What was once the country’s second largest lake is now a salt flat and the vanishing waters are taking an indigenous community’s way of life with them
A boat lies on its side on the salt flat that used to be Lake Poopó. Photograph: Laurence Blair
The remainder of an ancient sea at the heart of South America is fast becoming a memory: a white expanse of salt stretches for miles, with just a smear of red, brackish water at its southern edge.
Lake Poopó was once Bolivia’s second largest body of water, but when asked how to get to the lake today, locals correct a visitor.
“You mean the ex-lake; the salt flat,” says Arminda Choque, 23, as she waits outside a mobile dental clinic in Llapallapani, a community of crumbling adobe-and-thatch houses inhabited by the indigenous Urus-Muratos, who have lived off the lake’s abundant fish since time immemorial. “I want my children to leave and go to college. There’s no future for them here.”
The high-altitude lake – habitat to some 200 species of birds, mammals and fish – had always fluctuated in size. But in recent years, the droughts became longer.
In November 2014, millions of fish and birds suddenly perished, rotting where they lay. By late 2015, the lake which had once covered 2,400 sq km, dried up completely, seemingly for good. Many blamed the catastrophe on global climate change.
Now, abandoned fishing boats rust and splinter on the burning salt, amid skeins of desiccated fishing nets and grubby flamingo feathers. In the village of Villa Ñeque, stranded inland years ago, Vicente Valero, 48, doubts it’s worth repairing his staved-in canoe.
“The water used to come up to here,” Valero says. He recalls week-long voyages; sleeping under the stars in his skiff; casting sweets into the water as a Lenten offering. “Now we’re raising animals and growing quinoa. The first few harvests have been poor,” he admits.
The Urus are not natural farmers, says Apolinar Flores, a legal expert with Cepa, a local NGO. The Urus “never traditionally held more than a scrap of land”: they fished, hunted and bartered. Those who now try to grow food among their indigenous Aymara neighbours often face discrimination and poverty.
Many have migrated to nearby towns, typically to work as day-labourers. Some have found a measure of success, and cite revived cultural links with the larger Uru-Chipaya group to the west.
But others are forced to relocate further. With barely 800 Urus-Muratos left living around Lake Poopó, and their culture fundamentally based around fishing, some fear that one the oldest societies in the Americas could also vanish.
“The death of the lake is killing people’s hope for their futures in the region,” says Clayton Whitt, a Vancouver-based anthropologist. “It’s too terrible to contemplate.”
In the dusty town of Colchani, 150km (93 miles) south, Aureliano Mauricio Valero, 42, his wife and daughter scoop salt into plastic bags. Outside on the dazzling Uyuni salt flat, a few dozen former neighbours hack grey-white bricks out of the ground by hand.
“Between the three of us, we can do 5,000 bags a day,” he says, earning 125 bolivianos (£14). Mauricio used to work here during the lake’s previous dry spells, but when he returned two months ago with his family, it was for good. He remembers fishing as a boy and casting his nets through the night.
“We enjoyed working,” he says. “Our work is Lake Poopó, and with that dried up, we’re like orphans.”
A sprinkling of rain early this year briefly refilled part of the lake, only to rapidly evaporate within weeks. Yet there is growing recognition that rising temperatures alone are not to blame.
Water withdrawals for irrigation from upstream rivers reduce the lake’s size, says Tom Perreault, a geographer at Syracuse University. The huge amount of water used by nearby mines, and the contamination they produce, also has a catastrophic effect, Perreault added.
On a visit to the state-owned Huanuni tin mine, Bolivia’s largest, the Guardian observed mining waste being dumped directly into the Huanuni river. The tributary, a sickly yellow colour, flows downhill to Lake Poopó.
The leftwing government of Evo Morales has “blamed climate change exclusively for the lake’s disappearance, while ignoring the other factors”, Perreault told the Guardian via email. This allows it “to cast blame on industrialized countries, mostly the US, [and] avoid taking any responsibility for the lake’s drying or rehabilitation”.
An EU-funded €14m programme operational during 2010-15 “seemed to only nibble around the edges of the lake’s major problems”, says Whitt. The programme’s office in the government building in Oruro is shuttered.
Nextdoor, its former head, water engineer Eduardo Ortiz, says that he doubts its funding will be renewed. When asked what measures it took, he removes his glasses and starts to cry. “We didn’t have the resources or the remit to make a difference … and now even my friends blame me for not saving the lake,” he says.
Recent government action involves river dredging and pollution containment efforts, but few think they will be enough. Morales is unlikely to enforce regulations that could hurt the region’s miners, a key component of his support.
“Even if the lake does recover, there may be very few people still in the Urus communities to benefit,” says Perreault. Some want the cautionary tale of Lake Poopó to be applied to the larger Lake Titicaca, itself under threat.
Others still hold out hope of sailing the lake again. “We’re fishermen,” says Mauricio. “And when there’s fish, there’s work.”