UN - Bolivia's Glacier Chacaltaya

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For thousands of years, the glaciers of Bolivia have been considered sacred. Their snow peaked summits rising toward the sky reaching toward the sun.

They provide some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery and something even more precious, water vital to the millions who live in the valleys and cities below.

But all that’s changing and the consequences are devastating says South America’s leading glaciologist Edson Ramirez.

Edson Ramirez, Glaciologist:

“It’s very sad to find that the glaciers are actually disappearing, it’s very dramatic, it’s very, very dramatic.”

To show just how dramatic the loss, he takes us here, nearly five thousand three hundred meters high to the summit of Bolivia’s Chacaltaya glacier.

Just a decade ago this glacier was the   highest ski run in the world but today this is all that’s left.

According to Ramirez the snow and ice covering the glacier has shrunk a startling ninety percent since 1940 what’s more he warns, the pace is quickening.

Edson Ramirez, Glaciologist:

“In the case of Chacaltaya, it was melting in the last 30 years three times faster compared to all the years before. The glacier is dead. Chacaltaya it’s dead.”

And the scientific community fears that other glaciers around the world will share the same fate. Neighboring glaciers in the Andes are already melting at rates surprising even the experts. Many says Ramirez will disappear within forty years.   

The key reasons: global warming due to a dangerous increase in carbon emissions. Also an increase in a climate change phenomenon known as ‘El Niño’, which causes less snowfall over the mountains more direct sunlight and more rapid melting.

Edson Ramirez, Glaciologist:

“If the people don’t react now in the next years it will be too late.W e don’t have a lot of time.”

But for the thousands of people who rely on water from glacial lakes and streams for their livelihood it may already be too late.

People like seventy year-old Felicia Garcia who lives here in Amachuma Chico, a farming community nestled in the valley of one of Bolivia’s remaining glaciers.

Felicia Garcia, community member:

“The ice is melting because the sun is too hot. Our water is drying up We don’t have it for our fields and at times not even to drink.”

The effect on crops here, and in other agricultural communities like it, is enormous.   

Like most of those in her village, her family’s entire income came from selling their harvest now there’s barely enough to feed them. They fear soon they will have no food left at all.

Felicia Garcia, community member:

“The harvest is only half of what it was before.Maybe it’s the end of the world. God gave us everything, he can also take it away, the water, everything.”

Already the community that she’s always known is disappearing. The men, including her elderly husband, forced to leave in search of jobs. Leaving women like her alone to try to keep their farms alive, tend to whatever livestock remains, and raise their families.

Inocencia, neighbour:

“Yes, we have been left alone but what are we to do?”

Felicia’s neighbor, Innocencia is raising seven children, working up to five hours a day in the field since her husband left to work as a miner.

With her taps now mostly dry, they are forced to find water wherever they can, no matter how difficult getting there may be, or what they find once there.

Toiling alongside her, are her daughters. With so many men gone, too many girls now have no option but to drop out of school.

Seeing these changes have been devastating says village leader Felixe Quispe. His family worked this land for generations.

Felixe Quispe, village leader:

“These are photos from when I was little. This little one is my niece; my mom; me when I was a child, my only dream was to be a farmer, to have a good life here. But that dream has died. It is very sad, many people have left, houses are abandoned, some don’t even have roofs. This hurts me a lot, it affects me very much. Husbands only come home maybe twice a month. It would be great to live like before and not be heartbroken every day.”

Felix himself has been forced to leave behind the life he loves to sell toilet paper and clean windows.

He joins thousands of others forced to migrate here to the adjoining cities of La Paz and El Alto.

But for him, and the cities’ now nearly two million inhabitants, time may also be running out their water supply is running low.

Jose Gutierrez, Climate Change Expert:

“This is the reservoir that provides water to one of the main cities in Bolivia.”

With some twenty percent of the reservoirs water supply coming from glaciers, many climate change experts like Jose Gutierrez are very worried.

Jose Gutierrez, Climate Change Expert:

"What the world will do when two million people will not have water for drinking?”

And water is also needed to generate an estimated ninety percent of the cities’ electricity.

Jose Gutierrez, Climate Change Expert:

“The world needs to know what is happening in Bolivia. We are losing something that is a human right, a source of life. Water for drinking, for food, for the animals, for electricity. They don’t have a future. We do not have a future.”

And they will not he says, until countries around the world agree to reduce their carbon emissions and protect those who for now are left with an uncertain future and memories of a once happy past.

STORY: BOLIVIA / CLIMATE CHANGE

SOURCE: 21st CENTURY / FEDERACION BOLIVIANA DE SKI Y ANDINISMO CLUB ANDINO BOLIVIANO / BERNARD FRANCOU HANDOUT / SAN HANDOUT