

Bolivia is watching its glaciers melt, early casualties of a changing climate. As communities struggle to adapt and the government tries to pioneer an alternative way forward, rural Bolivians believe the answer lies not in consumerist striving to live better, but in learning to live well.

 

Don Alivio Aruquipa, photo by Jessica Aguirre

As children play in the background, Don Alivio Aruquipa discusses the future of his threatened community, Khapi.

Photo by Jessica Camille Aguirre

Don Alivio Aruquipa is smiling as he gestures around his community. Behind him, groups of yelping children kick a soccer ball around a sloping green plaza. Every so often, the ball goes flying off the mesa into a plot of cultivated land below, and the children send someone to go retrieve it.

Looming over the verdant square that stretches among squat square buildings is Illimani, a blue, breathtaking colossus of craggy rock and snow. On the other side of the mountain sits La Paz, the burgeoning capital city of Bolivia. But here, in the village of Khapi, the hush of remote tranquility is interrupted only by children’s cries.

Alivio, stocky and affable, is one of Khapi's community leaders. He turns somber as he explains how yellow water is beginning to come down from Illimani. The animals don’t like it, he says; they get sick or they refuse to drink. The water flowing down from the mountain has also become unpredictable, he adds. It has become impossible to know when to plant the crops.

Khapi is a village of 40 families in the western part of the Bolivian altiplano; its residents rely on agriculture to survive. It is the closest community to Illimani (the name for both the mountain and the glacier atop it, which provides water not only to Khapi but also to La Paz). For as long as anyone who lives here can remember, the community has relied on water from the glacier to drink, wash, cook, and cultivate food. But now Illimani is disappearing.

Disappearing Glaciers

The melting of glaciers worldwide is one of the starkest effects of global warming. In the Cordillera Real mountain range, part of the Andes, glaciers lost 40 percent of their volume between 1975 and 2006. The glacier Chacaltaya, which sits approximately 20 miles from Illimani, has disappeared completely. Five years ago Chacaltaya was proudly heralded by Bolivian tour agencies as the highest ski slope in the world. Now the Bolivian Ski Club’s welcome sign angles forlornly on a barren incline.

Bolivia, which is home to 20 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers (glaciers that are located at high altitudes around the equator), is clearly panicked by the rapidity of glacial melt. Bolivia’s tropical glaciers are especially susceptible to climatic changes: they depend on the increasingly erratic rainy season to regenerate, and their altitude compounds the effects of rising temperatures. Edson Ramirez, one of Bolivia’s most respected glacier experts, predicted that Chacaltaya, at least, would last until 2015. Now, some scientists express doubt that any Andean tropical glaciers will exist in 30 years.

The trouble is that the tropical glaciers depend on seasonal regularity. In tropical zones south of the equator, seasons are generally divided into rainy and dry: dry is May through November (southern winter) and rainy is November through April (southern summer). During the rainy season, glaciers accumulate moisture and ice mass. This thaws during dry season, filling streams and rivers with fresh water precisely when it is most needed.

“Water Is Life.”

When speaking about climate change, people in Bolivia use this refrain with reliable predictability. It is an uncomfortable, unavoidable aphorism. The glaciers are an indispensable part of the national water supply system; as much as 30 percent of the water supply for the 2 million residents of La Paz and its sister city of El Alto comes from glacial melt. On a global scale, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center estimates that 75 percent of the world’s freshwater is stored in glaciers.

But warming temperatures mean that the glaciers are melting at a rate that outpaces their ability to accumulate mass during the rainy months. The consequence is that an important source of water is dwindling dangerously.

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And Khapi isn’t just struggling with a deteriorating water supply. As a community that relies on intimate knowledge of weather patterns in order to survive, erratic weather has introduced unforeseen challenges to food production. Sagrario Urgel, with Oxfam Bolivia, is particularly worried about the effect of unpredictable weather on rural communities like Khapi: “They don’t have ways to anticipate things like they had before, for the times of planting and harvesting,” she explains, “and all of this change in climate is causing considerable crop losses.”

Javier Cortez, a farmer in Khapi, bemoans that he is forced to use chemicals that he considers poison to protect his crops from new plagues. Some community members are bewildered but pleased that a few crops—avocadoes, for example—that could once be cultivated only lower in the valley now grow in the village. 

But most are concerned about the new pests and the unreliability of water.

“The weather is already changing,” Don Alivio laments. “In the old days the rain would come down for a whole week, it would rain slowly … Now, how does it rain here? Only for two or three hours. It rains tremendously with storms, with hail—sheesh, it plows our crops too.”

Khapi is the first community in a chain of villages that descends down a lush valley on the northern side of Illimani. Don Alivio estimates that more than 40 communities rely on the water that comes down from the glacier. On hot sunny days, they say, the water rushes down in torrents. It has forced many towns to build heretofore unnecessary bridges. But most days, it trickles down at an exasperatingly meager rate.

Living Better, or Living Well?

For many of the people that live at the glacier’s foot, the disappearance of Illimani means more than a threat to the water supply. The glacier plays an important role in the cultural and spiritual lives of Khapi residents, and many describe its retreat as equivalent to the loss of a family member...

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