Disappearing Act: Bolivia’s second largest lake dries up

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

In 2016, Bolivia saw its worst drought in nearly 30 years. While the city of La Paz faced an acute water shortage with no piped water in some parts, the agricultural sector was hit the hardest. According to The Agricultural Chamber of the East, the region suffered a loss of almost 50% of total produce. Animal carcasses lay scattered in plain sight in the valleys, where they had died looking for watering holes.

Lake Poopo (Bolivia) before it dried up © David Almeida I Flickr

One of the most dramatic results of this catastrophic drought was that Lake Poopo, (pronounced po-po) Bolivia’s second largest lake was drained of every drop of water. Located at a height of approximately 1127 meters, and covering an area of 1,000 square kilometers, what remains of it now resembles a desert more than a lake. This event forced the fishing community of Uru Uru, which depended on the lake, to either migrate to other lakes or look for alternate livelihood options.

Lake Poopo is located in the central South American Altiplano, one of the largest high plateaus in the world (Bolivia’s largest lake, Titicaca, is located in the north of the region). Due to its unique topography, the highland faces extreme climatic conditions, which are responsible for difficult lives as well as widespread poverty among the people who live there.

While Titicaca is over 100 meters deep, Poopo had a depth of less than three meters. Combined with a high rate of evapotranspiration, erratic rainfall, and limited flow of water from the Desaguadero River, Poopo was in a precarious position even during the best of times. Whatever little water flowed in from the river is further depleted by intensive irrigation activities at the south of Lake Titicaca before the water makes it way down to Poopo.

Sattelite images of Lake Poopo

Changes in water levels of Lake Poopo over 30 years © U.S. Geological Survey, Associated Press

The lake’s existence had been threatened several times in the past. However, the 2016 drought was one of the most devastating ones. According to the Defense Ministry of Bolivia, early this year the lake started recovering after several days of heavy rain, restoring as much as 70% of the water. However, since the lake is a part of a very fragile ecosystem, there have been some irreversible changes to the flora and fauna in addition to the losses to the fishing communities living around the lake.

Charting a better future

Claudia Canedo, a participant of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, is exploring the impact of droughts and the risk on agricultural production in the light of this event, after which Bolivia declared a state of water emergency. Canedo was born and raised in the city of La Paz and experienced water shortages while growing up close to the Altiplano. This motivated her to investigate a sustainable solution for water availability in the region. With the results of her study she is hoping to ensure that such a situation doesn’t arise again in the Altiplano – that other communities directly dependent on ecosystem services, like that of Lake Poopo, do not have to lose everything because of an extreme weather event.

For a region where more than half the population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, droughts serve as a major setback to the national economy. “It is not just one factor that led to the drought, though. There were different factors that contributed to the drying up of the lake and also contribute to the agricultural distress,” she says.

“The southern Altiplano lies in an arid zone and receives low precipitation due to its proximity to the Atacama Desert. Poor soil quality (high saline content and lack of nutrients) makes it unsuitable for most crops, except quinoa and potato in some areas,” adds Canedo. Residents also lack the knowledge and the monetary resources to invest in newer technology, which could possibly lead to better water management.

A woman from one of the drought affected communities in Bolivia © EU – Photo credits: EC/ECHO/Laurence Bardon I Flickr

One of the most critical factors in the recent drought was the El Nino- Southern Oscillation, the warming of the sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which in turn carries the warmer oceanic winds and lowers the rate of precipitation in the highland leading to increased evapotranspiration. In 2015 and 2016, the losses due to this phenomenon were devastating for agriculture in the Altiplano, says Canedo.

In her quest to find solutions, the biggest challenge is the lack of recorded data from local weather stations for the past years. Although satellite data is available, it is too generic in nature to do a local analysis. Therefore combining ground and satellite data could enhance the present knowledge and provide consistent results of the climate and vegetation variability. If done successfully, Canedo hopes to identify a correlation between precipitation and vegetation. With this information, she can improve climate forecasting that could help the local people adapt to droughts powerful enough to turn their lives upside down.

With weather forecasts and early warning systems for extreme weather events like droughts, farmers would know what to expect and would be able to plant resilient varieties of crops. This might not earn them the same profits as in a normal year, but would not result in a failed crop. Claudia aims to come up with a drought index useful for drought monitoring and early warning, which will integrate short-term and long-term meteorological predictions.

Perhaps, in the future, with this newfound knowledge, the price for extreme weather events won’t be paid in terms of lost ecosystems like that of Lake Poopo, robbing people of their lives and livelihoods.

