As It Happens

PHOTOS | Why Bolivia's dried up Lake Poopó may never recover

Environmental scientist Dirk Hoffmann says that rapid climate change, mining, and mismanagement of water have caused damage to Lake Poopó, that may be permanent.
In this Jan. 12, photo, an abandoned boat lies on the dried up lake bed of Lake Poopo, outside Untavi, Bolivia. Drought caused by El Nino is considered the main driver of the lake's demise. Authorities say another factor is the diversion of water from Poopo's tributaries, for mining and agriculture. (Juan Karita/AP)

Dusty, abandoned, fishing boats and the skeletal imprints of wildlife are all that remain on the parched bed of Bolivia's Lake Poopó. The reservoir was the second largest lake in Bolivia — but now, there's barely any water left.

These photos of satellite images, provided by NASA Earth Observatory, show Lake Poopo filled with water in April, 2013, left, and nearly dry in Jan. 2016, right, in Bolivia. As Andean glaciers disappear, so do the sources of Poopo's water. Glacial melting and the diversion of water from Poopo's tributaries are to blame, according to authorities. (NASA Earth Observatory/AP)

The Bolivian government has declared the area a disaster zone and many scientists are concerned that Lake Poopó may never recover. Environmentalists charge that government and mining companies mismanaged water supplies, and that has accelerated the devastating effect of climate change.

Drik Hoffmann is an environmental scientist and coordinator for the Bolivian Mountain Institute in La Paz. (Dirk Hoffmann)

"It's a huge area and that has now fallen completely dry," Dirk Hoffmann tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

Hoffmann is an environmental scientist and coordinator for the Bolivian Mountain Institute in La Paz. He says that under normal conditions the lake retracts at the end of the dry season but then replenishes during the rainy season.

"Seeing it completely dry, this is something completely new, we haven't seen that for the past decades," Hoffmann says. "People here are indeed shocked by what has happened."

Abraham Fulguera checks his abandoned fishing net in Lake Poopo, on the outskirts of Untavi, Bolivia. Poopo is now down to 2 per cent of its normal volume, according to regional Gov. Victor Hugo Vasquez. (Juan Karita/AP)

People who have depended on the lake for income are being forced to find alternative livelihoods. Hoffmann says scientists are still trying to gauge the full damage to the ecosystem.

In this Jan. 16, 2016, aerial photo, shows a flock of flamingos on the surface of Lake Poopo, Bolivia. Declared free on any birdlife since it dried up on December 2015, recent rains filled a small part of the lake, bringing back flamingos from the nearby Uru Uru lake. (Juan Karita/AP)

"What we know is that the lake itself held a lot of aquatic fauna and flora and that has completely died," Hoffman explains. "This is one of the main things worrying about recuperating the lake. Even if you brought back water to the lake, you wouldn't bring back flora and fauna to its original state, so this is really serious."

In this Jan. 12, 2016 photo, fisherman Felix Rojas, 78, speaks with the Associated Press, in Untavi, near lake Poopo, Bolivia. "With the winnings from fishing I have payed for my children's education and have been able to feed them well. Now we are very sad that the lake has dried up. I do not know what is going to happen to our children and grandchildren? How are they going to survive? But we have to come up with imaginative solutions." said Rojas. (Juan Karita/AP)

​Hoffmann admits the lake has dried up before but cautions not to confuse natural, cyclical climate variations with what's happening now. Increased mining and irrigation operations have depleted the river sources that feed the lake to unprecedented levels and along with global warming — the effect is likely irreversible.
In this Jan. 12, 2016 photo, an abandoned boat lies on the dried up lake bed of Lake Poopo, on the outskirts of Untavi, Bolivia. Environmentalists and activists say the government mismanaged the lake's fragile water resources and ignored pollution from mining. (Juan Karita/AP)

"What people are still not getting very much is that climate change holds for a different future. It's not like the past being extrapolated into the future. Climate change will make things new." Hoffmann explains. "The combination of human interference and the ongoing global warming will make it very, very difficult to restore the ecosystem."

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