Water levels in Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and From South America larger) are falling precipitously after a record winter heat wave. The shocking decline is affecting tourism, fishing and agriculture, which locals depend on for a living.
“We don’t know what we will do between now and December because the water will continue to drop,” said Nazario Charca, 63, who lives on the lake and makes a living ferrying tourists across its waters.
Visitors have long been drawn to the blue waters and open skies of the largest lake in South America, which stretches over 3,200 square miles along the border of Peru and Bolivia.
Sometimes described as an “inland sea”, it is home to indigenous Aymara, Quechua and Uro communities and sits at an altitude of around 3,800 meters (12,500 ft) in the central Andes mountain range, making it the lake highest waterway in the world. The extreme altitude also exposes the lake to high levels of solar radiation, which increases evaporation and makes up the majority of its water losses.
More than three million people live around the lake and depend on its waters to fish, farm and attract tourists who fuel the economy of an otherwise marginalized region.
Now the lake is at risk of losing some of that magic.
While water levels are known to fluctuate each year, these changes have become more extreme due to the climate crisis. An unprecedented winter heat wave has caused increased evaporation and decreased lake levels, according to CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward, worsening drought-induced water deficits.
Sixto Flores, director in Puno of Peru’s National Meteorology and Hydrology Service (Senamhi), told CNN that rainfall there was 49% below average from August 2022 to March 2023, a period that includes the rainy season during which water levels usually recover.
Flores told CNN that by December the water levels will head towards the lowest levels recorded since 1996 if the lake evaporates at the same rate as it normally does in the coming months, which he described as “very serious.”
This is part of a “gradual decline” in water levels in the lake in recent years, Flores said, and a recent study examining satellite images from 1992 to 2020 showed that Lake Titicaca is losing around 120 million cubic meters. metric tons of water per year. which, according to the authors, is mainly due to changes in rainfall and runoff.
Communities that depend on fishing are struggling as low water levels add to growing problems: declining fish stocks due to pollution and overfishing.
Agriculture has also been affected by the drought and regional authorities have reported that crops have suffered severely in the last harvest season. The vast majority of quinoa and potato crops, both local staples, have been affected, as has the oats used to feed livestock.
The tourist economy also took a hit after boats used to ferry visitors around the lake were stranded when the waters receded.
“We are very worried, above all, because the water level is going down a lot right now,” said Jullian Huattamarca, 36, who sells locally made textiles to visitors to the island of Taquile.
“We want tourists, especially foreigners, to return,” he said.
The Puno region, which encompasses the entirety of the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, has long been known as an underdeveloped and marginalized region of the country.
More recently, the economy has been hit by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and a wave of social unrest. Puno became the epicenter of demonstrations calling for the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, adding to the outrage generated by decades of inequality, accusations of corruption and stagnant living standards.
Huattamarca told CNN that visitors did not travel to the region during the protests. “They were a little scared to go,” she said.
Huattamarca said many people have left the area in recent years, particularly during the pandemic.
“They had to, they didn’t have enough money to cover basic needs like food,” he said.
And recent history suggests that the current drought could push more people to leave their homes, as an earlier drought in 1991 triggered waves of migration as the subsistence economy collapsed due to lack of food.
For others, like Charca, the drought is altering their way of life. Charca is part of the Uros indigenous group, who live on islands made of dried reeds that float in the lake. For centuries, the Uros have woven the reeds into islands, as well as using them to build buildings and boats, but Charca worries that lower water levels mean fewer reeds are available.
“It will continue to affect us, there will be no more reeds, the islands are deteriorating, that is what worries us,” Charca told CNN.
Looking ahead, it’s hard to see a breather.
El Niño is currently underway, a natural phenomenon characterized by warmer than normal temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean that can greatly alter the climate in South America.
Grinia Ávalos, deputy director of climatology at Senamhi, told CNN that these warmer temperatures are expected to continue at least until February 2024.
“These conditions will contribute to lower levels of rainfall in the Andean region,” he said.
For Connor Baker, an analyst at International Crisis Group, the situation requires long-term action to protect those who depend on the lake.
“While fluctuations in the lake have been linked to climate variability and natural oscillations, the exacerbating influence of climate change increases the need for sustained management strategies,” he told CNN.
“Local communities that depend on the lake for their livelihoods are particularly vulnerable, underscoring the urgency of addressing the challenges posed by the most intense fluctuations in water level.”