About the Researcher

Claudia Canedo is a participant in the 2017 IIASA YSSP. She is pursuing a doctoral program in water resources engineering at Lund University, Sweden. She is interested in studying the hydrological and climatological conditions over small basins in the South American highlands. The aim of her research is to define water resources availability and find strategies for sustainable water management in the semi-arid region.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.




Interview: Living in the age of adaptation

Adil Najam is the inaugural dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and former vice chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan. He talks to Science Communication Fellow Parul Tewari about his time as a participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and the global challenge of adaptation to climate change.  

How has your experience as a YSSP fellow at IIASA impacted your career?
The most important thing my YSSP experience gave me was a real and deep appreciation for interdisciplinarity. The realization that the great challenges of our time lie at the intersection of multiple disciplines. And without a real respect for multiple disciplines we will simply not be able to act effectively on them.

Prof. Adil Najam speaking at the Deutsche Welle Building in Bonn, Germany in 2010 © Erich Habich I en.wikipedia

Recently at the 40th anniversary of the YSSP program you spoke about ‘The age of adaptation’. Globally there is still a lot more focus on mitigation. Why is this?
Living in the “Age of Adaption” does not mean that mitigation is no longer important. It is as, and more, important than ever. But now, we also have to contend with adaptation. Adaptation, after all, is the failure of mitigation. We got to the age of adaptation because we failed to mitigate enough or in time. The less we mitigate now and in the future, the more we will have to adapt, possibly at levels where adaptation may no longer even be possible. Adaption is nearly always more difficult than mitigation; and will ultimately be far more expensive. And at some level it could become impossible.

How do you think can adaptation be brought into the mainstream in environmental/climate change discourse?
Climate discussions are primarily held in the language of carbon. However, adaptation requires us to think outside “carbon management.” The “currency” of adaptation is multivaried: its disease, its poverty, its food, its ecosystems, and maybe most importantly, its water. In fact, I have argued that water is to adaptation, what carbon is to mitigation.
To honestly think about adaptation we will have to confront the fact that adaptation is fundamentally about development. This is unfamiliar—and sometimes uncomfortable—territory for many climate analysts. I do not believe that there is any way that we can honestly deal with the issue of climate adaptation without putting development, especially including issues of climate justice, squarely at the center of the climate debate.

COP 22 (Conference of Parties) was termed as the “COP of Action” where “financing” was one of the critical aspects of both mitigation and adaptation. However, there has not been much progress. Why is this?
Unfortunately, the climate negotiation exercise has become routine. While there are occasional moments of excitement, such as at Paris, the general negotiation process has become entirely predictable, even boring. We come together every year to repeat the same arguments to the same people and then arrive at the same conclusions. We make the same promises each year, knowing that we have little or no intention of keeping them. Maybe I am being too cynical. But I am convinced that if there is to be any ‘action,’ it will come from outside the COPs. From citizen action. From business innovation. From municipalities. And most importantly from future generations who are now condemned to live with the consequences of our decision not to act in time.

© Piyaset I Shutterstock

What is your greatest fear for our planet, in the near future, if we remain as indecisive in the climate negotiations as we are today?
My biggest fear is that we will—or maybe already have—become parochial in our approach to this global challenge. That by choosing not to act in time or at the scale needed, we have condemned some of the poorest communities in the world—the already marginalized and vulnerable—to pay for the sins of our climatic excess. The fear used to be that those who have contributed the least to the problem will end up facing the worst climatic impacts. That, unfortunately, is now the reality.

What message would you like to give to the current generation of YSSPers?
Be bold in the questions you ask and the answers you seek. Never allow yourself—or anyone else—to rein in your intellectual ambition. Now is the time to think big. Because the challenges we face are gigantic.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

What is driving Pakistan’s water crisis?

Firdos Khan Yousafzai, PhD student, University of Klagenfurt, Austria, and YSSP 2012 participant

In Pakistan, water supply fell from 5,260 cubic meters per capita in 1951 to 1,050 cubic meters per capita in 2010 according to the World Bank, and is likely to further fall in the future. According to the Falkenmark Water Stress Indicator, a country or a part of a country is said to experience “water stress” when the annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per capita per year, and “water scarcity” if the annual water supplies drop below 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year. Water scarcity is especially critical for Pakistan because agriculture contributes 25% of the GDP and 36% of energy is obtained from hydropower.

In terms of geography, Pakistan is incredibly diverse, ranging from plain to desert, hills, forest, and plateaus from the Arabian Sea in the south and to the mountains of Karakorum in the north of the country. It has 796,096 square kilometers area—about the same size as Turkey–and approximately 200 million inhabitants.

