A sad story from Bolivia shows the peril of reading the news

Summary: A sad story about Bolivia shows how climate change has become the easy culprit for disasters, allowing powerful special interests to avoiding blame for their actions and advancing the Left’s political agenda. This use of science as propaganda has an intolerable cost: it makes us less able to deal with our problems. We can’t make it through the 21st century if reading the news makes us ignorant.

Only clear vision can save us from deceivers.

Clear vision

News! News! News!

Bolivia’s second-largest lake, Lake Poopó dries up, a victim of climate change” at The Weather Channel.
Bolivia’s second largest lake dries up due to climate change, displacing thousands of people” by Caroline Mortimer at The Independent
“Scientists say the evaporation of the lake serves as a warning about climate change.”
Climate Change Claims a Lake, and an Identity” by Nicholas Casey at the NY Times, July 2016.
A vanished lake in Bolivia is ‘a picture of the future’” by Carlos Valdez at Associated Press.
Lake Poopó dries up” by David Mercado at Reuters.

As these headlines suggest, these stories describe climate change as the only cause of Lake Poopó’s drying (see Wikipedia), or mention other factors only deep in the story. Activist journalists use this sad story as propaganda for their political agenda.

Some journalists do better. Such as Laurence Blair: “The ecological catastrophe that turned a vast Bolivian lake into a salt desert” in The Guardian, January 2018. He puts the narrative at the top. Deep in the article he gives the rest of the story.

In November 2014, millions of fish and birds suddenly perished, rotting where they lay. By late 2015, the lake which had once covered 2,400 sq km, dried upcompletely, seemingly for good. Many blamed the catastrophe on global climate change. …

A sprinkling of rain early this year briefly refilled part of the lake, only to rapidly evaporate within weeks. Yet there is growing recognition that rising temperatures alone are not to blame.

Water withdrawals for irrigation from upstream rivers reduce the lake’s size, says Tom Perreault, a geographer at Syracuse University. The huge amount of water used by nearby mines, and the contamination they produce, also has a catastrophic effect, Perreault added. On a visit to the state-owned Huanunitin mine, Bolivia’s largest, the Guardian observed mining waste being dumped directly into the Huanuni river. The tributary, a sickly yellow colour, flows downhill to Lake Poopó.

The leftwing government of Evo Morales has “blamed climate change exclusively for the lake’s disappearance, while ignoring the other factors”, Perreault told the Guardian via email. This allows it “to cast blame on industrialized countries, mostly the US, [and] avoid taking any responsibility for the lake’s drying or rehabilitation”.

An EU-funded €14m programme operational during 2010-15 “seemed to only nibble around the edges of the lake’s major problems”, says Whitt. The programme’s office in the government building in Oruro is shuttered. Nextdoor, its former head, water engineer Eduardo Ortiz, says that he doubts its funding will be renewed. When asked what measures it took, he removes his glasses and starts to cry. “We didn’t have the resources or the remit to make a difference … and now even my friends blame me for not saving the lake,” he says.

Recent government action involves river dredging and pollution containment efforts, but few think they will be enough. Morales is unlikely to enforce regulations that could hurt the region’s miners, a key component of his support.

Another example of real journalism is this by Brian Clark Howard: “Bolivia’s Second Largest Lake Has Dried Out. Can It Be Saved?” in National Geographic — “El Niño, climate change, and mismanagement of water are all to blame, scientists say.” This is unusual. The Guardian and National Geographic are staffed with doctrinaire climate warriors, typically printing stories showing only the alarmist side of every story.

“Misuse of the water supply and a failure on the part of the Bolivian government to act on existing management plans are partly responsible for the rapid drying of the lake over the past few years, says Lisa Borre, a senior researcher with the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in New York, who studies lake ecosystems. …”The Bolivian government is blaming El Niño and climate change, and certainly those played a role, but they are not saying that they have also failed to implement the management plan for the basin,” says Borre. …

“Lake Poopó gets most of its water from the Desaguadero River, which flows from Lake Titicaca (Bolivia’s largest lake). According to the published management plan, water managers are supposed to allow flow down the river into Poopó, but they have recently allowed that to slow to a trickle.  Titicaca has plenty of water in it, so that’s not the problem, Borre says. Officials just aren’t opening control gates often enough to send water down the river. Some of the water is being diverted for agriculture and mining. And even when water is available, the river is often clogged with sedimentation, due to the runoff from development and mining in the area.

“Poopó is high, at 12,000 feet (3,680 meters), and the area has warmed an estimated 1°C over the past century, leading to an increase in the rate of evaporation from the lake. And the lack of rain over the past year has sped the process even further. But these factors weren’t surprises, Borre says, they were foreseeable changes that scientists anticipated.

“What happened to Lake Poopó is not unlike the drying of the vast Aral Sea in Central Asia, says Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and a National Geographic Explorer. In both cases, a closed water system was overdrawn, with more water going out than coming in.”

The focus on climate change meets the needs of western elites, but ignores the efforts of local people working for real reform. Such as “Indigenous People Tried to Turn the Tables and Save Lake Poopó” at Global Greengrants Fund. Also see “Water Resources Management efforts for best water allocation in the Lake Poopo basin, Bolivia” by Andres Calizaya in Water Resources Management (2009)

Stand back I'm trying science.

Listening to scientists about Lake Poopó

Lisa Borre is a lake expert with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. From their website: “Bolivia’s disappearing lake“, February 2016.

“Lake Poopó is suffering from more than drought. There has also been mismanagement of the lake’s water supply. So simply put – what’s happening is that not enough water is reaching the lake because sediments are blocking the flow of water in the river that feeds the lake.  So this is a problem that is also brought about by the mismanagement of the lake and its water resources.”

