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CHACALTAYA, Bolivia (Reuters) - Global warming will melt most Andean glaciers in the next 30 years, scientists say, threatening the livelihood of millions of people who depend on them for drinking water, farming and power generation.
Small glaciers are scattered across the Andes and have for long been a crucial source of fresh water in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, thawing in summer months and replenishing themselves in winter. But global warming has driven them into retreat.
The glacier on Bolivia's Chacaltaya mountain -- which means "cold road" in the local Aymara language -- used to be the world's highest ski resort at 18,000 feet above sea level.
But the glacier is now only 10 feet thick on average, down from 49 feet in 1998, and glaciologist Edson Ramirez says it will disappear this year or next.
"This is a process that unfortunately is now irreversible," he said, adding that industrialized nations are doing too little and too late to slash carbon dioxide emissions.
"Even if they were to take measures now, it will take many, many years to replenish these glaciers, because unfortunately the damage has already been done," he said. "Most of these glaciers are similar to the Chacaltaya and that makes us think that those small glaciers could disappear in 20, 30 years."
Over 2 million people in the La Paz region depend heavily on the thawing of Chacaltaya and neighboring glaciers for tap water and, indirectly, for electricity supplies.
"At least 35 percent of the drinking water comes from melting glaciers, and about 40 percent of the electricity," said Oscar Paz, the head of the Bolivian Climate Change Panel, a government task force.
Water is already scarce in El Alto, a sprawling lower-class satellite city north of the country's administrative capital La Paz. Almost 1 million people live in El Alto and most homes lack running water.
Daniel Cuencas, a father of four, walks several blocks every day to fetch water from a stream and is well aware of what will happen when the glaciers disappear.
"This right here is ice melt. That is where the drinking water comes from, from the mountains. So we know that there isn't going to be enough water," he said, fetching water with a rusty tin can from the stream.
Water needs will only increase in coming years with the population in the La Paz region expected to double by 2050.
Ecuador's capital Quito, with 1.5 million people, and the Peruvian capital Lima, with 8 million people, also rely on melting glaciers for water and energy supplies.
About 80 percent of the Andean glaciers are similar in size to Chacaltaya at under 1 square kilometer, and experts say they are similarly doomed.
Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru have started drafting plans with scientists to mitigate the negative effects of melting glaciers and experts say they will need to make large investments to find new water and energy sources.
Paz said rich countries should create a global fund to compensate poor nations for the effects of global warming.
"We're the victims of climate change, the underdeveloped countries like Bolivia, which are suffering the effects of shrinking glaciers," Paz said.
Earlier this year, Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales also blamed pollution from rich nations for the floods, droughts and hailstorms that pounded the poor South American country for three months.
The extreme weather was triggered by El Nino, a weather phenomenon believed to be aggravated by global warming.