Tuesday, 26 July 2011 10:10

Melting Glaciers and Looming Water Shortages in Peru Featured

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This article by Emily Kirkland, Brown University,  focuses on efforts to adapt to climate change in Peru. In Huaraz, she sat down with government officials and local farmers to talk about what glacial retreat will mean for the region.
In Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, climate change is something you can see with your bare eyes. Lucy Ramos Garcia, who lives in the small farming community of Huachaco, can see Huascaran, Peru’s tallest mountain, from her front porch. “Huascaran was white; now it’s black, with rocks,” she said. Peru accounts for 70% of the world's tropical glaciers, many of them located at the heart of the Andes in the towering mountains of the Cordillera Blanca. Glaciers in this region are currently retreating at an average rate of 20 meters per year. Overall, Peru has lost 22% of its glacial area since 1970, according to a 2009 World Bank report. Some glaciers--those located at lower altitudes--could be gone completely within the next few decades. As a result, Peru is likely to be among the first countries to suffer from the all-too-predictable consequences of glacier retreat. As Cesar Portocarrero, head of the Glaciology Unit in the city of Huaraz, put it: “It all comes down to water.” Peru’s desert coast is dependent on water from the Andes to meet the needs of agriculture and slack the thirst of big cities like Lima. But during the dry season, which stretches from June to December, very little rain falls in the mountains. Glaciers store water during these parched months, helping make up the deficit. With the glaciers gone, it’s not clear where the water will come from.   “It’s my grandchildren that worry me,” said Portucerra. “They are the ones who will suffer.” The Rio Santa, which flows from the Cordillera Blanca to the Pacific Coast, is one of the largest rivers to the west of the Andes. Demand for water from the Rio Santa has skyrocketed in recent years, said Esteban Delgado Solorzano, head of the local water authority. In large part, that’s thanks to two huge new agricultural developments on the coast, CHAVIMOCHIC and CHINECAS, which draw from the Rio Santa for irrigation. Hydroelectric plants—like the Canon de Pato plant, which accounts for 10% of Peru’s hydroelectric generating capacity—also require water from the river. Small farming communities in the mountains are often left out of the equation. But they, too, have demanded more water in recent years, Portucerra said. That’s the result of population growth and inadequate irrigation techniques. Many farming communities are also switching from traditional crops like corn and potatoes to more water-intensive options like peaches and flowers—a result, in part, of warmer temperatures. For now, the supply of water has surged as glaciers melt away. Water that fell as snow centuries ago is now flowing into lakes and rivers. Even so, growing demand has meant conflicts over water. In 2010, for instance, residents of the town of Cruz de Mayo seized control of Lake Paron to demonstrate their frustration with Duke Energy, which owns the Canon de Pato generating plant. Conflicts are likely to grow more frequent over the coming decades as glacial melt water grows scarcer. Changing precipitation patterns make the situation even more precarious. “Previously…the rainy season was February, March, April,” said Raul Ramos Garcia, mayor of Huachao. “Now it rains when it wants to, it disappears when it wants to…” By constructing dams and reservoirs, the government could replace the storage capacity lost by melting glaciers. So far, though, there’s been little interest. Instead of thinking about water management, Portucerra said, “the politicians are partying”. “Another reservoir, another reservoir…” said Solorzano, as he piled rejected project proposals on his desk. The problem, he said, is not a lack of resources. “The regional government has money,” he said. The problem is a lack of political will. Of course, reservoirs may not always be the best option. Although there is strong popular support for reservoirs, they can pose “risks” of floods, said Ricardo Villanueva, head of Huarascran National Park. What’s more, they are often extremely expensive. “We need to start thinking like a poor country,” said Portucerra. He favors plans that use lakes and natural depressions for water storage. By adding pipes and other control mechanisms to existing lakes, it’s possible to store large quantities of water at low cost. Similarly, bofedales—high-altitude wetlands—can store water naturally. But they are threatened by overgrazing, said Villanueva, and by competition for water, said Karina Yager, a Ph. D student at Yale studying Andean ecosystems.
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