Changing Temperatures and Water Shortages: Why Bolivians need more than prayers on the Aymara New Year

Aymara new yearToday, the time of the Winter Solstice in the Southern hemisphere, marks the beginning of the new agricultural year for the Aymara indigenous people of the Andean region. In June 2010, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, an Aymara himself, decreed June 21 as an important national holiday: the Aymara New Year.

Although the celebrations center in the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku, with more than 50,000 participants in 2010, all over Bolivia, indigenous Aymarans gather on this typically coldest, longest night of the year to see in the sunrise. They brave the freezing temperatures in order to welcome the sun out of its winter season, characterized by short days and early darkness, and into longer days and more sunshine. Rituals back-dropped with traditional music abound and sacrifices of  llama, incense, alcohol, and coca are offered to Pachamama (mother nature/Mother Earth) until sunrise. All of this is in the hopes of enticing Tata Inti, the sun god, to heal the earth and give the farmers a good harvest.

Aymara New Year welcomes longer days ahead. Image Credit: Ifigen1a on Virtual Tourist
Aymara New Year welcomes longer days ahead. Image Credit: Ifigen1a on Virtual Tourist

According to a recent landmark book entitled “Climate Change and Biodiversity in the Tropical Andes”,  published by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI)—an intergovernmental organization supported by 19 countries in the Americas—Andean countries of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, will be the most severely affected by climate change in the South American region. Agriculture is already undergoing changes as a result of shifting temperatures, melting glaciers, precipitation, and extreme weather events that vary on local micro-scales. So, while modern day Winter Solstice celebrations are more of a party than a religious ritual for some, in the context of climate change, even those who do take the ceremonies seriously will need more than sacrifices to bring forth fruitful agricultural seasons.

Farmers in the region are already adapting to changes in their local climates. According to the IAI book, the Andean region has seen average temperatures rise by almost 1°C over the last few decades. During the 1964-1965 agricultural season in Peru’s Cordillera Vilcanota—the Willkanuta mountain range made up of 469 glaciers—local people were able to grow crops such as the potato on land at elevations of up to 4,236 m. However, due to melting glaciers that expose more land, by 2003, potato cultivation in the region expanded by more than 300 meters, reaching a height of 4,550 m. While this has possibly been good news for some farmers—since they have more land to farm—it causes stresses for others. In the Bolivian side of the mountain range of Cordillera Apolobamba, for example, agriculture has moved to even greater heights, displacing livestock farmers, known as camélidos, from their grazing pastures. It is of note that overall temperatures in the Bolivian highlands have actually cooled by 1 °C in the last 50 years when almost everywhere else has seen a rise, due mostly to falling temperatures in higher altitude regions that offset increases in temperatures seen in lower regions.

Over the next 85 years temperatures in various parts of Bolivia and Peru are predicted to rise by between 2 and 5°C, depending on their micro-climates. With changing temperatures, old pastures will be pushed beyond their water and salinity tolerance, and crop and livestock farmers will be forced to continue to find new lands, thus converting previously uncultivated habitats and expanding the agriculture frontier at the expense of biodiversity and fragile ecosystems. The overwhelming consensus is that the effects of climate change on the region’s poor will be largely negative.

Not only farmers are affected. At the current rate of glacial retreat, future generations of travelers will not be able to enjoy the challenge of ice-climbing near La Paz. Image Credit: Ioulia Fenton, July 2010.
Not only farmers are affected. At the current rate of glacial retreat, future generations of travelers will not be able to enjoy the challenge of ice-climbing near La Paz. Image Credit: Ioulia Fenton, July 2010.

Glacier-fed rivers keep fresh water flowing even during dry seasons and much of the region depends on Andean rivers for crop irrigation. As glaciers retreat or disappear, the source of water for these important streams dries up as well, threatening the ability of local farmers to grow food. As the IAI book documents, glacial retreat has already been visibly dramatic in Bolivia. Between 1940 and 2003, the 5,300 m high Charquini glacier—which, every year, offers thousands of trekkers and mountaineers a picturesque practice climb before ascending the 6,000 m Huyana Potosi, a few hours away from La Paz—lost 45 percent of its snow cover. Between 1991 and 2002, a 9.4 percent loss of snow and ice cover of the Zongo glacier—whose runoff is the source of water for an important hydraulic power station that supplies the city of La Paz—caused serious problems for local agriculture with widespread negative socioeconomic effects for the rural population.  In 2009, the Chacaltaya Glacier near La Paz, disappeared altogether. These effects are not due to warming—as mentioned, average annual temperatures in this region have actually decreased—but is more likely to be a result of a complicated combination of factors of reduced cloud cover, increased uptake of solar radiation, and lower precipitation; a changing climate. As these glacial retreat trends continue, at the same time as rain becomes unpredictable and sporadic, communities will need to seek alternative sources of water with which to irrigate their crops and meet their own drinking, bathing, and household water needs.

Changing temperatures and water availability are just two of the issues identified by the IAI report, which is freely available for download here. While today the chants of the Aymara people usher in the arrival of the new agricultural season, in the years to come their prayers would need to welcome smart planning for an uncertain and climate change-stressed agricultural future.

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Ioulia Fenton is a researcher with INESAD.

For your reference:

Andersen L. and Verner D. (2009) Social Impacts of Climate Change in Bolivia: A Municipal Level Analysis of the Effects of Recent Climate Change on Life Expectancy, Consumption, Poverty and Inequality, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, No. 5092. Available online at:

Andersen L. (2009) Reconciling melting glaciers and falling temperatures in the Bolivian highlands, Development Roast, March 23, 2009. Available online at:

Fuenzalida, H., M. Falvey, M. Rojas, P. Aceituno, and R. Garreaud. 2006. Estudio de la variabilidad climática en Chile para el siglo XXI. Unpublished report. Comisión Nacional del Medio Ambiente. Available online at:

Herzog S. K., Martínez R., Jørgensen P. M., and Tiessen H. (eds). Climate Change and Biodiversity in the Tropical Andes, IAI, 2011. Available online at:

Winters C. (2012) Impact of Climate Change on the Poor in Bolivia, Global Majority E-Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 2012), pp. 33-43. Available online at:



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