Between ice and rock, Bolivia seeks to adapt to climate change

November 6, 2012

  • The melting of the Andean mountains affects agriculture and ecology.
  • With high-end technology experts are trying to establish what is expected for the future.
  • The key topic is "to be adapted" experts said.

“There used to be a lot of snow. Now we’re sad because our mountain has melted,” said Samuel Mendoza, who lives near Chacaltaya Mountain, which stands 5,400 meters above sea level in the Cordillera Real of the Bolivian Andes. Between 1970 and 1980, the mountain was home to the world’s highest ski slope.

The most famous Bolivian mountain climber, Bernardo Guarachi, or Pata de Cabra as he is known, also expresses his sadness when he sees the mountain. “I first visited this glacier in 1974. Then it was snow-capped; today we see pure rock.”

Like Chacaltaya, more than 40% of the glaciers are retreating, in other words, they are gradually melting, leaving rock where there was once ice and snow.

Glacier retreat is attributed mainly to the rapid rise in the Earth’s temperature. Recent studies confirm that in the high Andes, the mean temperature is increasing more quickly than in the rest of the world.

" Glaciers are capable of accumulating large amounts of water in the form of ice and snow, and of releasing it gradually, especially during periods of little or no rainfall.”  "

Daniel Mira-Salama

Task Team Leader of the project and expert on climate change

Consequences of melting glaciers

One of the most serious effects of glacier retreat is that there is less water for Andean populations’ agriculture and consumption and for the ecosystems that depend on it.

 “Glaciers are capable of accumulating large amounts of water in the form of ice and snow, and of releasing it gradually, especially during periods of little or no rainfall,” said Daniel Mira-Salama, World Bank expert on climate change.

Glaciers not only generate water for rural populations. Densely populated cities such as La Paz and El Alto are starting to experience shortages because the demand for water from their rapidly growing populations outstrips supply.

To better understand the phenomenon, the Japanese government provided support to project[K1]  scientists through the use of a supercomputer that simulates future temperature increases, as well as through access to historic ALOS satellite images of glacier summits.

Previously, Bolivian experts had to rely on conventional techniques such as historic photographic inventory.

Learning to adapt to glacier retreat

Climate adaptation is the order of the day. In the Andes, there is no other way to deal with glacier retreat and the effects of climate change, according to experts.

To this end, since 2008, the Global Environment Fund has financed a project implemented by the World Bank. The project includes pilot activities to mitigate the effects of glacier retreat, define costs and determine how these activities can be taken to scale in the future should they prove effective.

The project is also performing small-scale risk assessments to demonstrate the benefits of a more automated, water-conscious agriculture. These actions are accompanied by training and a program to improve the efficiency of clean water distribution.

All of these initiatives aim to improve understanding of the glacier retreat phenomenon, strengthen existing capacities to address the challenge and take action to develop a large-scale response in the future.