It’s Not a Hoax: Bolivia’s Shrinking Glaciers

Dec 1st, 2016 | By | Category: Water Issues

By Suzanne York.

La Paz, Bolivia []

La Paz, Bolivia []

In what is sadly a sign of things to come for many places, Bolivia has declared a state of emergency, as it endures its worst drought in 25 years.

The Andean glaciers that for centuries have supplied water to La Paz and its sprawling neighbor El Alto – one of the poorest and fastest-growing cities in Latin America – are shrinking, resulting in the water taps running dry. The two cities have a combined population of nearly 2 million people.

The drought extends beyond La Paz and El Alto; 172 of the country’s 339 municipalities have declared drought-related emergencies.

Earlier this year it was reported that Lake Poopó, Bolivia’s second-largest lake, is now a dried up bed of salt and the indigenous people who relied upon it are now climate refugees.

For a visual on the impact of the Bolivian drought, see The Guardian’s recent photo essay.

Population and Migration Impacts

The government estimates that the drought has affected 125,000 families and threatened 716,605 acres of agricultural land, as well as 360,000 heads of cattle.

El Alto is a city people migrate to from the countryside in search of jobs. As reported in The Guardian, “The city’s population grew by at least 30% between 2001 and 2012, and the city’s land area has rapidly expanded by 144% in the last decade, spreading into the flat open countryside to the south and west. By 2050, the population is expected to double to two million people.” A rising population and shrinking water resources equals trouble, to put it mildly. The entire country’s population is expected to increase from 13 million today to 16 million by the mid-2050’s.

An analysis by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) found “Evidence from El Alto’s history indicates that the fastest periods of population growth coincided with droughts, floods and bad harvests associated with the meteorological phenomena of El Niño and La Niña.”

An increasing population is not the only issue. Extractive industries, such as mining, may also be contributing to the water crisis. Reuters recently reported that, according to environmental and land rights campaigners, the drought has exposed the impact of mining projects, which they say divert water supplies and pollute water sources.


[photo: mcdarius, flickr Creative Commons]

[photo: mcdarius, flickr Creative Commons]

Rights of Nature

Climate change, inequity, migration, corporatization are factors that are affecting access to the precious resource of water. Though solutions such as water recycling, reducing waste, more efficient water systems, and better water management are put forth, there is one solution that isn’t normally mentioned but could play a role – rights for nature.

The Bolivian government, under President Evo Morales, has championed rights of nature for many years. In 2011, Bolivia passed the “Law for the Rights of Mother Earth,” mandating nature legal rights.

Specifically, the law states that our planet, aka Mother Earth, has the following rights:

  1. To life: The right to maintain the integrity of living systems and natural processes that sustain them, and capacities and conditions for regeneration.
  2. To the diversity of life: It is the right to preservation of differentiation and variety of beings that make up Mother Earth, without being genetically altered or structurally modified in an artificial way, so that their existence, functioning or future potential would be threatened.
  3. To water: The right to preserve the functionality of the water cycle, its existence in the quantity and quality needed to sustain living systems, and its protection from pollution for the reproduction of the life of Mother Earth and all its components.
  4. To clean air: The right to preserve the quality and composition of air for sustaining living systems and its protection from pollution, for the reproduction of the life of Mother Earth and all its components.
  5. To equilibrium: The right to maintenance or restoration of the interrelationship, interdependence, complementarity and functionality of the components of Mother Earth in a balanced way for the continuation of their cycles and reproduction of their vital processes.
  6. To restoration: The right to timely and effective restoration of living systems affected by human activities directly or indirectly.
  7. To pollution-free living: The right to the preservation of any of Mother Earth’s components from contamination, as well as toxic and radioactive waste generated by human activities.


Protest in San Francisco in support of indigenous water protectors [photo: Suzanne York]

Protest in San Francisco in support of indigenous water protectors [photo: Suzanne York]

Rights of Nature and Corporations Don’t Mix

Though Morales is a champion of rights of nature, his government has continued with economic development based on extractive industries such as natural gas and mining, including fracking, an industry that uses and pollutes much water.

Bolivia will not be alone as a water-stressed country. Even the U.S. intelligence has noted the threat of water scarcity as a destabilizing factor resulting in wars over water. And it will pit rich against poor (people and countries) and result in more migration of people. Take a look at Syria and how drought played a big part in the ongoing crisis.

It’s clear the world will need to address climate change, population growth, environmental degradation and inequality hand-in-hand with access to water.  The big question is, will we do what needs to be done?

Ultimately, the moment is ripe for a global movement linking both human rights and nature’s rights to cope with the all of the world’s serious problems, if we are going to save people and the planet.  Therein lies our best hope.


Suzanne York is Project Director of Transition Earth.

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.