Lake Titicaca: the highest navigable lake in the world is drying up


Water levels in Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest in South America – are falling precipitously after an unprecedented winter heatwave. This shocking decline is affecting tourism, fishing and agriculture, on which locals depend for their livelihood.

“We don’t know what we will do between now and December because the water will continue to recede,” said Nazario Charca, 63, who lives on the lake and earns his living ferrying tourists around its waters.

Visitors have long been drawn to the blue waters and open skies of South America’s largest lake, which spans more than 3,200 square miles on the border of Peru and Bolivia.

Sometimes described as an “inland sea”, it is home to the Aymara, Quechua and Uros indigenous communities and lies at an altitude of approximately 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) in the central Andes mountain range, making it the highest navigable lake in the world. The extreme altitude also exposes the lake to high levels of solar radiation, which promotes evaporation and accounts for the majority of its water losses.

More than three million people live around the lake, depending on its waters for fishing, farming and attracting tourists who boost the economy of an otherwise marginalized region.

The lake now risks losing part of this magic.

Although water levels fluctuate every year, these changes have become more extreme due to the climate crisis. A record winter heatwave has led to increased evaporation and lower lake levels, worsening water deficits caused by drought, according to CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward.

Sixto Flores, director in Puno of Peru’s National Meteorology and Hydrology Service (Senamhi), told CNN that precipitation there was 49% below average from August 2022 to March 2023, a period that includes the season rains during which water levels generally recover.

The canals normally used by boats are no longer navigable.

Flores told CNN that by December, water levels would approach the lowest recorded since 1996 if the lake evaporates at the same rate as it normally does over the next few months, which he described as “very serious”.

It’s part of a “gradual decline” in the lake’s water levels in recent years, Flores said, and a recent study that examined satellite images from 1992 to 2020 showed that Lake Titicaca is losing about 120 million tons of water per year. which the authors say is mainly due to changes in precipitation and runoff.

Communities that rely on fishing are struggling as low water levels add to growing problems: declining fish stocks due to pollution and overfishing.

Agriculture has also been hit by drought, with regional authorities reporting that crops suffered severely during the last harvest season. The vast majority of quinoa and potato crops, two local staples, were affected, as was oats used to feed livestock.

Falling water levels affect fishing, agriculture and tourism.

The tourism economy was also hit after boats used to transport visitors around the lake became stranded as the waters receded.

“We are extremely worried, especially because the water level is dropping a lot at the moment,” said Jullian Huattamarca, 36, who sells locally made textiles to visitors to the island of Taquile.

“We want tourists to come back, especially foreign tourists,” he said.

The Puno region, which encompasses the entire Peruvian part of Lake Titicaca, has long been known as an underdeveloped and marginalized region of the country.

Water levels are expected to continue to fall for the remainder of the year.

More recently, the economy has been battered by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and a wave of social unrest. Puno has become the epicenter of protests calling for the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, which build on outrage over decades of inequality, allegations of corruption and stagnant living standards.

Huattamarca told CNN that visitors did not come to the area during the protests. “They were a little afraid to go,” he said.

Huattamarca said many people have left the area in recent years, especially during the pandemic.

“They had to do it, they didn’t have enough money for basic necessities like food,” he said.

An Uros island, made from totora reeds, photographed in 2019.

And recent history suggests the current drought may push more people from their homes, as a previous drought in 1991 caused waves of migration as the subsistence economy collapsed due to lack of food.

For others, like Charca, the drought is disrupting their way of life. Charca is part of the Uros indigenous group, who live on islands made of dried totora reeds that float on the lake. For centuries, the Uros have braided the reeds into islands and also used them to make buildings and boats, but Charca fears that lower water levels mean there are fewer reeds available.

“It’s going to continue to affect us, there won’t be any more totora, the islands are deteriorating, that’s what worries us,” Charca told CNN.

Looking to the future, it is difficult to see any respite.

El Nino, a natural phenomenon marked by warmer-than-normal temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean that can significantly alter the weather in South America, is currently underway.

Grinia Avalos, deputy director of climatology at Senamhi, told CNN that these warmer temperatures are expected to continue at least until February 2024.

“These conditions will help reduce rain levels in the Andean region,” she said.

For Connor Baker, analyst at International Crisis Group, the situation requires long-term action to protect those who depend on the lake.

“Even though lake fluctuations are linked to climate variability and natural oscillations, the exacerbating influence of climate change reinforces the need for sustainable management strategies,” he told CNN.

“Local communities who rely on the lake for their livelihoods are particularly vulnerable, highlighting the urgency of addressing the challenges posed by more intense water level fluctuations. »


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