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.




Falling fertility rates: Why do wealthier people have fewer children?

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

© KonstantinChristian I Shutterstock

Faced with a sharp decline in the global fertility levels over the last few decades, many countries today are confronted with the problem of an aging population. This could translate into an economic threat: higher health-care costs for the elderly coupled with a shrinking working population will lead to lower income-tax revenues to provide for these rising costs. This can already be seen in countries like Japan, Spain, and Germany. With an increasing number of elderly dependents and not enough workers to replace them, their social support systems have become increasingly strained.

Even though in the last few decades there has been an increase in individual incomes, researchers have observed a negative correlation between the increased wealth and the number of children people choose to have. Sara Loo, as part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), seeks to explore why people are choosing to have fewer children as their social and economic conditions change for the better.

According to a report titled World Fertility Patterns 2015, global fertility levels have gone down from just above five children in 1950 to around 2.5 children per woman in 2015. In the figure below, ‘total fertility rate’ refers to the average number of children that are born to a woman over her lifetime.

It might seem counterintuitive that better living standards would be linked to decreased fertility. One way to explain it is through the lens of cultural evolution. Loo explains that culture is constantly changing – be it beliefs, knowledge, skills, or customs. This change is reflected in people’s day-to-day behaviors and affects their choices, both professional and personal. Importantly, beliefs and customs are acquired not only from people’s parents but are largely influenced by their peers – friends and colleagues.

One of the ways in which cultural evolution has affected fertility rates is resulting from the trade-off between the number of children and the quality of life that parents desire to give each of them, says Loo. As both men and women vie for well-paying jobs to attain a higher standard of living, and as they compete for such jobs based on their education, the resources parents invest into each child’s upbringing, including education and inheritance, are crucial. Even the time parents can give to their children becomes an expensive currency.

This makes for a highly competitive environment in which everyone is trying to achieve a higher status, in order to provide better opportunities for their children. When parents have fewer children, this means giving each of them a greater chance of achieving higher status.

Loo elaborates that as everyone competes to get their children to the top of the socioeconomic ladder, this necessitates a higher investment per child, both monetarily and otherwise. The theory of cultural evolution in this case thus predicts lowered fertility as competition for well-paying jobs intensifies with a country’s development.

However, it is not that such parental strategies apply equally to all segments of a population, says Evolution and Ecology Program Director Ulf Dieckmann, who is supervising Loo’s research at the institute over the summer. He explains that it is therefore helpful to look at fertility in relation to people’s socioeconomic status, instead of just looking at a population’s average fertility rate over time.

This can give telling insights. “In many pre-industrial societies, the rich had greater numbers of children, and if anybody had less than replacement-level fertility, it was the really poor people who could not afford to raise as many children. It was over time that this correlation changed from positive to negative when richer people decided to have fewer children: if they had too many children, they could not afford to invest as much per child as was needed to secure maintaining or raising the children’s socioeconomic status. This has led to a reversal of the traditional pattern: in developed societies, fertility has been shown to drop at high socioeconomic status,” says Dieckmann.

Complementing existing research on the fertility impacts of urbanization and of women’s education and liberation, Loo plans to explore how the aforementioned mechanisms of cultural evolution can explain the observed negative correlation between socioeconomic status and fertility. Her goal is to do so using a mathematical model that can account for both economic trends and cultural trends as two key processes influencing fertility rates.

About the researcher

Sara Loo is currently a third-year PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, Australia, where her research focuses on the evolution of uniquely human behaviors. Loo is working with the Evolution and Ecology Program at IIASA over the summer, with Professor Karl Sigmund and Program Director Ulf Dieckmann as her supervisors for the project.

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.


Counting the Nepalese

By Samir KC, IIASA World Population Program

In 2011, the last decadal census of Nepal counted more than 26.5 million people, plus about 2 million “absentee” Nepalese working abroad. The census revealed a population that is on the move, a rapidly declining number of births, and a high degree of population heterogeneity between the different areas of Nepal. The increasing complexity in the demographic dynamics is making it difficult for Nepal’s government to plan future policies and allocate budgets. That’s why at IIASA in collaboration with Ministry of Health of Nepal, we recently projected the Nepalese population up to 2031 by age and sex for 75 districts as well as more than 4000 villages and municipalities.

