EL ALTO, Bolivia - An abandoned alpine lodge is all that remains of Bolivia's renowned Chacaltaya ski resort, the world's highest at 17,388 feet above sea level. Today, the expansive 150-foot thick glacier, which once attracted thousands of tourists, has been reduced to a lone patch of ice about 9-feet deep, visited only by gawkers and concerned scientists.
Throughout the Andean mountain range, high altitude glaciers are melting faster, altering eco-systems, and turning countries such as Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia into test cases for climate change. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that rising temperatures could melt most of Latin America's glaciers by 2022. And as temperatures rise, some experts predict the disappearing glaciers will create water shortages and social unrest.
Edson Ramirez, a hydrologist at San Andres University in La Paz, predicts the Tuni-Condoriri glacier system - which includes Chacaltaya - will be gone within 20 to 30 years.
"There's no doubt we're facing a crisis," he said. "And what's worse, we simply don't have the capacity to deal with it."
The effect of diminishing glaciers is most evident in El Alto, an indigenous community of 800,000 people perched above the capital of La Paz. Waves of mostly Aymara immigrants - the satellite city is growing at between 5 percent and 10 percent a year - arrive daily, fleeing the poverty of their native highlands. With the disappearance of glacial water supplies and a decrepit and poorly managed water company, the city could soon suffer a severe water shortage, experts say.
Demand vs. supply
"From 2009 onward, demand for water in El Alto will be progressively greater than supply," predicted Ramirez.
Ten years ago, Raul Yanahuaya migrated to El Alto from the countryside. Like more than one-third of city residents, he has neither running water nor electricity, and must contend with changing weather patterns when growing crops in his backyard.
"The weather is like day and night," said Yanahuaya. "Either it hails or the sun burns the plants up. I've farmed all my life, and we've never had weather like this. The potatoes are stunted, if we harvest at all."
Scientists say glaciers have always acted as reservoirs and floodgates, storing water as snow and ice, and gradually releasing it throughout the year; now water often arrives in unregulated torrents.
In El Alto and nearby La Paz, flash floods after heavy rains have destroyed homes and crops, and killed and injured many people. In the northeastern part of the country, widespread floods have killed more than 70 people this year, displaced thousands and caused outbreaks of dengue, yellow fever and malaria.
In fact, Marilyn Aparicio, a physician with the National Program for Climate Change, a state organization that studies the impact of climate change, has discovered a new strain of malaria near Lake Titicaca - the world's highest navigable lake at 12,507 feet. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes have never been found at such high altitudes, she says.
"In 1998, we had an outbreak of 50 cases of malaria in a town of 250 citizens, at an altitude of 11,000 feet. At first we thought that people had caught the virus elsewhere and migrated," said Aparicio. "But we found malaria in all sectors of the population, not just those who had traveled recently. There was no doubt. The entire ecosystem had changed."
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Back in El Alto, Ramirez predicts a water shortage next year will affect virtually all of El Alto and much of La Paz, whose combined population is nearly 2 million. He laments that the government has no response plan.
Indeed, President Evo Morales has yet to address the impending water crisis. In the past, he has blamed developed countries for climate change, and has announced that Bolivia will file a grievance in international courts against the United States, which produces 20 percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the United Nations. Ramirez says Bolivia creates just .03 percent of total world emissions.
Susan Murcott, a water and sanitation engineer who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has used El Alto as a case study, agrees with Morales.
"These countries have every reason to take legal measures," said Murcott. "Practical steps need to be taken."
Murcott points out that practical solutions often require relatively little money. El Alto's Department of Public Services estimates that a $40 million investment would bring water to all of El Alto's residents by repairing leaky pipes, hooking up residents to the water system and building reservoirs to catch what's left of the glacial melt.
Stage set for conflict
But the water company's yearly profits are only a fraction of that amount, global warming shows no signs of abating, and discontent over water continues to mount, setting the stage for eventual conflict.
"What are glaciers melting in 20 years if we don't even have water now?" said Mario Sinani, a community organizer in El Alto.
Jim Shultz, director of the Democracy Center, a San Francisco advocacy group with an office in the city of Cochabama, says water shortages will cause price hikes, a thriving black market, protests and even panic.
"In El Alto, you have a highly politicized society that already organizes quickly, and already lacks access to water because of infrastructure," said Shultz. "Throw in the element of an environmental crisis, and that situation reaches a breaking point."
Wading through the slush atop Chacaltaya, Edwin Chuquimia, director of public works for El Alto, says the stakes are clear.
"Try to imagine the impact of a city like El Alto without water," he said. "You quickly lose control of a situation like that."
© 2008 San Francisco Chronicle