Last month, Lake Poopó, a saltwater lake high in the Andes mountains, disappeared off the face of the map. In the 1990s the lake held at least 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) of water. While the water levels sometimes fluctuated due to drought or seasonal conditions, it never lasted for long. But climate change has led to more and more years without rain, and the lake gradually continued to shrink.
As recently as this fall there was still water in the lake, but this year’s monster El Niño seems to have delivered the final blow. While the weather pattern has caused heavy rains in parts of the US, in Bolivia, it’s had the opposite effect, causing far less rain than usual to fall. Decades ago, when El Niño was a once-a-decade event, this wouldn’t have been a problem. But climate change has accelerated the cycle, with El Niño hitting closer to every three years — not enough time for the lake to recover from the previous drought.
The effect on the local wildlife and the surrounding community has been nothing short of devastating. Since late 2014, millions of fish have been killed off, along with an estimated 500 birds that made the lake their home. The crisis is so bad that Bolivian lawmakers have declared the area a disaster zone.
Naturally, the loss of so many fish has been devastating for the fishermen who used to make their living on the lake. But it’s also been difficult for local mining companies that relied on water from the lake. While local NGOs have tried to help lessen the impact by constructing wells and helping residents transition to new trades, about two-thirds of the community have decided to pack up and move elsewhere.