Passengers on a bus in Nepal. The country is seeing large amounts of migration both within and outside of the country. ©AusAID

Our projections show that the population of Nepal will continue to increase, albeit at a slow rate from, 26.5 million today to 34.2 million in 2031, and the age structure will continue to grow older. We found that demographic behaviors differ largely by geographic area within Nepal, and highly correlates with the inequalities in terms of development and opportunities. For example, the fertility level in the Mid-Western Hills and Mountain region were very high compared to the rest of the country.

Since 1959, Nepal has had an aggressive but non-mandatory family planning policy with a message to limit family size to two children, but this policy will be soon ending as the overall fertility is approaching the benchmark in most parts of the country. Our study projects that the number of children born, which has been declining in the past 10-15 years, will stabilize with some fluctuation due to larger cohort of women entering the reproductive ages. In the past, the declining number of births  lowered the burden in universalizing health coverage. The study suggests that now the government should channel its resources where needed and the nationwide focus should be more on improving the quality of reproductive services rather than telling people how many children they should have.

A stream of migration
Our analysis shows that for Nepal, the future population dynamics are likely to be influenced in large part by migration, both within and outside of the country. We found that especially in the hill and mountain districts of Nepal, depopulation is occurring as people move away. Because of the Maoist conflict during 1996-2006 and its impact on all aspects of life, young Nepali males began leaving their homes to find safer areas and better employment opportunities, often in Arab and Southeast Asian countries. This in turn might have affected the fertility rates as well as increased internal migration of the dependents (of the migrants made possible by the flow of remittance) from less developed to more developed areas within Nepal.

In recent times, women have joined the migration stream, and are likely to be a major force in lowering the fertility rate in Nepal. If the trend continues, a large part of the mountains and hills is likely to depopulate and the political and socioeconomic consequences of such phenomenon should be studied.

Projected population change in Nepal in 2031 compared to 2011. ©Samir KC & Markus Speringer

Our projections show that the country should expect a huge number of this absentee population to return. The young men and women in their 20s and 30s who have left the country to work in Arab and Asian countries will have to return in their 40s and 50s due to strict rules regulating labor migration in these countries, the labor intensive jobs might not suit their age, and to finally reunite with the family back home. They could be forced to return even sooner if the economic situation in these countries is adversely affected by regional or global recession or conflict, price of oil etc. However, questions remain about how the return process will unfold, where people they return to, and what its impact on the society and the nation would be.

We think that the data and the population model, and the projection that we developed for Nepal could be very useful in many ways, for example in population, environment, economics, social transformation, sustainable development, and other areas. However, we need more data and projections and the possibility to run alternative scenarios, and to do this, demographers, population experts, and governmental institutions should collaborate. One such collaborative initiative is currently underway at the Shanghai University, where I have recently started to develop such a model in 11 countries in Asia, including Nepal. Once the base population model is ready, adding further layers representing the wellbeing of the population will be the next step.

KC S, Speringer M, Thapa A, & Khanal MN (2016). Projecting Nepal’s Demographic Future- How to deal with spatial and demographic heterogeneity. IIASA Working Paper. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: WP-16-021 http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/14029/

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.

Leave no SDG behind

By IIASA Deputy Director General Nebojsa Nakicenovic and Caroline Zimm, IIASA Transitions to New Technologies Program and The World in 2050 (TWI2050) initiative. (Originally published on The Guardian)

2015 marked a historic turning point. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) unanimously adopted by the United Nations last September provide an aspirational narrative and specific targets for human development: a world free from hunger, injustice and absolute poverty; a world with universal education, health and employment; a world with inclusive economic growth, based on transparency, dignity and equity.

