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Climate change comes to Bolivia!

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Illimani and La Paz


Lago Milluni Reservoir


Big Questions, Big Challenges.  Why tackle the effects of global climate change?  And more particularly, why choose Bolivia as a place to do so?  The technical and social challenges involved in responding to global warming are obviously huge; but nowhere are they more formidable and urgent than in developing countries like Bolivia and the other Andean nations of South America.

Although one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere (second only to Haiti), Bolivia has emerged as a leader and a powerful voice on behalf of a number of developing nations that already are (or soon will be) impacted adversely by global climate change.  These nations of the South are prepared to pursue economic development along a more enlightened path than did the developed nations of the North, but the developing countries will inevitably require (and truly deserve) much assistance in evaluating, adapting, and deploying more carbon-neutral and responsible energy technologies, and in mustering the substantial investment required to put this more climate-compatible energy infrastructure in place.  Reducing this real risk to our planet's climate requires the ingenuity, commitment, and cooperation of all nations North and South on a range of technical, political, and social fronts.

Water -- Feast and Famine, Flood and Drought. The challenges faced by developing nations like Bolivia are exacerbated, however, by the fact that the effects of global warming and climate change have already arrived.  Thus, countries like Bolivia must adapt to a new and harsh environmental reality at the same time as they embrace new energy technology and infrastructure.  For instance, in Bolivia and its Andean neighbors, the well-documented melting and retreat of low-altitude glaciers -- which for years served as natural drinking water stores -- now threaten the water supplies of La Paz and El Alto; to wit, water levels in these cities' Tuni and Milluni reservoirs have dropped ominously in recent years as they are no longer recharged adequately by the receding glaciers of the Cordillera Real that have historically fed them.   (Admittedly, in the mountains north and east of La Paz and El Alto, it is difficult to separate unambiguously the respective contributions of global warming from more local effects such as El Niño/La Niña weather cycles, proximity to these nearby urban heat islands, and the reduced glacial albedo resulting from the deposition of soot from dirty stoves and diesel engines.)  Overall, however, the combined effects of local environment, weather, and global climate change are indisputable, drastic, and immediate -- here and elsewhere in the Andes.  

And yet at the very same time as the inhabitants of La Paz and El Alto run low on water, farmers and indigenous communities on the mountainsides often suffer alternately from having either too much or too little water.  The general warming experienced in recent years -- accompanied by increasingly numerous and severe weather events -- has caused much of the water released from these glaciers to arrive downslope over a period of a few short months in an otherwise dry year.  The water arrives (when it does) in the form of deluges of glacial melt, suspended rock dust, and unfrozen rainwater that runs off the shoulders of mountains like Illimani at flows too high for local farmers and communities to manage effectively for household or agricultural purposes. Rural Bolivian highlanders suffer alternately from both water feast (i.e., excessive run-off) and water famine (i.e., shrinking glacial resources).  Simple but properly designed and cost-effective engineering solutions to these problems are urgently needed.

Still Other Climate-Related Issues.  Global climate change is already forcing Bolivian farmers and inhabitants of rural communities to adapt, often painfully, to many changes taking place around them:

●  Violent weather events are becoming increasingly severe and frequent;

●  Rainfall of reasonable intensity falls less reliably;

 Growing seasons are becoming less predictable and sometimes shorter;

●  Traditional crops are failing and arable lands are moving upslope; and

●  Newly emergent pests and pathogens, adapted to warmer environments, are moving into new territories to threaten not only human health but also that of crops and livestock.

These and still other climate-related pressures force adaptive responses that displace stable families and rural communities; disrupt traditional livelihoods; and cause significant personal and economic hardship.  Our challenge (and moral imperative) is to assist in facilitating this process of adaptation through provision of appropriate human and material resources, with appropriate engineering services and engineered projects being among these.  





This page was last updated on April 14, 2011.