The Rapid Decline of Lake Poopó, Bolivia” by DMC International Imaging. The graphic shown in most of the news stories comes from DMC (see it below).

The shallow waters of Lake Poopó are vulnerable to fluctuations in precipitation, meaning it has been negatively impacted by recurrent droughts. The warming of the climate by approximately 1°C has also contributed to increased evaporation – it is estimated that the water is now evaporating three times as fast between rains. Having suffered from these climatic changes, the lake was extremely vulnerable to the impacts of the El Niño event which arose in 2015. This phenomenon, which some consider to be the worst in a century, has accelerated Poopó’s decline.

Yet the blame cannot lay on the climate alone – human activities have also contributed to this disaster. For years water has been diverted from Poopó’s tributaries for mining and agriculture; and mining has caused other problems too. Poopó receives most of its water from the Desaguardero River, which flows from Lake Titicaca – yet the tributary has suffered from a heavy build-up of red silt, largely thought to originate from upstream mining outfits.

Although Poopó has dried up and rebounded in the past – most recently in 1997 – due to this combination of factors, it is widely considered that this is now an unlikely scenario.

Map of Lake Poopo seem by Landsat
Landsat images. Click to enlarge.

Important parts of the story journalists forgot to mention

To make their simple story, journalists forget to mention key aspects of the story. Let’s turn to articles in the peer-reviewed literature to learn the missing facts about the “combination of factors” destroying Lake Poopó. First, see a description of the geography in “Role of Hydrological Studies for the Development of the TDPS System” by Claudia Canedo et al. in Water 2016, 8(4). Red emphasis added.

“The South American Altiplano in the Andes is, aside from Tibet, the most extensive high plateau on Earth. …The highland is faced with extreme climatic variability that determines the region´s poverty and harsh living conditions. …The Altiplano contains two large lakes, Lake Titicaca in the northern part and Lake Poopó in the central part. …The water in Lake Titicaca represents about 99% of the total surface water in the Altiplano, meaning that this lake supplies a major part of water and humidity into the southern arid region. … since 1993, especially for the downstream of the Lake Titicaca, not many hydrological studies or increase in hydrological knowledge of the region have been achieved.

Lake Poopó is remarkably shallow with a depth ranging from only 1.30 to 2.37 m. Thus, between wet and dry seasons the surface water area varies from 1000 to 2,500 km2. …The lake has dried out at several occasions. The longest period of such an event occurred from 1994 to 1997. This situation destroyed the lake biomass and strongly affected fishermen’s income. …

“In the TDPS system, the demand for drinking water, irrigation, mining, industry, livestock, and others is higher than the available flow.”

Climate scientist Roger Pielke Sr. has long warned that our obsession with climate change blinds us to local factors — which are often more powerful (e.g., see this AGU paper). In Bolivia the “local factors” are its ruling elites’ exploitation of their people and destruction of their ecology. No wonder they want to blame climate change for their problems. Scientists call this “land-use issues”.

To see how that affects this region’s water supply, read “Multi-criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) for Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in the Lake Poopo Basin, Bolivia” by Andrés Calizaya et al. in Water Resources Management, August 2010. Gated. Open copy here.

“In the rural area of Bolivia, water resources constitute a fragile element of the landscape. In general, there is a fresh water deficit spanning more than half of the country. The Lake Poopo basin in the southern Bolivian Altiplano does not escape this reality. The basin is confronted with severe water scarcity during the dry season, which leads to low water quality combined with extreme poverty, a low water poverty index and low values of the watershed sustainability index. Furthermore, salinization and environmental degradation of soil and water are forcing people to migrate to faraway urban areas. …

Pollution of water resources is another of the most important factors aggravating water-related conflicts. Over a long period of time, rivers and lakes have been contaminated by heavy metals from the mining companies. On the other hand, spills of crude petroleum infiltrating the Desaguadero River have practically exterminated the native species of fish existing in Lake Poopo, which had devastating social, economic and cultural consequences. Fishing was the way of survival for the native culture of Uru-Muratos, a tribe that has since had to resort to leaving their land and working for local farmers to secure their livelihood. Negative impact of pollution on the local environment will be felt for many years to come.”

Conclusions

Too often journalists turn complex stories into simple morality plays that serve short-term political needs. They do so because too many Americans read for entertainment, enjoying their morning dose of confirmation bias and righteous fervor. That is fine for sheep, willingly herded by their masters, but citizens need to understand current events in order to shape public policy. We cannot fix what we do not understand.

When we demand real news, journalists will provide it. Until then we will see mostly stories like “Lake Poopó dries up, a victim of climate change.”

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about droughts, about the keys to understanding climate change, and especially these …

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Some interesting books about weather and climate.

 

7 thoughts on “A sad story from Bolivia shows the peril of reading the news

  1. Lake Poopoo, starving polar bears, melting ice, hockey stick graph, manufactured global temperature readings, lying emails. Science used to disprove God and to control the masses. Throw in legalized drugs and now we have a party.

  2. The problem is that there are clear causes for the drying out of the lake that are caused by humans but which are not related to climate change. Those causes should be examined first. It is absurd to look at climate change when there are direct causes of the problem.

    1. David,

      “It is absurd to look at climate change when there are direct causes of the problem.”

      I understand why you say that, but it is not correct. It is politically convenient for the polluters to shift the blame to climate change. It is politically convenient for climate activists to shift the blame to climate change. The two groups have a de facto alliance against the people of Bolivia.

      This is despicable, but not absurd.

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