Water levels at Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world and South America’s largest – are dropping precipitously after an unprecedented winter heat wave. The shocking decline is affecting tourism, fishing and agriculture, which locals rely on to make a living.

“We don’t know what we will do from now until December because the water will keep getting lower,” said 63-year-old Nazario Charca, who lives on the lake and makes a living ferrying tourists around its waters.

Visitors have long been attracted to the blue waters and open skies of South America’s largest lake, which straddles more than 3,200 square miles across the border of Peru and Bolivia.

Sometimes described as an “inland sea,” it is home to Aymara, Quechua and Uros indigenous communities and sits at an altitude of around 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) in the central Andes mountain range, making it the highest navigable lake in the world. The extreme altitude also exposes the lake to high levels of solar radiation, which enhances evaporation and constitutes most of its water losses.

The spectacular scenery draws visitors from around the world.

More than three million people live around the lake, relying on its waters to fish, farm and attract tourists who boost the economy of an otherwise marginalized region.

Now the lake is at risk of losing some of that magic.

While water levels are known to fluctuate each year, these changes have become more extreme due to the climate crisis. A record-breaking winter heat wave has led to increased evaporation and decreasing lake levels, according to CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward, worsening water deficits brought on by drought.

Sixto Flores, director in Puno for Peru’s national meteorology and hydrology service (Senamhi), told that precipitation there was 49% lower than average from August 2022 until March 2023, a period that includes the rainy season during which water levels usually recover.

Channels normally used by boats are no longer navigable.

Flores told CNN that by December water levels will be heading toward the lowest recorded since 1996 if the lake evaporates at the same rate as it normally does in the next few months, which he described as “very serious.”

This is part of a “gradual decline” in water levels at the lake in recent years, said Flores, and a recent study which examined satellite images from 1992-2020 showed that Lake Titicaca is losing around 120 million metric tons of water per year, which the authors say is primarily due to changes in precipitation and run off.

Communities that rely on fishing are struggling as low water levels adds to mounting problems: declining fish stocks due to pollution and overfishing.

Agriculture has also been impacted by drought, with regional authorities reporting that crops have suffered badly in the last harvest season. The vast majority of quinoa and potato crops, both local staples, have been affected, as have oats used to feed livestock.

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