MAC: Mines and Communities

Is mining to blame for Bolivia's worst drought in 25 years?

Published by MAC on 2016-12-07
Source: The Guardian, Huffington Post, Reuters, Aljazeera (2016-12-10)

The government has declared a state of emergency

Bolivia is enduring what is said to be the worst drought in 25 years.

The phenomena have been caused, among other factors, by the dramatic shrinking of glaciers that surround the cities and provide millions of people with drinking water.

The drought seems to be agravated by a combination of obsolete water infrastructure, poor management of the public water companies and rapid population growth in urban areas.

Alarmingly, the current drought comes on the back of one of the most powerful El Nino events on record.

Underground mines use a lot of water and also have a considerable impact on water supplies.

According to Reuters, nearly 100,000 cubic metres of water are used by Bolivia’s mining industry every day, the same volume used in La Paz in two days.

Is mining to blame for the drought in Bolivia?

Environmentalists claim the country's ongoing drought exposes the negative impacts of the mining industry.

7 December, 2016

Bolivia’s water shortages have been exacerbated by a boom in mining projects, according to environmental and land rights campaigners.

The country is currently in the grip of a drought, which is said to be the worst in 25 years.

In November, the country declared a state of emergency as the water situation worsened.

Although the drought has reduced the amount of water available, environmentalists are claiming the problems have been greatly enhanced by the mining companies.

According to Reuters, nearly 100,000 cubic metres of water are used in Bolivia’s mining industry every day. This is the same amount of water which is used in the entirety of the capital, La Paz, in two days.

The drought has affected at least 170,000 families across the country, and coincides with a rise in the price of minerals.

According to Hector Cordova, a mine engineer and analyst for Bolivia’s Jubilee Foundation, the mining companies would continue to put an increase in profits ahead of drought-related consequences.

The country’s mineral production “will increase in volume to take advantage of the good prices, but undoubtedly greater production translates to more water use…When production has increased, more water has been used. There’s no alternative," he said. 

Some of the smaller companies have been forced to stop production due to the lack of water.

Some of the bigger companies, however, could afford to make large investments in order to extract water from beneath the ground, according to Cordova. These companies have been able to increase production despite the drought.

The unregulated extraction of water from the ground is a cause for concern.

Consistently, year after year, more water has been extracted from groundwater than has been replenished. Studies have shown that the reserves of groundwater in Bolivia are now below 50 percent.

According to Milton Perez, an engineer at Oruro Technical University, Bolivia’s decline in groundwater is part of a global trend.

“Globally, we have 37 very important bodies of groundwater that are taxed for direct human consumption. Of these 37, 22 bodies of water, most of them on the African continent and a few in the north of America, have dried up completely.”

Alarmingly, the current drought in Bolivia comes on the back of one of the most powerful El Nino events on record.

El Nino, the slight warming of the surface of the Pacific Ocean, usually causes an increase in rain across Bolivia. The recent El Nino event triggered major flooding and landslides in the region in February and March.

Up until the end of November, La Paz had received 438.8mm of rain, only nine percent less than the average.

The majority of the rain in La Paz falls in December, January and February, but there are concerns that these rains will be below average.

Currently there are weak La Nina conditions in the Pacific, characterized by a cooling of the surface waters, which is likely to extend the drought into 2017.

Additional reporting by Steff Gaulter

Mining projects, big plantations mean Bolivia's drought hurts more - campaigners

Reuters -

Nov 28, 2016

Water shortages caused by Bolivia's worst drought in 25 years have been exacerbated by booming population growth in cities, poor infrastructure and the impact of big agricultural plantations and mining projects, campaigners say.

Bolivia declared a national state of emergency last week as a prolonged drought has decimated crop harvests and cattle, affecting more than 177,000 families across the country.

Environmental and land rights campaigners say the drought has exposed the impact of mining projects, which they say divert water supplies and contaminate lakes and other water sources.

"Underground mines that use a lot of water also have an impact on water supplies," said Oscar Bazoberry, the head of the Institute of Rural Development in South America.

Bolivia's president Evo Morales has denied such accusations, including reports in the local media that one Chinese mining company is operating at the Illimani glacier near the capital La Paz, which provides drinking water to 2.8 million residents.

"No Chinese company is working on Illimani and no mining cooperative is harming the flow of water to La Paz," Morales said in a statement on Nov. 21.

Campaigners also say large-scale agriculture projects, like soya and sugar cane plantations, which started in the late 1990s, have cut down Bolivia's forests and guzzled water.

"The big agricultural companies use water like its their own private resource," said Gonzalo Colque, head of Tierra Foundation, a Bolivian non-governmental environment group.

Morales has said the current crisis is an opportunity to "plan large investments" to adapt to climate change.

Government funds have been earmarked to drill 28 wells in the southern province of Santa Cruz, the country's bread basket and hardest hit area, and other affected areas of the country.