The Karakorum mountains in northern Pakistan ©Piotr Snigorski | Shutterstock

Water availability is also different in different parts of the country. While various studies showed that climate change is happening all over Pakistan, research shows that the northern areas are more vulnerable. Possible reasons include the increasing population and deforestation, among others. Therefore, in my PhD work, which was also the subject of my work in the 2012 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program, I am investigating that how fast climate is changing and exploring its impacts on availability of water.

In a recent study we investigated this issue under four different climate change scenarios, from 2006 to 2039 in the future. Different scenarios have different assumptions about population growth, use of energy type, environmental protection, economic development, technological changes, etc. We calculated the changes on the basis of baseline and future time periods for climate and hydrological projections. We found an increasing trend in maximum and minimum temperature, while precipitation is also changing under each scenario.

To assess water availability and investigate the impacts of changing climate on the operation of reservoirs, we used Tarbela Reservoir as a measurement tool, developing hydrological projections for the reservoir under each scenario. Tarbela Dam is one of the biggest dams in the world, and has a storage capacity of approximately 7 million acre feet and the potential to produce 3,400 megawatts of electricity.

Cholistan Desert in southern Pakistan. Water scarcity varies widely throughout the geographically diverse country. ©image bird | Shutterstock

In our study, we considered all the relevant parameters related to water shortages and surpluses. To compare the status of water availability, we compared the baseline period and future time period. The results show an increasing trend in water availability, however, water scarcity is observed during some months under each scenario. Further, we also observed that there is a 23-40% increase in river flow under the considered scenarios while the average increase is approximately 35% during the future time period.

As a conclusion we can say that enough water is available in Pakistan, and will continue to be available in the future. Instead, the study confirms previous reports that the major problem is mismanagement.

The possible solution may include constructing more dams and storage capacity to store extra water during high river flow which then can be utilized during low river flow. This could probably also be helpful in flood control, raise the groundwater level, and provide cheap and clean electricity to national electricity grid—providing multiple benefits, in view of the fact that the country has faced ongoing energy crises for many years.
Ali S, Li D, Congbin F, Khan F (2015). Twenty first century climatic and hydrological changes over Upper Indus Basin of Himalayan region of Pakistan. Environmental Research Letters10 (2015) 014007. DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/10/1/014007.

Khan F, Pilz J, Ali S (2017). Improved hydrological projections and reservoir management in the Upper Indus Basin under the changing climate. Water and Environmental Journal. Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 235-244. DOI:10.1111/wej.12237.

Khan F, Pilz J, Amjad M, Wiberg D (2015). Climate variability and its impacts on water resources in the Upper Indus Basin under IPCC climate change scenarios. International Journal of Global Warming, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 46-69. DOI:10.1504/IJGW.2015.071583.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Preventing a water crisis at the US-Mexico border

By Luzma Fabiola Nava, IIASA Water Program

North American leaders have recently announced initiatives on climate change, clean energy, the environment, and migration. But lacking from these discussions is a much-needed focus on the shared water resources that bind these countries. The Paso del Norte is a boundary region between the USA and Mexico where cooperation and joint action are needed to secure reliable and sustainable shared water resources.

Image: Paso Del Norte Watershed Council: http://www.pdnwc.org/

Image: Paso Del Norte Watershed Council: http://www.pdnwc.org/

The Paso del Norte (PdN) emblematizes an important regional focus of attention. It is located right at the midpoint of the USA-Mexico border and the Rio Grande/Bravo basin. The region extends approximately 550 km along the Rio Grande from Elephant Butte Reservoir in southern New Mexico to the confluence of the Rio Conchos in Presidio County, Texas. With a population of 2.5 million, the Paso del Norte constitutes one of the largest international cross-border regions in the world and the largest boundary metropolitan area between three states (New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua), and two countries (the USA and Mexico).

Water is scarce in the channelized Paso del Norte. The Paso del Norte is one of the most irrigation intensive and environmentally damaged regions in the Rio Grande Basin. With an average rainfall of only about 150mm and increasing evaporation rates, crops such as maize, alfalfa, pecans, chili, and cotton are growing in this semi-arid region. Water competition is intensifying due to constant agricultural water use and growing urban water demands. Climate change is expected to reduce water availability, affect the quality of aquatic environments, and accentuate sustained drought and water scarcity.

