Trashing the place

lake poopo 2013-2016
This, via NASA, is a comparison of Bolivia’s Lake Poopó in 2013 (left) and now

Lake Poopó, which was once Bolivia’s second-largest lake, is now gone, its water content down to a shocking 2% of what it once was. A few days ago, NASA released a satellite image showing the extent of the situation, which resembles nothing so much as the destruction of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. And as with the Aral Sea, there are a number of causes for the lake’s decimation, but they all come back to the same root: human beings are lousy stewards of our natural environment:

While Poopó has suffered droughts fueled by El Niño for millenniums, its fragile ecosystem has experienced unprecedented stress in the past three decades. Temperatures have risen by about 1 degree Celsius, 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, and mining has pinched the flow of tributaries, increasing sediment.

Mark B. Bush, a biologist at the Florida Institute of Technology, said the long-term trend of warming and drying threatened the entire Andean highlands.

In 2010, Mr. Bush was one of the authors of a study for the journal Global Change Biology that said that Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, could face catastrophic drought this century. It predicted that “inhospitable arid climates” would lessen available food and water for the more than three million inhabitants.

A study by the German consortium Gitec-Cobodes determined that Poopó received 161 billion fewer liters of water in 2013 than is required to maintain equilibrium.

Drought due in no small part to human-caused climate change, combined with overuse and pollution of tributaries thanks to unsustainable agricultural and mining projects. Yep, that’s the Aral Sea story all over again.

I realize it’s very easy for me to sit here in suburban Virginia opining on the mismanagement of natural resources in Bolivia, which is among the poorest countries in the world. But the destruction of Lake Poopó didn’t help lift any Bolivians out of poverty; in fact, people who lived near the lake and depended on it for their livelihoods are now utterly destitute. The undoubtedly wealthy owners of the mining companies that filled the lake’s tributaries with sediment didn’t do anything to raise Bolivians out of poverty–quite the opposite, as we now know. And most of the unchecked fossil fuel use that’s melting the Andean glaciers has been done in places far away from Bolivia. The loss of Lake Poopó isn’t just an environmental catastrophe, although it is definitely that, but it’s an economic one as well.

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