Signs mount of grave Andean climate crisis

Colombia is suffering especially grave effects from this year's off-the-scale El Niño phenomenon. The national disaster response agency UNGRD is struggling to respond to a devastating drought, dispatching tanker-trucks of water to communities across the country where taps have gone dry. Juan Manuel Santos said this month that this is the second worst El Niño in the history of the country, and the worst impacts "are still to come." A few days of rain at the start of the year gave some residents hope, but Santos warned it would have "minimal effect, practically none," given the gravity of the situation. (El Espectador, Jan. 10; El Tiempo, Jan. 6; El Espectador, Jan. 4) The country's principal river, the Magdalena, is now so low that it is no longer navigable at several points, virtually shutting down Puertos Wilches and other cities that rely on the riverine trade. (El Espectador, Jan. 3) Most hard-hit is the north of the country, entire harvests could be lost. But the south is affected too, with huge forest fires threatening the city of Cali. Wildfires have engulfed more than 100,000 hectares of land nationwide. This is usually the rainy season in Colombia, but rains are 65% lower than usual, and temperatures 2.3 degrees Centrigrade higher. (El Tiempo, Jan. 21; El Tiempo, El Tiempo, Jan. 17; Xinhua, Dec. 30)

Conflict over Quimbo hydro-dam
The crisis has exacerbated local conflicts over control of water. Jan. 12 saw protests at Neiva, capital of Huila department, as hundreds of local fishermen demanded the shut-down of the controversial Quimbo hydro-electric plant—charging that reduced flow to the Río Magdalena is leading to a die-back of fish and causing hunger in nearby communities. (El Tiempo, Jan. 12) The plant, which opened in July, was ordered closed by Colombia's Constitutional Court of Dec. 10 in a case brought by local residents and environmental advocates. Among other impacts, they argued that higher water temperatures caused by the dam could result in incresased cases of diseases such as dengue fever, yellow fever, chikungunya and Zika virus. The Constitutional Court revoked Santos' decree ordering operations at the dam. But the Ministry of Mines & Energy challenged the ruling, and a Huila court ordered the plant temporarily re-started, finding that keeping it closed was also causing grave inpacts, as the still water trapped in the reservoir was causing decomposition of trapped organic matter and depleting the water of oxygen. Santos tweeted that "El Quimbo cannot remain closed in light of the drought… We need the water and energy!" (El Espectador, Jan. 8; El Espectador, Jan. 5; International Rivers, Oct. 20)

Bolivia's second largest lake: effectively gone
Meanwhile, far to the south in Bolivia, the country's second-larged lake has gone almost completely dry, devastating the local fishing economy and causing a dramatic die-off of aquatic bird-life. Lake Poopo, high on the Altiplano, was officially declared evaporated last month. Poopo is now down to 2% of its former water level, said Gov. Victor Hugo Vasquez of Oruro department. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have lost their livelihoods and migrated from the area. In the lakeside village of Untavi, only the elderly remain. The lake has essentially dried up before only to rebound to an area twice the area of Los Angeles. But this time scientists fear recovery may no longer be possible. A study by the German research firm Gitec-Cobodes determined that Poopo received 161 billion fewer liters of water in 2013 than required to maintain equilibrium. "Irreversible changes in ecosystems could occur, causing massive emigration and greater conflicts," according the study commissioned by the Bolivian government. "This is a picture of the future of climate change," Dirk Hoffman, a German glaciologist studying the problem, told the Associated Press.

The disappearance of Andean glaciers is also impacting the country's largest liake, Titicaca on the Peruvian border. A 2010 study in the journal Global Change Biology found that Bolivia's capital, La Paz, could face catastrophic drought this century, with "inhospitable arid climates" depleting available food and water for the more than 3 million inhabitants of the Bolivian Altiplano. (AP, Jan. 21)