Bolivia: Where adaptation equals abandonment

El Alto, city of rural migrants whose crops failed when the climate changed

Rural Bolivians migrate to El Alto when their crops fail because of droughts, erratic rainfall, heatwaves, frosts and floods. Climate change – and Pachamama – are driving them into the city

The UK Guardian’s John Vidal has doing a series of pieces on Bolivia and climate change.  It really drives home the point that for most people in the developing world, “adapting” to human-caused climate change is simply going to mean abandoning their homes:

Hundreds of thousands of people have flooded in from the countryside to find work and opportunity, but increasingly the reason they give for moving is that frequent droughts, erratic rainfall, heatwaves, unseasonal frosts and floods have made conditions too hard to grow crops. Bolivia has had five major droughts or heatwaves, as well as floods and major mudslides in the past decade. Few people in El Alto could be classed entirely as “climate refugees”, but the changing physical environment is clearly one of the new drivers of people to this burgeoning city.

I had previously written that Bolivia’s 18,000 year-old Chacaltaya glacier is gone.

Vidal has a video of what is happening to this poor country:

As the video notes, Bolivia is at risk of becoming a desert if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path.

Here is one grim projection from last year’s review and analysis of the drought literature by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (see “Must-read NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path” ):

droubt map 1 2000-2009

Note that Bolivia is not currently, a “dry” country as measured by the “the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which assigns positive numbers when conditions are unusually wet for a particular region, and negative numbers when conditions are unusually dry. A reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought.

But look what happens just on the IPCC’s “moderate” A1B scenario “” atmospheric concentrations of CO2 around 520 ppm in 2050 and 700 in 2100 (We’re currently on the A1FI pathway, which would takes us to 1000 ppm by century’s end):

drought map 2 2030-2039

drought map 3 2060-2069

drought map 4 2090-2099

The PDSI in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).  So the numbers projected for much if not most of Bolivia even by mid-century are nothing less than Dust-Bowlification.

Again, the likeliest form of adaptation will be abandonment.

Related Post:

16 Responses to Bolivia: Where adaptation equals abandonment

  1. paulm says:

    I think it will also be the case of many in the developed world also.
    If anyone thinks that we can adapt to a 1C+ rise and live anywhere like we do today they are in for a surprise.

  2. catman306 says:

    I would surely like to know the ozone ppb in the village where food will no longer grow. Drought, temperature increase, increased ground level ozone, and insect pests all add up to a severe famine.

  3. GFW says:

    I’m a little confused by the maps. Total precipitation should go up in a warmer world, but eyeballing the maps, the areas where “dry” increases seem much larger than the areas where “wet” increases. Is this because
    a) Rainfall will be more intense/concentrated so a region can get more total rain but average drier soil over a year?
    b) A lot of the increase in total precipitation will happen over the ocean, which is irrelevant in this map.
    c) Other? Please explain.

    Assuming things turn out close to that model, Mexico and the Mediterranean countries are really screwed. Look at how Turkey evolves over that time series.

  4. JCH says:

    Bolivia Smolivia, get back to me when this is Texas.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    Those of us (and up to a moment ago, that definitely included me) who expect lithium batteries to get us through the hard spots should remember that Bolivia is thought to have half the world’s supply of lithium.
    China and Chile also have developed major mining operations.

    A list of lithium mining around the world indicates that Bolivia relies on the brine extraction method.
    Drought seems likely to affect a mining methodology that depends on water.

    As I have a good friend who lives in Los Altos, Bolivia, I can’t make myself feel crass enough to just focus on the lithium extraction. The loss of water is endangering the peoples of delightful cultures that have been adapted to the Andes and the Altiplano for centuries. It’s insufferable.

  6. Sir Cuitous says:

    Smolivia Indeed.
    Hasn’t Texas agriculture been devastated from a prolonged period of drought?
    Texas A&M actually has an Agricultural Drought Task Force:
    Do Texas farmers still vote Republican?

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thanks for that Leif #8. All CC activists should remember that Indigenous people all around the world are a natural ally, ME

  8. Leif says:

    Yes Merrelyn, @ 9 and for the most part First Nations and Indigenous peoples handed down tens of thousands of years of livable ecosystems to this point. We do indeed have a first order moral responsibility to our past ancestors as well as future progeny.

  9. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, that should be A1FI (for Fossil Intensive) rather than A1F1.

    [JR: Sorry, yes.]

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It was the silver mined at Potosi in Bolivia (at the cost of the lives of millions of slaves, who lasted, on average, mere months in the brutal, high altitude, conditions) that, when expropriated to Europe, proved the foundational surplus value needed to kick-start capitalism, which now, in its end-stages, has come back to bite Bolivia on the backside by making it one of the early casualties of climate destabilisation. This is a really savage irony, but I suspect we’ll see a lot more of those soon enough.

  11. JCH says:

    Yes, Texas is in the midst of a drought. I would say Texas farmers vote solidly Republican. They’re also praying for rain.

  12. Joan Savage says:

    Leif (#8&10) Merrelyn (#9), Mulga (#12)

    You speak my mind.

    William Blake had the wry view, “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”
    Somewhere in all of us, I suppose, are indigenous roots, or the cut-off shreds of roots.

    There is now an academic movement to be more familiar with Traditional Environmental(or Ecological) Knowledge (TEK), which is often far more fine-tuned, and as Merrelyn has said elsewhere, systemic, in its decision making.

  13. Emily Kirkland says:

    Hi all! I’ll be travelling to Peru this summer (or winter, rather) looking to report on climate change impacts and adaptation there for a blog on Latin America and climate ( I’m especially interested in how climate change has impacted rural communities, and how climate interacts with local environmental problems (like over-grazing and related soil degradation) and existing development challenges (poverty, education, political marginalization, etc.) I’m also investigating the way that adaptation has been (and has not been) integrated into national planning and policy.
    In any case, if anyone knows of any particularly interesting resources on this subject for Peru, or has any suggestions about important issues or questions to consider, please suggest away! Would be much appreciated.
    Emily Kirkland

  14. Adam says:

    I’m a U.S. citizen living in La Paz and making the 2,300ft elevation commute up to El Alto every day (I can see the non-existent Chacaltaya glacier from my office right now). Just want to say I would love to see millions of Bolivians pull themselves out of poverty. I know Bolivians struggling to survive, urbanites who return to the “campo” to harvest potatoes.

    But Vidal’s blog cited is low on hard science & statistics. It lists a plethora of environmental variables, then more or less blames them on all on climate change. And the author fails to mention that there is a massive urbanization going on worldwide – in all types of societies, economics, and climates. Urbanization that would have happened with or without a steady increase in CO2.

    Neither has there been an agricultural apocalypse. The markets are still filled with fresh, somewhat affordable food (and the poor have always struggled with affording nutritious food). Inefficient and unsuccessful farmers will of course be leaving agriculture (as they are around the world). The quinoa trade, at least, is booming (

    And while the altiplano is quite vast, dry, sunny, and cold (it certainly feels desert-like), a large part of Bolivia is Amazon rainforest, or other low-laying or medium-altitude growth. Of course, there could be drying trends there, but saying that “Bolivia is at risk of becoming a desert” is quite a stretch.


    [JR: The scientific literature seems pretty clear on where Bolivia is likely headed. The sentence “Bolivia is at risk of becoming a desert” is hardly an overly strong statement of our best scientific understanding. Multiple studies come to the same conclusion.]