March 19th, 2012

Participatory Glacier Lake Monitoring in Apolobamba Protected Area. A Bolivian Experience

By Dirk Hoffmann


This case study presents the threat that newly formed glacial lakes pose for mountain dwellers as well as infrastructure down valley. The article discusses efforts under way in Apolobamba National Park to include glacial lakes in their “social monitoring” system in order to include the local population in defining management options for potentially dangerous glacial lakes.



Climate change and global warming are already a reality in Bolivia, the impacts of which—glacier retreat, more frequent droughts and inundations—are becoming increasingly prevalent.

There are numerous studies on the rate of glacier retreat, as well as the impact melting glaciers have on urban water supply. However, studies highlighting the impact of climate change on risk in mountain areas are still scarce.

The present article goes to show, on the one hand, the threat that newly formed glacial lakes pose for mountain dwellers as well as infrastructure down valley. On the other hand, the case study presents and discusses efforts under way in Apolobamba National Park to include glacial lakes in their “social monitoring” system in order to include the local population in defining management options for potentially dangerous glacial lakes.



Climate change and (mountain) protected areas

Climate change is a reality in the Bolivian Andes. Temperature, precipitation and humidity have changed considerably over the last 50 years (Vuille et al., 2008). Temperature increase is now about 0.3° C per decade. What is important to notice is that temperature increase is more pronounced at higher altitude, e.g. temperature increase at above 5,000 m.a.s.l. is about double that at altitudes below 2,000 m.a.s.l.

Continuing the emissions pathway for CO2 of the last 10 years (A1FI scenario of the IPCC), global average temperature rise by 2100 will be between 4 and 7° C, compared to pre-industrial times (IPCC, 2007). For Bolivia’s high mountain areas this translates into a local temperature rise of anywhere between 7 and 14 degrees over the same time span.

Considering the impact that the rise in global temperature of 0.8° C over the last 200 years—but mainly over the last half century—has already had on the Andes, this magnitude is beyond imagining.

Mountain protected areas are thus most vulnerable to climate change due to their already fragile ecology and to the above average temperature rise. There is evidence that a warming climate leads to the migration of species, generally in upward or poleward directions. Accelerated climate change is likely to speed up these migrations, and it is unclear which species are able to move fast enough. In the case of upward migration, the hilltops themselves pose restrictions as area is reduced and as there is virtually nowhere to go for those species inhabiting the highest places (Hoffmann, 2010b; Hoffmann et al., 2011).

The Apolobamba National Area for Integrated Management, with its core area above 4,000 m.a.s.l. and peaks going up to 6,000 meters, is one of the few high mountain protected areas in Bolivia and one of the two national parks that harbour a significant glacier area within them.

A different challenge for mountain protected areas arises from the fact that due to the elevation of the freezing line, agriculture is now possible at altitudes that until very recently were only apt for herding thus reducing near natural regions and putting more pressure on mountain ecosystems.


Bolivia’s National Park Service SERNAP

Bolivia’s first national park, Parque Nacional Sajama, was created in 1939. However it was not until the mid-nineties that, in the wake of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro and the signing of the Biodiversity Convention, a proper management system for the country’s protected areas was established.

Bolivia’s National Protected Areas Agency SERNAP (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas) was established in 1998. According to its founding statutes, its two main objectives were defined as:

  • To conserve the natural and cultural heritage of the protected area and its surroundings; and
  • To contribute to socioeconomically sustainable development at local, regional, and national levels (SERNAP, 2007).

It is interesting to note that from the beginning of this century protected areas were conceived as places where people already lived and had the right to continue living. For many years SERNAP´s motto ran “protected areas with people.” This stands in sharp contrast to the original national park idea at the end of the 19th century, following the Yellowstone model in the US, where people were driven out and kept out in order to preserve “wilderness.”

It is thus not surprising that Bolivia’s Protected Area Agency SERNAP has a long tradition of people’s participation, including local and indigenous communities as well as municipalities, in the planning and management practice of its 22 national protected areas. At the center of this approach stands the active promotion of participatory planning processes, full participation of the main stakeholders, and the realization of joint project with local communities as well as municipalities (Hoffmann, 2007). This has been crucial to raise acceptance of protected areas and SERNAP’s role throughout the country.


ANMIN Apolobamba

The Apolobamba protected area was first declared in 1972 as Ulla Ulla National Reserve, with an area of 240,000 ha and the main aim of protecting the region’s dwindling vicuña population. Recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1977, the area was later (2000) expanded to its present size of 483,743 ha and renamed “Apolobamba National Area of Integrated Nature Management” (Área Nacional de Manejo Integrado Natural – ANMIN).

Its altitudinal range reaches from 800 to more than 6,000 metres, which makes it home to a variety of different landscapes and ecosystems within the park’s boundaries, including puna, páramo, montane forest, inter-andean dry valleys and tropical rainforest (SERNAP, 2006).

