What happens when a lake dries up entirely?

In the case of the Lake Poopo in Bolivia, the Andean nation’s formerly second largest after the famed Titicaca, the answer is nothing short of devastation.

The saltwater Lake Poopo was located in the Bolivian altiplano at an altitude of 3,700 metres in the western department of Oruro.

The government has declared the area a “disaster zone,” but many say not enough has been done to make the area sustainable again.

Valerio Calle Rojas is one of 150 fishermen from the Untavi community.

“Just 40 days ago there was water, and flamingos were there. There was some water, where there’s now those small, dark patches,” he said.

He explained Lake Poopo’s gradual water loss.

“In the 90’s there was at least 2,000 square kilometres of water. After that, the water level began going down,” he said. “In 1995, 1996, there was a drought as well, and the water dried up, but it came back quickly. (…) There should be some rain. But that’s not happening.”

Bolivian lawmakers in late 2014 declared the lake a “disaster area,” meaning the area must be cleaned up. The situation has been made more acute by the buildup of metres-high sediment from local mining that has no water to combine with, leaving much of the local land full of a reddish sand.

Local non-government organisations have tried to help, facilitating the construction of wells, replacement farms or selling clay that has developed from the sediment.

“There’s no water, no fish,” said Norma Mollo, of the Centre of Ecology and Andean Villages. “This is definitely affecting the local communities. They now have no way of surviving.”

Local fisherman Calle Rojas, who has five children, said he is mulling the same decision that roughly two thirds of his community of some 500 families have taken – picking up and moving to Bolivia, Argentina or Chile.

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