The 17 SDGs’ call for “global citizenship and shared responsibility” and provide legitimacy for a new global social contract for a grand transformation toward a sustainable future. They fully acknowledge the scientific advances achieved during the last three decades that have established compelling evidence that otherwise, as the UN general assembly warned, “the survival of many societies, and of the biological support systems of the planet, is at risk.” Humanity has pushed the Earth system and its global commons to their limits and the SDGs provide us with the long-needed paradigm shift towards realizing the opportunity of a sustainable future for all.

The climate agreement adopted in Paris last December has further strengthened understanding that our society depends on sustainable stewardship of the global commons, shared by us all – and particularly on the stability of the climate system. The Earth system can no longer be viewed as an economic or social externality. Last year we moved beyond the traditional view of global commons as merely the common heritage of humankind outside national jurisdiction. Now we must move beyond national sovereignty to deal with the Earth system and human systems holistically, as the SDGs require. The Paris agreement is a huge step in the right direction.

Time is running out, so we must take urgent action to implement the UN 2030 agenda. Just 14 years are left – less than the wink of an eye in the history of human development, or of the Holocene’s stable Earth systems. But where to start? Which of the 17 goals, which of the 169 targets should be tackled first? Policy makers, the media, civil society and scientists all ask these questions.

However, the 2030 agenda stresses that the SDGs are indivisible and integrated – and cumulative, since efforts to achieve them must be sustained well into the second half of the century, especially in preserving the regulating function of the global commons, Some of the goals, such as SDG13 on climate, must operate on a time scale longer than century.

Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation.
Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

Moreover, there are interactions between and among the SDGs. For example, achieving SDG7, the energy goal, could jeopardize SDGs related to water, health and climate. Tackled in harmony, however, these goals can support one another: there would, for example, be clear health benefits from reducing indoor and outdoor air pollution through global decarbonization. Jointly implementing all the SDGs would contribute both to further human development and to safeguarding the commons and the stability of the Earth systems. Importantly, joint implementation that avoids silo-type thinking would be cheaper and faster than tackling them separately.

All these goals should be achieved in such a way as to maximize synergies and minimize investment costs and trade-offs. The SDG credo “leave no one behind” also applies to the SDGs themselves. They are indivisible. We have to deliver on all of them if we want to succeed.

The SDGs are very ambitious but it appears that tackling them together will help humanity make rapid progress and enter a new era for human societies and the Earth system. Yet, many interactions – and their scope – are unknown, and this hampers holistic policy making. We lack clear understanding of the benefits of achieving SDGs and of costs of inaction, especially when it comes to regional and national differences. We urgently need this fact-based information.

We have a plethora of knowledge, but need new ways to synthesize, integrate and share it so as to use its full potential in support of the SDGs and the global commons. Science – one of the strongest voices of the environment in governance – must become more active and leave its ivory tower to engage more intensely with other stakeholders.

This is why we at IIASA, together with the Stockholm Resilience Center, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network have launched the scientific initiative The World in 2050 (TWI2050), designed to provide the scientific knowledge to support the policy process and implementation of the 2030 agenda.

TWI2050 aims to address the full spectrum of transformational challenges in fulfilling the SDGs in an integrated way so as to avoid potential conflicts among them and reap the benefits of potential synergies through achieving them in unison. This requires a systemic approach.

The time for “climate-only” or “economic development-only” approaches is over. We urgently need an integrated understanding of the processes that account for the inter-linkages between the economy, demography, technology, environment, climate, human development, all global commons and planetary boundaries. TWI2050 brings together leading policymakers, analysts, and modelling and analytical teams to collaborate in developing pathways towards the sustainable futures and policy frameworks necessary for achieving the needed transformational change.

Such a grand transformation goes beyond a purely technology-centered view of the world or the substitution of one technology by another. It encompasses social and behavioral changes at all levels, as well as technological ones. Incremental changes, now being experienced in some areas, are useful but will not suffice: we have waited too long and the window for action is closing rapidly in some domains including such global commons as climate. We will need radical changes in human behavior and technological paradigms. TWI2050 will look beyond 2030 to 2050 – and, in some cases, even to 2100 – to draw a vision of the world where the SDGs are eventually fulfilled.