Bolivia's armed forces are helping to transport water by truck to major cities where water has been rationed.

So far the government has provided aid, including bottled water, to around 145,000 families affected by the drought.

Despite such efforts, campaigners say the government lacks a long term approach to combat the impact of drought exacerbated by climate change, and more needs to be done to ensure public water companies better manage supplies.

"What happens after all the wells are drilled? This is a short term measure," Bazoberry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.


Ballooning migration to Bolivia's capital and other cities has put pressure on resources and led to conflicts over water.

The population of La Paz has more than doubled in the past decade, Colque said.

"In recent years, there has been a big increase in conflicts over water in both rural and urban areas, which compete over water resources, and between indigenous groups in rural areas," he said.

"It's a combination of water infrastructure that's obsolete, poor mismanagement of the public water companies and rapid population growth in urban areas. It's a dangerous combination."

This month residents of El Alto, near La Paz, briefly held staff from a water distribution company hostage to demand the government explain its plans to tackle water shortages.

Such conflicts, including disputes between miners and farmers over the use of aquifers, are likely to get worse.

"What's happening as a result of the drought is that communities are becoming more aware about the value of water, which will intensify conflicts in the future," Bazoberry said.

Water shortages in Bolivia's cities have also been affected by the shrinking of glaciers that surround cities and provide millions of people with drinking water.

According to the Stockholm Environment Institute, two big glaciers in Bolivia shrunk by nearly 40 percent between 1983 and 2006, caused by rising temperatures linked to climate change.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

The Water War

Violeta Ayala

November 28, 2016

“Don’t jump the queue! I was the first in line. Get out of the way!” Shouts a man carrying a bucket, “I’ve got three kids and was waiting somewhere else and when the water truck came there wasn’t enough for all of us. We don’t have water to drink.” Answers a woman in tears with a blue bucket and a little girl holding a bigger bucket than her. The army officer overseeing the distribution of water addresses the crowd who’ve gathered to get their ration, “those with a copy of their paid water bill can have four buckets of water.” The water is being delivered in a petrol tanker and the meager rations people are fighting over looks more like urine than water.

There has been no running water for three weeks.

This is happening in La Paz, the capital of my country Bolivia. Hospitals are in emergency, schools have cancelled classes, food factories have stopped manufacturing. Since there’s no water, there’s no bread, the staple food for Bolivians. Last week the rubbish collectors went on strike and the electricity was out.

Scenes in La Paz look more like the opening of a post apocalyptic science fiction film, but unfortunately this is real. La Paz, home to 2 million people, might be the first capital city to have a very serious water crisis, but I doubt it will be the last.

Evo Morales, our president, said on national television, “For me this is like an earthquake, it wasn’t in our planning to run out of water, we were taken by surprise. You must prepare yourself for the worst.”
However the United Nations alerted the Bolivian government in 2013, that Bolivia was one of the most vulnerable countries to suffer the effects of global warming, and they needed to take precautions. Morales has been busy building coliseums in his own name with credit from China, in exchange of mining concessions to Chinese companies, who incidentally use vast amounts of water and likely care little about the needs of Bolivians.

The mining companies helped dry up the little water left on the high planes, after the melting of the Chacaltaya that disappeared in 2010 (the first tropical glacier to melt before our eyes). Last year, the second biggest lake in Bolivia dried up, 86 km long and 55 km wide, became a desert.

Yet, while the writing had been on the wall for several years, Morales’ government didn’t say a word or take any action to prevent what is now a water crisis of biblical proportions in Bolivia.

The water supply for the capital La Paz has run dry, and there won’t be enough water in the city’s dams until 2018.

Bolivia declares state of emergency over worst drought in 25 years

President Evo Morales called for local governments to use funds to drill wells and transport water to families and farmers affected by shortages.

21 November 2016

Bolivia’s government has declared a state of emergency over the worst drought in 25 years, making funds available to alleviate a crisis that has affected families and the agricultural sector.

The vice-ministry of civil defense estimated that the drought has affected 125,000 families and threatened 290,000 hectares (716,605 acres) of agricultural land and 360,000 heads of cattle.

The communities of Cochabamba taking control of their own water supply

President Evo Morales called on local governments to devote funds and workers to drill wells and transport water to cities in vehicles, with the support of the armed forces, from nearby bodies of water.

“We have to be prepared for the worst,” Morales said at a press conference, adding that the current crisis was an opportunity to “plan large investments” to adapt to the effects of climate change on the country’s water supply.

The national state of emergency comes after 172 of the country’s 339 municipalities declared their own emergencies related to the drought.

Last week, residents of El Alto, near La Paz, briefly held authorities with a local water distribution company hostage to demand the government explain its plans to mitigate the shortage.

The drought has prompted protests in major cities and conflicts between miners and farmers over the use of aquifers.
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