The park encompasses almost the complete Apolobamba mountain range, which is the northernmost part of the Eastern branch of the Andean Cordillera in Bolivia, bordering with Peru. The Cordillera de Apolobamba is the main glaciated region in Bolivia, stretching for around 120 km. It lies about 250 km northwest of La Paz and north of Lake Titicaca.


Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) – a new threat to mountain people

Due to global warming, Bolivia’s tropical glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate (Hoffmann, 2008). Bolivia is home to around 20% of the world’s tropical glaciers, with Peru holding about 70%, Ecuador and Columbia combined 4%, and the rest of the world less than 1%.

As in most regions of the world, accelerated melting of glaciers set in around 1980. At this time Bolivia held 566 km² of glacier area in its cordilleras (Ekkehard Jordan, 1991).

Recent investigations of glacial recession in Bolivia looking at 21 glaciers in the Cordillera Real using photogrammetric measurements established that glaciers had lost 43% of their volume and 48% of their surface area between 1975 and 2006 (Soruco et al., 2009). This data, combined with the reconstruction of glacier recession in the Cordillera Apolobamba based on satellite images performed by Tarquino (2011) leads us to state that glacier loss in the Apolobamba mountain range has been around 50% over the past 35 years.

The melting of mountain glaciers is not only impacting the scenic beauty of Bolivia´s Andean mountain range. It also has important impacts on the hydrological cycle, especially the availability of water during the dry season (April-October) in mountain regions and downstream, that have recently become a focus of investigation and public concern (see Bradley, 2006; Hoffmann, 2009 and 2010a; Soruco et al., 2009).

Little to no attention has been paid so far to risks and dangers associated with the rapid melting of glaciers and permafrost (Hoffmann & Weggenmann, 2011). When glaciers recede a lake is often formed at the tip of the tongue of the glacier, which might grow to considerable size depending on local terrain conditions. These glacial lakes are often dammed by moraines made up of loose material that might yield to the pressure of the water and break, releasing enormous amounts of water downstream.

As glacial lake expert Christian Huggel states: “Generally, glacier floods represent the largest and most extensive glacial hazard, i.e., the hazard with the highest potential for disaster and damage. . . . Glacier floods are triggered by the outburst of water reservoirs in, on, underneath and at the margin of glaciers. . . . Outbursts from moraine-dammed lakes can be triggered by overtopping, piping, slippage on steep slopes or a combination thereof. . . . Bedrock-dammed lakes are commonly considered as safe from failure.” (Huggel, 2004).

The recent forming of glacial lakes in the Andes dates from the end of the Little Ice Age (LIA, 1550-1850), but has increased sharply in the 1980s. With this increase, the risk of dangerous Glacial Lake Outburst Floods has also increased considerably.

This development has not, however, been accompanied by the subsequent rise in awareness by local populations of the Cordillera de Apolobamba. The problem for the local people who would be the most affected is in recognizing the threat posed by glacial lakes consists because it does not fit in with their cultural and historic experience; glacial lakes are a completely new phenomenon and there has not been sufficient time for “learning.”

GLOFs have previously only been reported from Peru (e.g., Huaráz, 1941), the Himalayas and other high mountain regions of the world, but—until very recently—not so from Bolivia.


The Keara GLOF incident

A first documented case of a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood in Bolivia occurred in the Keara watershed in the Cordillera Apolobamba in 2009 (Apaza Ticona, 2009; Hoffmann, 2009). On November 3, 2009 at around 11 a.m. a glacial lake dammed by glacial ice in the mountains way above the small village of Keara in the Municipio of Pelechuco “all of a sudden discharged its contents, after blocks of ice dropped into the lake, provoking a violent outlet of the water,” as the report of field technician Martín Apaza Ticona records (2009). When the swell of water reached Keara Community, it flooded potato fields, drowned farm animals and destroyed bridges as well as 7 km of dirt road running next to the river bed.

Graphic 1: The ice-dammed glacial lake above Keara, Google Earth image.


The breach where the water broke through.

Mud left behind after the swell of water.

People from the community of Keara observing a drowned llama.

People from Keara community observing the glacial lake after the outbreak.


Unfortunately no official report was ever produced, and villagers tried in vain for many weeks to get recognition and compensation from government for the losses suffered.

To avoid something similar happening to other mountain communities in the area following the Keara GLOF incident, the Bolivian Mountain Institute intensified the search for funding to compile an inventory of glacial lakes in the Cordillera Apolobamba and to execute a risk analysis of those lakes considering populations and infrastructure downstream exposed to a possible GLOF.

A comprehensive glacial lake inventory of the Cordillera Apolobamba, the main glaciated region of Bolivia, was finally undertaken by Daniel Weggenmann of Heidelberg in close coordination with the Bolivian Mountain Institute (BMI), the Ecological Institute of La Paz´ UMSA university and the management of Apolobamba protected area. The inventory follows the steps of the methodology established by Christian Huggel of Zurich University (Huggel 2004): use easily available satellite images; start with an overview of all existing lakes; determination of age, size, volume, growth rates, material of dam, and distance to glacier; classify according to risk potential and field visit to selected glacial lakes.

