Dying and Drying: The Case of Bolivia’s Lake Poopó

The second largest body of water in Bolivia has vanished. Will it ever return?

June 30, 2017

A dry lake bed north of Bolivia's Lake Poopó in June 2014. (Clayton Whitt)

I have never seen Lake Poopó from up close. The last time I tried to reach the lakeshore, I could not find it.

I made my last attempt in June 2014 while carrying out anthropological field research in the municipality of El Choro, in Bolivia’s Altiplano region, the high plain of the central Andes. Lake Poopó, the principal body of water in the region, is the terminus of the Desaguadero River, which drains Lake Titicaca and much of the northern high plain. El Choro’s municipal territory is located between the Desaguadero’s two main channels and stretches down to the northern shores of the shallow, salty lake.

So I thought it was simple: just head south on my bicycle from the capital village of El Choro until reaching the lakeshore. After 15 kilometers on improvised cross-country tracks, I was surrounded by an almost otherworldly parched and plantless landscape. Five kilometers later, there was still no water in sight. Disheartened by the sight of dusty whirlwinds yet ahead, I turned back.

The presence – and lack thereof— of this disappeared lake loomed over my research. In meetings and casual conversations, people in El Choro expressed great concern over the health of the lake and the impact of pollution and falling water levels on the local fishing industry. But it was not until just after I left, in November 2014, that the lake made headlines with two pieces of startling news. First, Lake Poopó suffered a massive fauna die-off in November 2014. Then, a year later, it was reported to be completely dry. The lake had suffered a potentially fatal one-two punch. Why did this happen? Will Lake Poopó ever come back?

The Lake Dies, Then Dries

What happened to Lake Poopó in 2014 and 2015 was probably not a surprise to anyone who had been attentive to its deteriorating condition. As the La Paz-based newspaper Página Siete wrote in an editorial following the December 2015 drying event, “Although it has caused great impact and alarm, the disappearance of Lake Poopó…was not unexpected news.” I heard warning after warning in 2014 from people in El Choro that the lake and its watershed were in bad condition, mostly due to discharges from upstream mines.

As a 62-year old farmer and storekeeper named Ester told me one morning in El Choro, “Land around Lake Poopó is already out of production. There’s mine pollution that comes from Iroco, up by Oruro… they discharge everything, as does Oruro itself, into the river, as do mines around Poopó.”

So when the sudden die-off of Lake Poopó fauna struck on November 18, 2014 – leaving millions of dead fish and thousands of dead birds in a long band on the western shores of Lake Poopó – many environmental critics pointed to this history of mine waste discharges as a key culprit. Local environmental organizations like the Oruro-based Centro de Ecología y Pueblos Andinos (CEPA) and its affiliate CORIDUP had been clamoring for years to get the watershed cleaned up. According to Norma Mollo Mollo of CEPA’s climate change program, this persistent contamination of the lake joined with climate change-related water temperature increases to create a hot toxic stew, which proved fatal on November 18th when high winds pushed the lake’s fauna into the hot, toxic, and oxygen-starved shallows. The official report from a commission convened by the Department of Oruro emphasized this intersection of high water temperatures with heavy winds but downplayed the role of pollution. For their part, CORIDUP accused officials of apathy and demanded that the government take stronger actions to restore the health of the lake, including studying how to improve water flow into the lake, a demand that I had also heard frequently from leaders in El Choro.

In 2009, CEPA had persuaded the national government under Evo Morales to issue an emergency decree declaring that communities in the watershed (including El Choro) were in a state of emergency due to mine contamination and directing ministries to take action. Enforcement of the decree suffered significant delays, although a key project, the construction of a mine tailings pond in Huanuni, a basin to prevent mine waste from entering the watershed, was finally underway as of early 2017.

In December 2015, just about a year after the die-off, Bolivian media reported Lake Poopó’s second major disaster: the dead lake went dry. Videos taken on flights over the area, such as one made by a reporter from the Oruro newspaper La Patria, showed dry lake bed stretching out dozens of kilometers in every direction. International media soon picked up the story, emphasizing climate change and even (as the New York Times did in a vivid photo essay) holding up Lake Poopó’s disappearance as emblematic of its disproportionate impact on the Global South. But Bolivian media dug more deeply into disaster agents beyond climate change, including water diversions associated with irrigation projects in Peru, mismanagement and theft of funds from the Cuenca Poopó program that was supposed to protect and restore the Poopó watershed, and unmitigated mine pollution in the region. CEPA staff and researchers from the Technical University of Oruro blamed the drying on a confluence of four causes: water diversions related to irrigation and mining, uncontrolled discharges of mine waste into the watershed, soil erosion due to the rapidly expanding quinoa monoculture, and temperature increases related to climate change. But this mixture of culprits meant that there was no single and simple solution to point to in order to solve the problem.

While the people in El Choro suffered from the loss of the local fishing industry, the impact of the drying has fallen the hardest on the indigenous Urus-Muratos people, who live in three small populations along the east side of the lake and the Desaguadero River and have long derived their livelihoods from hunting and fishing. As researcher Linda Farthing reported earlier this year, the Urus-Muratos people already faced discrimination and encroachment from expanding quinoa cultivation. In response to the drying many are migrating out of the area, moving to the city of Oruro to work in construction and sell in the markets, or moving south to work in salt flats and lead mines, while those who remain attempt to farm what land is left.

