Water scarcity in Bolivia – could rock glaciers hold an answer?
Sally Rangecroft PhD candidate at Exeter University
18th Jul 2012
With water scarcity increasingly impacting on people living in Bolivia, Oxfam has sponsored a geography PhD student to map water resources in the Dry Andes. Here Sally Rangecroft explains more about her research and her experiences.
I'm in Bolivia for eight weeks to map and understand the importance of sources of water other than glaciers in the Bolivian Andes. In particular, I am studying features called 'rock glaciers' (tongue-shaped bodies of frozen rock with an internal content of ice, which resemble a small glacier).
In the Dry Andes of Bolivia, the better known ice glaciers (the kind often visualised when people mention 'glaciers') are small and infrequent and in fact completely absent in the south. However, there are plenty of rock glaciers, which could act as extensive potential water reservoirs. They contain roughly 40-60% of ice under a top layer of rock, which insulates the ice from small thermal changes. My work aims to achieve the first rock glacier inventory in the Bolivian Andes and assess the amount of ice, hence water, contained within them, to gain a better understanding of
current and future water supplies.
I first came to Bolivia last June when I hiked to altitudes of 5000m in order to gain field data on rock glaciers and other features. It was a fantastic trip: I gained a lot of knowledge and was able to see firsthand the impact of climate change and glacier retreat on mountain communities such as Illimani. I also witnessed the work that Oxfam and Agua Sustentable (the joint sponsors for my PhD) are doing to help the communities find ways to adjust to the changes in climate and water supplies, in agriculture. This year the fieldwork will be
more intense as I investigate the ice content of the rock.
A better understanding of water resources in Bolivia is crucial for the future as demand rises and as climate change kicks in.
Currently 80% of Bolivia's rural population live in poverty and only 56% of that rural population have access to safe water. Poor infrastructure, theft, and water-hungry tourism add additional pressure on already strained water supplies. Furthermore, many large Andean cities are located above 2500m and are almost entirely dependent on high-altitude water stocks such as glaciers and lakes to complement limited rainfall.
La Paz, the Bolivian capital, supports 2.3 million people at close to 4000m and is heavily dependent upon the Andean glacier meltwater for its water supplies. Water supply is threatened by i) associated impacts of climate change such as temperature and precipitation changes ii) increasing urban populations; and iii) glacier retreat.
Consequently, scientists, like me, are now looking at whether there could be more resilient water supplies, hence my study on rock glaciers. They are known to be abundant in the Andes but their contribution to mountain water supplies is ambiguous and understudied, especially in Bolivia. I aim to change that!
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