The SDGs and the Paris agreement show what institutional international governance can achieve with joined forces. We have entered a new era of global governance, acknowledging the complexity and the connectivity of human development with the global commons and the Earth system. TWI2050 hopes to serve the global community with the best science available in tackling these key global challenges for humankind.

This article originally appeared on The Guardian.

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

Interview: Disposable lives, globalization, and the future of sustainability

Shalini Randeria, a sociologist and social anthropologist focused on legal pluralism and global inequalities, is the Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and an IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow. On 9 March, she gave a keynote lecture in Vienna entitled, “Precarious livelihoods, disposable lives, and struggles for citizenship rights,” as part of the IIASA-Austrian Academy of Sciences public event, Human Capital, Geopolitical Complexities, and our Sustainable Future.

Q. Why do you say that globalization is full of contradictions?
A. We are living in paradoxical times. The global spread of democracy has gone hand in hand with the erosion of its substance. Decisions once made by national parliaments are now made by supranational institutions, reducing the say of citizens in public decision-making. As people feel disenfranchised, trust in our governments fades. Sometimes going to court seems to be the only way to make governments accountable to citizens. This development not only expands the power of the judiciary but also politicizes it.

What role does globalization play in the inequality between Global North and Global South?
Neo-liberal economic restructuring has increased inequalities between countries but also within each society. We are witness today to an unprecedented concentration of income and wealth, which is not an unforeseen consequence of economic globalization but the result of deliberate public policies. The global South, however, is no longer a geographical category. Greece is an example of European country dependent on international finance institutions in much the same way that once so-called developing countries were.

Shalini Randeria © IWM / Dejan Petrovic.

Shalini Randeria © IWM / Dejan Petrovic.

You say that economic and political processes render some lives disposable – what do you mean by that?
Take India for instance: since the country’s independence in 1947, every year some 500,000 people—mostly small farmers, agricultural workers, fishing and forest-dwelling communities —have been forcibly displaced to make room for gigantic infrastructure projects. They have become development refugees in their own country. These people are regarded as ‘dispensable’ by the state in the sense that their livelihoods are destroyed, their lives disrupted, and they are denied access to common property resources. These populations are the human waste that is sacrificed at the altar of an unsustainable model of incessant economic growth.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted last year, include aims to end poverty, ensure access to employment, energy, water, and reduce inequality, at the same time as preserving the environment. What challenges do you see for achieving these goals?
The SDGs will prove to be an important milestone, if they are implemented the world over. Some of these goals are in conflict with one another. Take the protection of biodiversity, for example, which is often constructed as an antagonistic relationship between society and nature In the new global regime of biodiversity consveration, nature is portrayed as self-regulating, as a pristine, uninhabited wilderness that is threatened due to the wasteful resource use by local populations. Thus access and traditional usufruct rights are curtailed, and indigenous knowledge is devalued and marginalized.  The (post)colonial transformation of landscapes into “environment,” “natural resources,” and “biodiversity” has enclosed the commons in most regions of the global South and often commercialized them.

The idea of the Global Commons as spaces and resources that all have access to and also have the responsibility to protect is a useful one in this context. The oceans are but one example of the global commons that include water, forests, or air, which are all being increasingly privatized. The Global Commons also include common resources developed by humans such as virtual data, knowledge, computer software, and medication..

What needs to be done by international institutions to make significant progress in achieving the SDGs?
Eliminating poverty will need an understanding of it that goes beyond a merely economic one. One will need to take into account possibilities of democratic participation, access to public goods and infrastructure, as well as civil rights and a restoration of a plurality of livelihoods. But these institutions also need to be reformed as they have a serious democracy deficit, be it the EU or the Bretton Woods institutions.  Unaccountability of international institutions and powerful corporations along with stark asymmetries of power between these and the nation-states characterizes the new architecture of global governance, which need to be remedied  urgently if we are to realize global justice.

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.