Shrinking glaciers upend lives across South America
For five generations, Héctor Basilio Choquehuanca Poma and his family have lived on the slopes of the imposing Tuni Condoriri mountains in the Bolivian Andes.
In this often-unforgiving land, Basilio’s kin have long made ends meet by raising llamas. But in recent years that work has become tenuous amid the shrinking of local pastures.
The reason for this is still a matter of debate but it’s likely due to a combination of melting glaciers, an important source of water, and other climate change effects, such as warmer air. Basilio says the Tarija Glacier near his home has halved in size since he was a boy.
“We’ve had to reduce the herd and start trout farming instead,” says Basilio, a 64-year-old father of seven.
The tropical glaciers of the Andes, which feed many of the rivers in the Amazon basin, are some of the fastest retreating ice packs in the world. Their disappearance is not only upending lives in mountain communities, it is also sparking water shortages and hampering hydro-electric power generation across lowland communities home to hundreds of millions of people.
“People all along the Amazon basin have started to learn firsthand what climate change means for their way of life,” says Leticia Carvalho, Principal Coordinator of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Marine and Freshwater Branch. “Indigenous peoples and local communities are least responsible for the emissions driving climate change, and are the best custodians of nature. But they will have no choice but to adapt to potentially very harsh circumstances and new ways of life that may not be as harmonious with nature as before.”
A new project that spans eight countries is helping many communities adjust to a changing climate. With funding from the Global Environment Facility, UNEP is assisting Amazon basin states as they adjust to a new climate normal. The project, which runs from 2020-2024 and is executed by the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, is helping rural communities and urban centres, including those in Bolivia and Peru, tap into sustainable alternative water supplies, among other initiatives.
The work comes after Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela adopted a regional strategy to more sustainably manage water resources. Alexandra Moreira, Secretary-General of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, says it’s the first such agreement of its kind in the region.
The accord comes at a critical time for South America.
The Andes is home to some of the fastest-disappearing ice packs in the world, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The region has lost between 30 and 50 per cent of its ice cover in the last 40 years, while the most vulnerable glaciers have already disappeared. This has affected the flow of water into the Amazon basin, the world’s largest water catchment area, drying out wetlands and raising fears of water shortages.
The situation is acute in parts of Bolivia. According to one study (in Spanish) by the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, the Tuni Condoriri glacier could disappear in the next 30 years. Researchers worry that could impact the supply of drinking water and hamper energy generation in the cities of La Paz and El Alto, home to 4 million people.
In Bolivia, researchers with the UNEP-backed project met Basilio while on a field trip to gather meteorological and glacial melt data in the Tuni Condoriri region. The project will also assess water demand in the cities of La Paz and El Alto and explore early-warning systems for drought.
The retreat of glaciers has forced communities along the Andes to adapt. Around Tuni Condoriri, trout farming has emerged as an alternative to raising llama. Experience suggests it can help promote the sustainable use of water resources in mountainous regions, and help boost incomes, even though it can cause pollution and impact biodiversity.
Meanwhile, in Colombia, microloans have helped small farmers affected by drought to buy a septic tank that allows them to reuse water or a biogas system that generates energy and heat, discouraging logging.
“It is important for countries to act now because climate change will only make things worse,” says Carvalho.
Blending water management with adaptation strategies leads to more efficient use of limited financial resources and can help reduce vulnerability to climate change. Examples include improving rainwater harvesting, rewetting of wetlands and switching to more drought-resistant crops in arid areas.
Many countries around the world are struggling with the same problems. Glacier loss is projected to diminish water availability for agriculture, hydropower and human settlements in the mid- to long-term, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of climate experts.
At the same time, global water use has increased by a factor of six over the past 100 years, according to the World Water Development Report, a UN study. Usage continues to grow steadily at a rate of about 1 per cent per year as a result of increasing population, economic development and shifting consumption patterns. Combined with a more erratic and uncertain supply, climate change will aggravate the situation of water-stressed regions, according to the report.
Water scarcity will be on the agenda at the UN Water Conference, a global gathering on the state of the world’s water systems.
The event is designed to accelerate the implementation of the water-related Sustainable Development Goals and help build resilience to climate change in vulnerable mountain communities, such as those in the Andes.
Recently, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to declare 2025 the International Year of Glaciers` Preservation.
“There is still time for smarter water management and data collection to build resilience, but the window is shrinking,” added Carvalho.