The results of the glacier lake inventory show that the total number of contemporary glacial lakes went up from 174 to 216 in the period from 1986-2008, while total lake area grew by approximately 2.5 km² (Weggenmann, 2011). The study also provides a list of the potentially most dangerous lakes as well as recommendations for further monitoring.


Apolobamba´s monitoring system

The setting up of a participatory monitoring system by Apolobamba´s park management must be seen against the backdrop of the practice of people’s participation in the management of Bolivia’s protected areas, as described above. Whereas traditional conservation monitoring in national parks concentrates on biodiversity features and is done by highly qualified and well-paid experts, often from outside the country, in 2010 ANMIN Apolobamba chose a different path: In order to monitor not only the park’s biodiversity, but also natural resource management by local populations, as well as management efficiency and local acceptance, a “social monitoring” system—or “monitoring by the people of the protected area”—was set up involving park rangers and representatives of local communities, and assisted by a small technical team made up of NGO personnel and scientists from the Ecological Institute of UMSA state university in La Paz. The following elements have been defined as objects of the monitoring: water bodies, glaciers, traditional tubers, fauna, bofedales (Andean peat bogs), climate, conflicts, mining, and knowledge of traditional medicinal plants, rituals and ruins (Flores & Tarquino, 2011).

While a group of researchers was in the area studying potentially dangerous glacial lakes, they first contacted the park guards for their fieldwork and later were able to convince the national park’s manager and the local communities of the usefulness of incorporating the monitoring of glacial lakes as an additional aspect into Apolobamba´s monitoring system.

“Three points for the monitoring of glacial lakes have been established, and the rapid rise of those lakes has been shown, which implies an increase of the risks in the valleys downriver” (Flores & Tarquino, 2011, p. 9; own translation). The following map depicts the three monitoring points that were installed in the Cordillera de Apolobamba to monitor lake levels.

Graphic 2: Location of glacial lake monitoring points in Apolobamba national park


First experiences and tasks ahead

One of the difficulties with this participatory approach to glacial lake monitoring by locals and park rangers is the distance of those lakes from park camps or even roads. Therefore, a constant monitoring requires the extra time and effort that it takes to walk up to the glacial lakes every time. Intervals of two or three months are suggested.

In addition to the measuring of lake levels, integrating photographic documentation of glacial retreat and behaviour of glacial lakes has begun but it remains to be seen whether this effort will be maintained over time. It would provide excellent material for public awareness campaigns about the impacts of climate change and the risks posed by newly formed glacial lakes.


Graphic 3: The photograph on the left shows the establishment of a monitoring point in the glacial lake close to the Cerro Hermoso mine, part of the Chaupi Orco complex in the municipio Pelechuco. The photo on the right shows the establishment of a monitoring point in the glacial lake of Nevado Waracha mountain in the Cololo complex.

Source: Flores & Tarquino, 2011, p. 11

What is most innovative about this “social” or participatory monitoring is the complex institutional set-up, involving actors from different spheres of society from academia, to national government, to local population and NGOs.

Without this multi-actor approach it would probably not have been possible to introduce the monitoring of glacial lakes into the Monitoring Program for Apolobamba. But then, what is at some moment a strength can also turn into a weakness: As key persons from various institutions involved, including the park’s director, have (been) changed during the last year, the continuation of the whole Monitoring Program has come to a halt.

Graphic 4: Showing the institutional set-up of the participatory glacial lake monitoring approach (Elaboration: Dirk Hoffmann)


Later in 2011, especially after the indigenous people´s march from the central lowlands to the seat of government in La Paz in protest to the government´s plan to build a road right through the Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Securé (TIPNIS), the state agency for protected areas, which had been pressured by government to manifest itself in favour of the road building, went into a deepening credibility and institutional crisis.

It is still not clear whether the new director will put the same effort into making the monitoring system work, but there are signs of hope. As UNESCO has approved the financial means to work on a new zoning proposal for Apolobamba Biosphere Reserve, it seems possible that at the moment of formulating the new management plan glacial lake monitoring might find its way into the official planning matrix as part of the future risk management strategy (Tarquino, 2012).

Much depends on the involvement and interest of local communities, and their capacity to pressure Apolobamba park management and local authorities of Pelechuco, to understand these new challenges posed by recently formed glacial lakes and act upon them accordingly.




The author would like to thank Rodrigo Tarquino of the Ecological Institute of UMSA University, La Paz, Bolivia and Daniel Weggenmann of Heidelberg University, Germany for their valuable contributions and companionship during field research.



A longer article “Climate change induced glacier retreat and risk management: Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) in the Apolobamba mountain range, Bolivia” has been presented by Dirk Hoffmann and Daniel Weggenmann at the international online conference “Climate 2011. Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management” ( in November 2011 and is now being prepared for publication with Springer.





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