Posted Under: Environment,GreenFeed,International
Climate change, responsible for the melting of the Andean glaciers, threatens the lives of millions in Latin America’s poorest country.
Sitting atop a barren mountain in Bolivia is a chunk of ice. It might be hard to imagine, on first inspection, that there is anything special about it. Ice is ice, after all; cold, hard and white. But this is all that remains of the 18,000 year old Chacaltaya glacier that disappeared last year. Once the world’s highest ski run, 5,300m (17,400 ft) above sea level, Chacaltaya is now a bare peak. Edson Ramirez, a hydrologist at San Andres University in La Paz, mourns the glacier like a dead friend. “It really hurts,” he tells the BBC’s James Painter. “We have had the privilege of seeing their [the glaciers’] beauty. The next generations will not.” Chacaltaya was around before the first humans crossed the Bering land bridge to the Americas. It has seen civilisation emerge and gods die; empires rose and fell around it; the conquistadors came, independence was won and wars were lost. But as 18,000 years of history finally come to a close, a much more serious problem is only just being realised.
It is from glaciers that, according to the World Bank, as many as 80 million people in Bolivia and its neighbouring countries, draw their water. Whilst Chacaltaya’s untimely demise is a tragedy for Club Andino who, in days of past glory, would organise skiing competitions on the slopes of this tourist magnet, it is only a symbol of a much greater tragedy in the making. Common to the major urban hubs of developing countries, El Alto, a vast suburb of La Paz, is experiencing the population boom of rural-urban migration. Last year marked an alarming turning point for Bolivia. With annual growth estimated by a Family Health International report to be at 9%, and with the glaciers of the great white-tipped mountain Illimani that supply the burgeoning population with fresh water fast melting, Ramirez gloomily predicts that from now on “demand for water will be progressively greater than supply.”
Elena, a resident of El Alto, sings hip hop to raise awareness about climate change and the right to water. Never having performed before, she admits that she was always too frightened to stand up in public. In the end it was fear that made her join Fundación Solón’s campaign to highlight Bolivia’s endangered water resources. The Andean glaciers – from which over two million people in La Paz and El Alto draw a third of their water – have shrunk by more than 30% since the 1960s, a 2007 Christian Aid report found, and the rate of retreat is accelerating. Until recently, scientists tracing Chacaltaya’s rapid decline gave it six more years of life. Its surprise disappearance last year signals the urgency of the growing crisis.
Fundación Solón – uniting performers like Elena with musicians, artists and campaigners – was instrumental in convincing the government of Evo Morales, brought to power on the aspirations of a people weary of decades of neoliberalism, to renationalise Bolivia’s water supplies. The move made affordable water available to the population of Latin America’s poorest country. “We have played our part in this process of change,” says Elysabeth Peredo, director of Fundación Solón, “just like all the people in the country.” Bolivia’s impending ecological and humanitarian crisis, however, goes far beyond Fundación Solón’s, or even its government’s, ability to influence.
“We are not culpable for climate change,” argues Oscar Paz, director of Bolivia’s National Climate Change Program, in an interview with Carolyn Kormann for Yale Environment 360. Bolivia accounts for just 0.02% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And where the United States, according to data collected in 2007 for the United Nations, is responsible for 22.2% of global carbon dioxide emissions, more than four times the emissions of all the countries of Latin America combined, it is easy to see why Bolivians, first in the firing line of the devastating effects of climate change, are angry.
For Paz, it is a grave injustice that the world’s poorest countries, disproportionately affected by global warming, should foot the bill adapting to a crisis not of their making. “The grand question here is, who compensates,” he says. “It’s not fair that a country like Bolivia already has annual economic losses from the impacts of climate change equivalent to four percent of our GDP.” Bolivia’s current expenditure, almost $0.5bn, has been channelled into handling the aftermath of two years of devastating Amazon floods, worsened by rapid glacial melt, that have left hundreds of thousands homeless. But with Ramirez predicting the complete disappearance of the glaciers as early as 2025, the costs will soar as the government struggles to build the dams and reservoirs needed to supply safe water whilst adapting to the loss of ten hydroelectric plants that provide a quarter of the country’s electricity.
The argument has been won, but it is a Pyrrhic victory. Last July, the G8, meeting at the site of another disaster, pledged twelve years too late to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2C. If kept, the agreement to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 is an historic one. The dismal performance and lukewarm commitments coming out of Copenhagen, however, make that seem increasingly unlikely. And whilst a general consensus has emerged amongst scientists and world leaders that human activity – primarily the burning of fossil fuels for power and transportation – is responsible for climate change, it may already be too late to save the Andean glaciers from going the way of Chacaltaya. “This is a process that now unfortunately is irreversible,” says Ramirez.
Fundación Solón has campaigned tirelessly for safe water access to be recognised as a human right. But it is no longer rights that are at issue, it is responsibilities. The 10:10 campaign, launched by the director of The Age of Stupid, urging everyone to cut their carbon footprints by 10% this year, is a vital first step for Britain. But if the people of the developed world, and those of rapidly developing countries such as China and India, cannot achieve the significant lowering of lifestyle expectations and the implementation of green technologies necessary to reduce carbon emissions to sustainable levels, then it is the responsibility of these countries to pay their ecological debt. “The huge amounts of money generated by putting a price on carbon emissions, probably somewhere between $1-3 trillion per year, could be used to sponsor alternative energy in poorer nations and to help them adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change,” environmental activist George Monbiot told me.
To the Aymara – who settled the region long before the rise of the Inca Empire and the coming of the Spanish conquistadors – the life-giving glacial peaks are mountain gods. “God is dead,” Nietzsche famously wrote. Urgent foreign assistance can help the Bolivian government prevent whole communities from dying too. But “God remains dead. And we have killed him.”