Melted glacier in Bolivia puts fresh water supply at risk

Latin America

People walk along the Cordillera Real of the Andes mountains on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, Sunday June 12, 2011. According to the Environmental Defense League (Lidema), a Bolivian NGO, Bolivia’s glaciers along the Cordillera Real, Chacaltaya, Tuni Condorini and Illimani are shrinking in size by more than one meter every year and estimate that the majority of the snow in this area could disappear by 2030. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

It was once the world’s highest ski resort. Now it’s  a victim of climate change. The Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia stands as a reminder of the past, and a warning for the future.

CGTN’s Dan Collyns filed this report from its peaks.

La Paz is one of the highest cities in the world. It’s nestled in the Andean tropical mountain chain. A short drive followed by perhaps a longer walk from the city, and you can be standing under snow-capped peaks. Not so long ago, people skied on these slopes.

Bolivia’s only ski resort was once the highest in the world, at more than 5,400 meters above sea level. Nowadays, it’s a sad relic of the après ski lifestyle some Bolivians enjoyed on this once mighty glacier, which has melted faster than scientists had predicted.

Under a fresh dusting of snow, two ski lodges are the only reminders of what used to be. Scientists said the ice here started to melt in the mid-1980s. The glacier vanished by 2009.

A man walks on Glacier Chacaltaya in the Andes mountains in Bolivia, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009. Glacier Chacaltaya was famous for being the world’s highest ski run but since the mid-90s has not had enough snow for skiing. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

Residents in La Paz and its twin city El Alto face a more pressing problem than the loss of a leisure activity. While the higher peaks hold on to their ice for now, the thaw is putting fresh water supplies at risk.

“The last decade in which we have all this glacial retreat, what is happening is we have more water available because the glaciers are melting and this is going to last 10-15 years maybe – depending on the conditions are maybe – but later we won’t have any other source of water and we won’t have the reservoir,” said Marcos Andrade, Director of the Atmospheric Physics Laboratory in Higher San Andres University.

Snow covers the Cordillera Real of the Andes mountains on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, Sunday June 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

In 2016, La Paz was hit by a major drought as reservoirs ran dry. This year, the water supply and weather is being carefully monitored.

“The problem with climate change and climate variability is you don’t know if you will have the same amount of rainfall every year, so planning for a big dam might be a mistake,” Andrade said. “The idea now is really to build small dams. We need really to have a contingency plan.”

Bolivians in the area may have the white peaks for little longer, but they’ll have to plan for a drier future without them.