What we’re reading: Water and climate change edition

Bolivia snow melt

La Paz, Bolivia depends on glacial melt for its freshwater supply. But climate change is causing the Andean glaciers to disappear, leaving residents without a vital resource. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In this occasional series, Human Nature shares three recent stories of interest in our world. 

  1. La Paz adapts to a world without water

The story: La Paz, Bolivia, is feeling the heat of climate change. Situated in the “high tropics” zone, La Paz relies on two main sources for its water: nearby glaciers and seasonal rains that replenish the city’s reservoirs. The glaciers have all but dried up, and the rains aren’t coming, prompting the government to suddenly cut water to about half of its 800,000 residents last October.

As Popular Science reports, the situation in La Paz likely could have been prevented: “For years, scientists predicted that climate change would cause a devastating water shortage in the Andean plain.” NGOs pleaded for better water management strategies while an important lake dried up and winter rains decreased by 25 percent. Yet when a local professor warned the government in 2005, no action was taken.

What’s next: La Paz’s waterless future may already be set: “[B]ecause of Bolivia’s location and elevation, the Andean nation is experiencing the impact of … [its] carbon emissions at a far more accelerated pace than the U.S.” the professor, Edson Ramirez, said.

Read more here.

  1. Drought and climate change are forcing young Guatemalans to flee to the U.S.

The story: Guatemalan coffee farmers in the country’s “dry corridor” are facing a significant problem: They can’t grow coffee. Between severe drought and a destructive, fast-spreading fungus called coffee rust, this area’s coffee farms are dry, brown and brittle, and they’re producing few beans. The culprit? Climate change. A 2016 report commissioned by the Climate Institute in Australia projects that without significant emissions reductions, “climate change is projected to cut the global area suitable for coffee production by as much as 50 percent by 2050.”

What’s next: The lack of water and influx of coffee rust has all but crippled the local economy — and has led many farm workers to give up and make the dangerous and expensive journey to the United States to find work. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, between October 2015 and September 2016, about 75,000 Guatemalan migrants were stopped along the border ― almost four times more than in 2010.

Read more here.


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  1. A vulnerable community braces for the impacts of sea-level rise

The story: In the Wilmington, Del., neighborhood of Southbridge, even a 15-minute rainstorm can cause the streets to flood and water to come up through basement drains. It’s not just the town’s 100-year-old tide gates that are failing to keep out the water ― the town is only 4 feet (1.2 meters) above sea level, and that sea level is rising due to climate change.

Low-lying coastal communities in lower-income areas like Southbridge will likely bear the brunt of sea-level rise ― because of their locations, lack of funds to bolster infrastructure and a general lack of government interest in funding adaptation and mitigation in areas without high economic value. Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, explains how it often comes down to a cost/benefit analysis for each location: for example, “Charleston has an absolutely booming economy. If you have to invest $20 to $30 million to help storm water problems that will enable the city to function well the next 10 years, it’s probably worth the money.”

What’s next: A new project provides some hope. After a decade of petitioning, planning and meetings, Southbridge is building a US$ 24 million South Wilmington Wetlands Park. According to Yale Environment 360, will include re-engineered plumbing and a storm sewer overflow that will run into an expanded, restored wetland that will be open to the public as a park. “[I]f we’re not designing for future conditions ― in placement of structures and infrastructure ― we’re doing a disservice,” said Susan Love, head of climate and sustainability for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Read more here.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for CI. 

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