Water scarcity will greatly worsen in the Paso del Norte region if current water policies and regulations persist and climate projections prove correct. Without new international cooperation, cross-border regions like the Paso del Norte, which includes the major cities of Las Cruces, El Paso, and Ciudad Juarez, will face a water resource crisis, as climate change and population growth place greater pressure on an already precarious system. This is why laws and regulations governing water in the Paso del Norte need to be adapted to this reality.

If we want to prevent a water crisis in this binational region, we should start working together to build institutional resilience by means of enabling regional openness and flexibility of the existing ensemble of rules and policy processes. Creating resilient water institutions in the Paso del Norte region will help the design of an ad-hoc regional basin management approach, featuring increased dialogue and coordination among all relevant parties aiming to secure water in the region. A coordinated and sustained binational effort – from the states and non-state actors- is of paramount importance to find solutions to shared problems and adapt the way water resources are being managed across the border.

The Paso del Norte Task Force, created in 1998, represents the most appropriate regional water stakeholder group with a high potential to advance sustainable water management in the region—but it needs to be revitalized. A new injection of funds could prevent this group from falling silent. . Through a collaborative effort, the Paso del Norte Task Force is in the best position to make the most effective use of the existing technical capacities and water infrastructures to adapt the management of water in the region. Its reactivation is essential to prepare an ad hoc water management plan for the region, and better respond to the challenge of securing adequate water supplies.

The Rio Grande/Bravo Basin ©Luzma Fabiola Nava | IIASA

The Rio Grande/Bravo Basin ©Luzma Fabiola Nava | IIASA

Nava, L.F.; Brown, C.; Demeter, K.; Lasserre, F.; Milanés-Murcia, M.; Mumme, S.; Sandoval-Solis, S. 2016. Existing Opportunities to Adapt the Rio Grande/Bravo Basin Water Resources Allocation Framework. Water, 8, 291.

US Bureau of Reclamation. SECURE Water Act Section 9503(c) — Reclamation Climate Change and Water 2016. Available online: http://www.usbr.gov/climate/secure/ (Accessed on August 21, 2016).

Boyd, E. 2012. “Adapting to global climate change: evaluating resilience in two networked public institutions”, Adapting Institutions: Governance, Complexity and Social–Ecological Resilience, ed. Emily Boyd and Carl Folke. Published by Cambridge University Press, 244 – 263 p.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Water security for sustainable development

By Edward Byers, Postdoctoral Research Scholar, IIASA Water, Energy, and Transitions to New Technologies programs

Scenario analysis, a process for comparing alternative futures, has been a fundamental tool in sustainability and systems research, but less prominent in the water field. Recently, researchers at IIASA have been applying scenario analysis to their modelling capabilities to tackle global water issues.

Last week, a high level group of water experts met at IIASA for the Water Futures and Solutions (WFaS) Stakeholder Focus Group. WFaS is a flagship initiative from IIASA challenged with understanding future water resource issues, and identifying solutions to problems like water scarcity and water access. However, when a recent fast track assessment found that even its most sustainable scenario, would still result in water scarcity  in some river basins due to growing demands, researchers realized that fresh thinking was required. So in last week’s meeting, IIASA water researchers were on the search for more sustainable and transformational solutions. The efficacy of these new sustainability scenarios will be tested in IIASA’s new ensemble of global hydrological models and presented in time for the next  World Water Forum 2018.

Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River. In the Zambezi basin, water is abundant but there are challenges in getting that water to the people who need it, particularly as the population grows in the future. (cc) Pius Mahimbi | Flickr

Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River. In the Zambezi basin, water is abundant but there are challenges in getting that water to the people who need it, particularly as the population grows in the future. (cc) Pius Mahimbi | Flickr

The two-day workshop at IIASA hosted 20 international water experts from around the world and across research, government, and development organisations. Modellers from the IIASA water program, myself included, took part in the focus groups with the experts, discussing how to represent in our models complex interactions that occur in transboundary river basins as well as for key interactions with other sectors such as energy and agriculture.

Our discussions on the Zambezi, the Indus, and the Yellow river basins will contribute to broader understanding of the development challenges in three different parts of the world –not just along the rivers, but throughout the entirety of the river basins and the populations and ecosystems that they support. For example, the Indus basin is extremely water scarce and is expected to be further depleted due to melting of the upstream glaciers. In the Zambezi basin, in contrast, water is abundant, but there are significant political and economic challenges to sustainably providing access to a population of 38 million people that is expected to double within one generation.

