February 3, 2016

By Kathleen Mannard

 Time and time again evidence of climate change goes overlooked until the effects are irreversible. History repeats itself and the environment cannot keep up with humanity’s mistakes. It was announced in January of 2016 that Bolivia’s second largest lake, Lake Poopó, has almost completely dried up, with few hopes of a recovery. Who is responsible for the evaporation of this major body of water, which only 20 years ago was flourishing? Several factors resulted in the drying up of Lake Poopó including a recent reoccurring storm, El Niño, fluctuating the depths of the lake. However, primary responsibilities lie with the Bolivian government that failed to instate management plans for Lake Poopó and misused its water supply. In accordance with their management plan, officials closed off the Desaguadero River, disrupting the flow into Lake Poopó. When Desguadero River trickles into Poopó, the lake is contaminated with mining debris and sedimentation. More and more water is overdrawn and not enough water is replenished back into the lake.
There is a repeated theme in the mismanagement of water supplies by governments. In the case of Flint, Michigan, the city’s water supply was contaminated with copious amounts of lead because the local government switched the water supply from Lake Huron to the contaminated Flint River with the ambition of saving money. The long-term mismanagement of water supplies immensely affects the livelihoods of citizens. In Bolivia, the drying of Lake Poopó threatens a major reduction in ecosystems and fish species, thus threatening fishing communities. Villagers whose lives depend on the lake are removing their families from their home and abandoning the dry barren desert of what was Lake Poopó. The Bolivian government’s water development program did not consider the foreseeable outcomes of evaporation due to a warming climate with their already flawed plan of diverging water supply to mines.
At the rate of climate change and government diversions for irrigation, environmental devastations are readily appearing all over the world. Just in 2014, once the world’s 4th largest lake, the Aral Sea, its now completely evaporated along its eastern basin. Decades of water diversions by the government through massive irrigation systems have contributed to the rapid decline in water supply and the extreme decrease in size of the Aral Sea. Just as in Bolivia, the fish population lost millions and livelihoods of fisherman dramatically suffered. The industrial agriculture overwhelms the economy in both areas and as a result the lakes are stretched to their last drop.
Climate change of course is not a mild factor in the major disappearances and evaporations of the world’s bodies of water. But, there are multiple factors involved, including severe seasonal storms and especially the involvement of water management and distribution. Despite the obvious detrimental effects on lakes such as Lake Poopó and the Aral Sea, no major means are taken to prevent the drying of lakes in the first place. Industrial agriculture and mining dominate over the people whose lives depend on these lakes. The ecosystem suffers, the local economy suffers, and the residents off of the lakes suffer.
Ultimately, posing blame will not solve the problem when magnificent bodies of water will soon cease to exist. However, governments cannot continue to fail in the protection of the environment when resources are quickly drying up. The likelihood of a recovery for either Lake Poopó or the Aral Sea is scientifically unlikely. These two examples prove just how much we depend on our environment. Fortunately, not all environmental mistakes are irreversible. Not all hope is lost if we slow down the management of bodies of water with the concern of replenishing and sustaining a healthy ecosystem.