Misha Vallejo, a documentary photographer based in Ecuador, explored the area around Lake Poopó in Bolivia as the water started disappearing in 2016. The lake, which is the second largest in Bolivia and located in the Altiplano Mountains, had shrunk in the past but never to the same extent. The Bolivian government blamed El Niño and climate change, while others said that water mismanagement may have also played a role.
As a part of our series on climate change in collaboration with PHmuseum, BuzzFeed News spoke with Vallejo about the profound changes the loss of the lake brought upon the local community, which had relied on it for generations.
Is there any hope for Lake Poopó to return or is it gone for good?
Misha Vallejo: Official reports stated that the lake was recovering and by January 2017, it had 70% of its nearly 2,000-square-kilometer surface covered with water. But in February, Bolivian President Evo Morales confirmed that the lake had been reduced to less than 30% and was drying out again rapidly. This was also confirmed by satellite images.
Lake Poopó was really flat and the fact that the lake was seen with water does not necessarily mean that there was enough to have life. Fish need the lake to be at least 50 centimeters deep to live, and this is really difficult for such a big flat lake.
These official reports also do not mention the quality of the water. The mining industry is really powerful in Bolivia and the mines nearby used to drop their toxic waste into the lake, contaminating the water and by extension damaging animals that lived off it (like birds). In some parts of the former lake you can even see changes in the color of the soil and it smells like rotten egg. So if there is any hope for the lake, it should be the responsibility of the government to regulate mining companies and figure out a safe waste-disposal system. Otherwise the water may do more harm than good.
How are the residents coping with the sudden disappearance of an entire way of life?
MV: It was really hard for the nearby residents, but as they told me, it wasn’t the first time this had happened. In the early ’90s, the lake also dried out for some years and people started migrating to bigger cities and to neighboring countries like Chile or Argentina. The same is happening now, especially in the Uru village of Llapallapani.
When I talked to Don Valerio, who likes to call himself as the last fisherman of the Poopó in the Aymara community of Untavi, he told me that before the lake started drying out, the fish were gone because the water level was so low that these animals could not find food or shelter. From that point it was clear that the lake was not a food or income resource anymore. He also told me that back in the day, there used to be a daily bus service from Oruro to his village, mainly because of the fish commerce. These days the bus comes only once a week. Don Valerio now works as a builder, but he said he hates it and doesn’t know much about construction. He would rather be on his metal boat.
Your images deal very strongly with the nostalgia of what remains — are the locals trying to stay in the area?
MV: The Bolivian government is giving incentives like construction bonuses to people who live in the nearby area. These incentives are given to the poorer families so that they can build their houses on their lands. But the problem is that there are no income resources in that area. So people are basically building homes, which they know will have to leave in search for a better future elsewhere. They hope to come back in the future if the lake resurrects, but nobody is sure of that happening.
But the situation is more complicated for the Urus, an indigenous group that has been working as fishermen for generations. They do not own big pieces of harvestable land or cattle. The little they own is land near Lake Poopó, which is very salty and is useless for plantations. This is why the villagers here are leaving their town. This will bring major consequences because in other cities, away from their families, their cultural heritage and traditions may be lost. Only elderly people are willing to stay.
Are other lakes in the region at risk as well?
MV: Official sources haven’t reported about other lakes being at risk in that region. However, another reason for this lake drying out is that the authorities reduced the water flow on the Desaguadero River, which flows from Lake Titicaca to the Poopó. They gave priority to the Titicaca and left the Poopó to die.
The lake also wasn’t very deep and a huge amount of water was constantly in contact with solar rays, which increased evaporation. Also, due to global warming, temperatures here started to rise a couple of decades ago and rain started to become scarcer. Because of El Niño from 2015, drought increased. And on top of that, mining industry nearby used to drop all its waste in this lake, making it flatter and contaminating the water and soil. This is a warning sign for what can happen in the future if we as a species do not understand the complexities of an ecosystem and do not take responsibility for our actions.