Similarly, our sectoral discussions on energy, food, economics, and ecosystems will improve our model representations of sectors that may be substantially different by 2050, such as the energy sector. This is particularly important for demonstrating how the benefits of water security unlock other benefits for development challenges, such as health, food security, gender equality, and education.

Identifying, quantifying and communicating these well-recognized, inter-dependent benefits can be key to unlocking the investment in solutions. Our work with the experts focused primarily on Sustainable Development Goal 6, the Clean Water and Sanitation Access goal, with a view to identifying co-benefits for other goals. Having received much useful information and positive feedback from our stakeholders, the challenge now is to integrate this into our models and scenario narratives, so that we can demonstrate on a global scale the benefits of water security not as a development target to be attained, but as one of the fundamental drivers of sustainable development. With growing populations and intensifying impacts of climate change, challenges for water security will continue long beyond the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Meeting these targets is just the first step of the pathway to long-term water security.

Participants in the 2nd Water Futures and Solutions Scenario Focus Group Meeting. ©Phillip Widhalm | IIASA

Participants in the 2nd Water Futures and Solutions Scenario Focus Group Meeting. ©Phillip Widhalm | IIASA

The Water Futures and Solutions Initiative (WFaS) was launched by IIASA, UNESCO/UN-Water, the World Water Council (WWC), the International Water Association (IWA), and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) of the Republic of Korea, and has been supported by the government of Norway, the Asian Development Bank, and the Austrian Development agency. More than 35 organizations contribute to the scientific project team, and an additional 25 organizations are represented in stakeholder groups.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Better water, better jobs

By Taher Kahil, IIASA Water Program

This year’s theme of the UN World Water Day is “Water and Jobs.” It focuses on how adequate water management can change workers’ lives. Indeed, water management and job creation are tightly linked. Nearly all jobs depend on water, and without reliable and safe access to water, neither small activities nor major global industries can endure. Similarly, labor is necessary to build, maintain, operate, and manage the water system, and to run water-based projects. Furthermore, job creation can be a thirsty business in both developing and developed countries. In many developing countries irrigation projects, requiring significant amounts of water, are considered the main engine for the economy and source of employment. In developed countries, less water is needed but it still requires sufficient quality for manufacturing and service projects creating job opportunities.

© Albert Gonzlez Farran - UNAMID

(cc) Albert Gonzlez Farran – UNAMID

Freshwater bodies such as rivers and aquifers supply the water that people and businesses rely on. But pressures on these bodies have been mounting worldwide during the last century. Population and economic growth have led to greater water use and increased pollution, with many basins around the world undergoing pervasive water shortages and quality degradation. Researchers expect the impacts of climate change to exacerbate these damages. At the same time, the global economy needs to continue growing to be able to adequately sustain the world’s rising population. However, the linkage between water and economic growth has increased global concerns about the impacts of water-related risks such as scarcity, droughts, floods, and pollution on economies’ ability to grow and create jobs. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Risks Report ranks water as the highest global risk on economies over the next ten years.

When we talk about water and jobs, it is also important to mention that nearly 750 million people lack access to safe water and 2.5 billion live without adequate sanitation across the developing countries. People in these countries are constantly searching for water, which leaves limited time for productive work and skills building that yield better employment.

As we look towards the future, the link between water and employment becomes even more crucial. Water-related risks, which are expected to intensify due to climate change, will likely have adverse impacts on economy and employment, leading to major consequences beyond the water industry. For instance, researchers have linked the extreme drought in Syria between 2007 and 2010 to the uprising that began there in 2011. Several years of drought caused an extensive crop failure and massive losses of livestock, which resulted in 2 to 3 million people driven into unemployment and poverty. This situation contributed to a mass rural exodus into economically depressed cities, deepening existing instability in that country.

How do we avoid more crises like this? The complex and evolving water challenges of the future can only be addressed by investing in sustainable and integrated water management solutions such as those being identified and tested by the Water Futures and Solutions (WFaS) initiative at IIASA . WFaS is a cross-sector, collaborative, global initiative aimed at developing plausible scenarios of future water supply and demand, and identifying robust and no-regret portfolio of solutions for balancing water systems. The initiative brings together researchers and decision makers from governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as from the private industry and from a wide variety of sectors influencing water management. The potential water solutions include improved water policies and governance structures and the adoption of more innovative and environmentally friendly water technologies. Sustainable water resource management does not only address water-related risks, but it can also create green job opportunities for local and disadvantaged communities, for example in efficiency improvement works, in the production of alternative water sources, and in aquatic ecosystem restoration projects.

World Water Day © UN-Water

World Water Day © UN-Water


Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.