‘Everything is Dry and Very Sad’: Lake Titicaca Gripped by Drought Crisis

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‘This is the first time since I was born it has dried up like this,” says Rita Suaña, 48, one of the female leaders of the Uros, an ancestral people of the Altiplano who live on the waters of Lake Titicaca, on the border between Peru and Bolivia.

“We used to fish here, but now you can’t do it any more. There used to be fish here, seaweed, seaweed for the birds of the lake, but now there’s nothing. Everything is dry, white and very sad,” says Rita as she navigates her boat through the strait that connects the floating islands of the Uros with the main part of the lake.

Around the canal, the landscape is arid. Severe drought endangers the ancestral land of these Indigenous people, who regard the lake as a sacred place. They identify themselves as beings of water, and their existence revolves around it.

As the drought intensified over the past two years, the entire local economy has been affected. Fishing, agriculture and livestock farming are all suffering in the Titicaca region.

On the Peruvian side, more than 100 platforms made of totora reeds rise out of the water to the north-east. They are the homes and workplaces of about 2,000 Uros.

To get to Chulluni, where many Uros have homes on dry land, they must walk at least a mile and a quarter, carrying their handicrafts and fish to sell or exchange for food, fuel and other merchandise. A year ago they made the journey in their boats, but now the route is dry. Without rain, the water evaporated and the land cracked, stranding several boats.

Nicasio Calsin, a 50-year-old fisher and tour guide, lives on the island of Amantaní, on the deepest part of Titicaca. His boat used to be in the water at the port of Chulluni, but the receding lake has left it surrounded by land. The boat looks the worse for wear, dried out by the sun. Calsin is now trying to repair it.

“I grew up on the lake. It was always crystal clear, but it has gone down over time. This year, it’s too much. It must be because of the pollution in this country and other countries. If the lake doesn’t come back, there will be nothing here – not work, not agriculture,” he says. “It is very sad because it looks like everything is going to dry up.”

The chances of the situation improving are remote, according to Sixto Flores, director in Puno of Peru’s national meteorological and hydrological service, on the shores of Titicaca. “The lake is still in progressive decline, and no one can stop it,” he says.

The lake is usually 3,812 metres (12,500ft) above sea level. However, due to the severe drought conditions, its altitude had dropped to 3,808 metres (12,493ft) on 10 November.

According to Juan Ramos, president of the Titicaca tourist transport association, the lake lost 4cm between 31 October and 10 November, with about 3.5m cubic metres of water evaporating daily, based on a surface area of about 8,300 sq km.

The constant drop in water level means that in some parts of the lake, the boats touch the bottom, forcing operators to use long wooden poles to dig into the sandy bed to push the boats along.

The lake’s fishers are concerned that the drought and pollution have led to a decline in fish populations. “I’m worried because the lake is now dry, and I can’t go fishing or do anything else,” says Rosa Soeña.

South America’s largest freshwater lake is surrounded by totora (Schoenoplectus californicus), an aquatic plant essential for the Uros’ socioeconomic development. Due to two consecutive years of drought, it is receding.

“Currently, 80% of the 16,000 hectares [39,536 acres] of totora on the Peruvian Titicaca forest reserve are dry, and even the fauna has had to move to other areas,” says Víctor Apaza, head of the reserve. “There is usually a maximum depth of five metres [16.4ft] where the totora grow, and white areas indicate the absence of water and totora.”

Drought also affects housing in the region, as the houses are built on totora blocks. Every 15 days, or at least once a month, the totora becomes wet and decomposes. As a result, people have to replace it with a fresh layer of the plant. Jaime Quispe, a 38-year-old fisher, says that due to the drought, he has to sail for up to three hours to source the larger plants, which are more than four metres long, needed to maintain the houses.

“The totora nearby is only for cooking, not for food, not for houses. Now, to get the green reeds, I have to go all the way to the peninsula. We leave at three in the morning and get back at one in the afternoon. It’s a long time for the boat to be exposed to the wind,” he says.

Besides the Uros, the Aymara and Quechua populations are also affected, as they raise livestock such as cows, sheep and pigs that used to graze on the totora and drink water from the lake. The drought has forced farmers and ranchers to dig deep wells to provide water for their animals and crops. However, they say it is insufficient, and that their animals frequently drink sewage.

The planting of local staples quinoa and potatoes has also been affected, as some farmers have decided to wait for the start of the heavy rainy season, fearing they will lose their crops to drought.

Not all of the lake is dry, however, and tourists continue to arrive at Puno’s main dock. They are eager to see the natural scenery that the lake still has to offer – despite local boat pilots finding it increasingly challenging to take them.

“The water level has gone down quite a lot, and there is no more place for the boats because the propellers hit the ground and break,” says Ramos. “The water has receded by about 60 metres in this port, and the boats are running aground. No one can move them. They’ll have to be dismantled and used as firewood.”

The boat operators are asking for the construction of a floating dock, claiming that the lake drops by at least 3mm every day.

Flores says that monitoring of the lake’s water level shows that since 2013, the rainy season has got shorter. The period 2022-23 was the most critical drought season, with rainfall about half of the average due to El Niño. This sporadic event significantly influences temperatures in an already warming planet.

“The amount of precipitation in the 2022-23 season was quite low, which made the decrease more dramatic. From April 2022 to December, it dropped 99cm in the dry season due to evaporation caused by solar radiation during the day; last year’s decrease was one of the highest,” he says.

Authorities in Bolivia have also expressed concern about declining water levels. The rainy season was supposed to have started in October, and some drizzle was reported in early November, but Flores says the forecast indicates that the rainfall will be insufficient until January. “And therefore,” he says, “the lake level will continue to fall until December.”

Source: The Guardian