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February 8, 2016

Lake Poopó, the second largest lake in Bolivia, was officially declared evaporated in December. The demise of Poopó has been attributed to various factors - global climate change which has accelerated glacier melting in the Andes, increasing droughts resulting from more frequent El Niños and water diversion from Poopó's tributaries for use in agriculture and especially mining.

The permanent size of the lake was estimated at 1,000 square kilometres - double the area of the city of Los Angeles - and it reached a peak of 2,000 square kilometres in the 1990s. The disappearance of the lake has led to the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of jobs and the depopulation of the region around Poopó.

As well, some predict that Bolivia's largest city, La Paz (pop: 880,000), located 250 kms north of Poopó, could face a catastrophic drought by the end of the century. The Bolivian government is now under fire for failing to implement a water management policy intended to save Lake Poopó.

"This is the kind of change in hydrological systems that we'll see more of with a warming climate," Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project, told National Geographic.

Indeed, the disappearance of Poopó is not the world's greatest water catastrophe. The Aral Sea in Central Asia is now 10 per cent of its size 50 years ago, a decline attributed largely to Soviet irrigation projects that began in the 1940s. The eastern basin of the former sea is now known as the Aralkum Desert.

In his encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis reasonably maintained that there is an inviolable human right to water. "Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use.

"Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century" (LS 31).

Too often, we take for granted the ready availability of safe drinking water. Yet, the disappearance of major water bodies, such as Lake Poopó and the Aral Sea, show humanity needs to go all out to preserve and enhance its access to water. Individuals and governments must own up to their responsibility to protect the human right to water.