With Oruro’s iconic body of water in such a crisis, then, why hasn’t the government taken stronger action to protect the watershed? The answer lies, at least in part, in Bolivia’s mining politics.

Mining Rules

Besides the images of dead animals and bare lakebed, another shock for many observers of Lake Poopó came from just how much political leaders initially downplayed the disaster. In the weeks after the drying was first reported, the governor of Oruro, Victor Hugo Vásquez, acknowledged problems related to pollution and sedimentation, but he also claimed that the lake had a history of natural drying cycles, which he had seen in his own years of living near there, and that he was not worried because it would fill up again soon on its own accord. Bolivian president Evo Morales, first elected in 2005, made a similar statement appealing to the lake’s cyclical history of drying and filling.

Evo Morales rose to prominence as a leader of the coca growers’ union in the Andean foothills of Cochabamba, but he grew up along the western shores of Lake Poopó, near the small town of Orinoca. This area is also the birthplace of Governor Vásquez, as elected to the governorship in 2015 after serving as Vice Minister of Rural Development in Morales’s government. Like Vásquez, Morales appealed to his own history as an Orureño growing up near the lake, talking about his father riding his bike, decades ago, across the lakebed during a dry period.

With their appeal to the lake’s supposed natural cycles, Vásquez and Morales initially seemed to sidestep assigning human responsibility for the disaster, although several days after his initial comments Governor Vásquez stated that the lake disaster resulted, in part, from “warming that is a product of the irresponsibility of industrialized nations” as well as irrigation diversions in Peru and Bolivia. Despite aid deliveries shortly after the drying was reported, including 50 kilos of food per person as well as hand tools like shovels and hoes, almost a year later many people in the countryside around Lake Poopó still felt that the government had done very little for victims and lake alike. But why didn’t the government do more to prevent the disaster?

The lack of action on the part of the government may arise, in part, from the continued political and economic power of the mining industry in Bolivia, which according to preliminary data from the Instituto Boliviano de Comercio Exterior (Bolivian Institute of International Trade) brought in US$3.05 billion in export revenue in 2016, 43% of Bolivia’s export earnings and almost 9% of Bolivia’s 2016 GDP. As researchers Diego Andreucci and Isabella Radhuber explain, despite major political shifts since the 2005 election of the Movimiento al Socialismo  (MAS, or Movement Toward Socialism) government of Evo Morales, mining is as lightly regulated as in the 1980s and 1990s, a period of neoliberal reforms in the country. Mining cooperatives, which employ almost 90% of Bolivian miners, have fiercely resisted reforms such as the initial draft of the 2014 Mining Law, which prohibited cooperatives from signing contracts with international mining companies. Because of the mining industry’s central place in the economy and close ties to the government, the MAS government has a significant conflict of interest when it comes to regulating the environmental impacts of mining, according to Andreucci and Helga Gruberg-Cazón.

There are signs of at least partial rupture of this alliance; while cooperative miners have received many benefits from the MAS government and strongly supported Morales in his last re-election bid, an outbreak of violence at miner-led protests last year against a law that would have allowed cooperative miners to unionize resulted in the killing of Vice Minister of the Interior and Police Rodolfo Illanes. But while mines face few limitations on their access to water, the MAS government has not yet passed a national water law to implement provisions included in the 2009 constitution that, among other things, establish that the state “will prioritize water for life” by protecting environmental resources, respecting local water customs, and establishing water as a collective public resource. This leaves the woefully outdated 1906 water law on the books, which unconstitutionally holds water to be the property of landowners.

Minerals and pollutants remain in a drying marsh along the Desaguadero River, June 2014. (Clayton Whitt)

Uncertain Futures

Mining is not the only culprit for Lake Poopó’s double disasters – there are a multiplicity of causes that mingled together in the die-off and drying events, including rising temperatures associated with climate change and desertification associated with the intensification of quinoa cultivation, as researchers including Norma Mollo Mollo of CEPA and an international team of climate researchers headed by Frédéric Satgé have examined and as I have analyzed elsewhere. But as communities in the Poopó basin struggle to put their lives back together, they have to contend with the power and influence of Bolivia’s mining industry as they claim their share of whatever water is left.

For its part, in order to bring more water to the lake the Oruro departmental government is digging a canal south from Lake Uru Uru, a project that was scheduled for completion in June. But while Bolivian media reported that the lake was slowly regaining volume in early 2017, by midsummer Evo Morales himself warned that the lake was in danger of drying out once again. Still, the lake may yet be recoverable with enough investment and vision.

Or the future may look more like that envisaged by an elderly farmer named Mateo, who had been working the riverside lands north of El Choro for his most of his life. One day in 2014 he reflected on the region’s agricultural history, telling me, “Without this river, all of El Choro would be a desert, and we never would have been able to produce so much here.” But he warned me that, with so much water pollution in the Desaguadero River, in many places the land was turning back into desert again. Within months his words were shown to be prophetic with the dying, and then drying, of the lake, leaving the parched earth where fish, flamingos, and farmers once prospered. Will Lake Poopó ever come back? Or will it remain a poisoned grey silhouette on the map?

Clayton Whitt is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His research explores how people in an agricultural community in the Andean highlands of western Bolivia experience and respond to climate change and other environmental problems and how these experiences and responses are reflected in local politics.

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