Climate Change and Climate Politics: Parsing the Causes and Effects of the Drying of Lake Poopó, Bolivia

Abstract / Resumen / Resumo

Located some 240 km south of the Bolivia’s capital La Paz, shallow and saline Lake Poopó was once Bolivia’s second-largest lake. Located at roughly 3700m in the semi-arid central Altiplano, Lake Poopó has long been known for its high bird diversity and in 2002 was added to the list of internationally important lakes and wetlands included under the Ramsar Convention. In late 2014, with water levels decreasing and water temperature on the rise, local fisherman reported a massive die-off of fish and shorebirds. By late-2015 the lake had virtually disappeared, with far-reaching ecological and social implications. While fishing cooperatives and communities all around the lake were negatively affected, arguably the greatest impact of the lake’s drying was experienced by the three communities of Urus indigenous peoples, located on the lake’s eastern shore. With the drying of the lake, the Urus communities have lost their primary means of subsistence and have experienced high levels of out-migration. While there are many factors driving environmental change in the region, national and local officials emphasized climate change as the sole driver of the lake’s drying. While climate change undoubtedly plays a role, the discursive focus on it allowed officials to divert attention away from more immediate issues, such as mine-related water contamination and water withdrawals for mining, agriculture and urbanization, which are major factors driving regional socio-environmental change. Based on field research in 2016 and 2018 as well as an analysis of Bolivian news articles from 2014 through 2018, this paper examines the causes and consequences of the drying of Lake Poopó and considers the politics of climate change discourse in Bolivia.