Losing the Andes glaciers

Marcos National Park

Marco Arenas Aspilcueta, director of Huascarán National Park in the Peru, is working with neighboring community members to plant trees that capture large volumes of rainfall and replenish ground water systems. The hope is trees like the Quenual, shown above, will help keep rivers healthy as mountain glaciers melt. (Heather Somerville/Medill)

When added to existing security challenges, climate change could push the country into a national crisis, which is why some members of the U.S. intelligence community are worried.

“South America is of strategic importance, that’s pretty straightforward.” said one senior U.S. intelligence official. Climate change-induced water shortages in a country like Peru, which has limited coping mechanisms potentially are “destabilizing. And if that state is an important state to the United States, then it’s a national security issue,” the official said.

‘There won’t be any more water’

Its ice is melting, but the majesty of Huascarán Mountain hasn’t diminished. Peru’s tallest mountain, its white peak still pierces the clouds on an overcast day in the Cordillera Blanca, part of the Andes range that stretches through Peru’s northwest department of Ancash.

Communities in the Cordillera Blanca still revere Huascarán for its beauty and the water it provides that allows them to survive in Peru’s extreme terrain, far from Lima and often beyond the reach of government services.

‘Desperate’ for water

Peru’s arid coastal communities face some of the highest risks for water shortages caused by glacier melt. Lima gets nearly 75 percent of its water from the Rimac River, which flows from glaciers in the Central Andes. Some mountains in the Central Andes have lost more than 60 percent of their glaciers in the last 40 years, according to research by Peruvian glacier scientist Cesar Portocarrero.

The Rimac is also the principal source for communities outside Lima, where large populations live without water. Glacier melt in the Andes will make water from the Rimac even more scarce, according to some Peruvian authorities, possibly creating more competition with Lima and threatening communities with few resources to combat widespread water shortages.

Rimac River

The Rimac River is one of the most important rivers in Peru because it provides most of Lima’s water. Water levels have been lower than normal due to the delayed rainy season this year. Glacier melt in the Central Andes, which feed the Rimac, threatens to reduce water supplies even more. (Heather Somerville/ Medill)

In San Juan de Lurigancho, the most populated district in Peru with nearly 1 million people, most residents have water for only half the day – or less.

“We have water for one hour or two hours, and then it shuts off,” said resident Ariana Natirrdod Palomino Matute.

Water scarcity is just one of the many problems San Juan de Lurigancho faces. Climate change could exacerbate others, like poverty and crime, which are rampant and destabilize the community. City officials say they expect the population will continue to grow at about 3 percent every year, which means an increasing demand on a dwindling water supply.

San Juan de Lurigancho

San Juan de Lurigancho is the most populated area in Peru, and it is plagued by widespread water shortages, as well as high rates of poverty and crime. Climate change threatens the area’s only water source, the glacier-fed Rimac River. (Heather Somerville/ Medill)

New projects under Peru’s Water for Everyone program, President Alan Garcia’s initiative to provide everyone in the country with running water, has improved life for many residents. Although Palomino and her four children have limited water now, they lived without access to clean water until two years ago.

About one quarter of the homes in San Juan de Lurigancho still don’t have running water. Most of these homes are far from the city center, on hillsides where there is no infrastructure for water, sewer or electricity, city officials say.

Peru’s state water authority, Sedapal, transports in water barrels to sell to residents for about 70 cents, but many residents can’t afford them. Often there isn’t enough to go around, and the water runs out between deliveries, some residents say.

“Sometimes they give you water. But another day they’ll come, and they won’t give you any water,” said Esther Cordova Rodriquez, who lives with her husband and young daughter in San Juan de Lurigancho.

“It makes you desperate.”

But over the last 20 years, they’ve watched Huascarán’s glacier start to disappear, the ice giving way to more black rock year after year.

“It used to take you two or three hours walking to reach the ice. But now you have to walk five, six hours to reach ice,” said Maximo Juan Malpaso Carranza, a farmer in Utupampa, a small community high in the Cordillera Blanca, as he installed a water pipe beneath the village’s dirt road to bring water from Huascarán to 105 houses.

“We all get water from there. That’s where the water source is,” he said, pointing to Huascarán. “But if the ice disappears, there won’t be any more water.”

Peru has lost 22 percent of its glaciers over the last 35 years, according to the Peruvian Ministry of Environment. Research by César Portocarrero, the Peruvian government’s lead glacier scientist, shows the Cordillera Blanca, which is home to one-quarter of the world’s tropical glaciers, has lost 30 percent of its glaciers since 1970. Parts of the Central Andes, the mountain range that supplies many of Peru’s coastal cities with water, have lost more 60 percent of their glaciers in the last 40 years.

“We know some glaciers could disappear in 20 years. We know this,” Portocarrero said.

The impact of glacier melt extends beyond the Andes. More than 2 million people, stretching from the Andes to the coastal cities, get their drinking water and irrigation from rivers fed by glacier runoff from Cordillera Blanca, according to Portocarrero’s studies. The secondary impacts of glacier melt will affect many more.

Life on Peru’s coast depends on water from the Andes. Most of its agriculture production is on the arid coast, fed by water from the Andes. Glacier-fed rivers also support the nation’s largest hydroelectric plants, which provide 60 percent of the country’s electricity.

Lima, the world’s second largest desert city, is almost totally dependent on Andean rivers fed by glacier melt. Water shortages are widespread there, and even worse in communities nearby that can’t compete with the capital for meager water supplies. Officials in Callao, a small port city next to Lima where 20 percent of the population is without water, fear further contamination of the dwindling supply will lead to outbreaks of dengue and cholera that could easily spread.

Rising conflicts, dwindling resources

Water conflicts have been frequent in southern Peru over the last few years, and many have turned fatal. Glacier melt will create more conflict over water resources that could affect the entire country, or, in extreme cases, conflicts with neighboring countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, countries with their own water problems, retired Maj. Gen. Luis Palomino Rodriguez, head of Peru’s National Civil Defense Institute, said in an interview.

Those water skirmishes have become a concern of U.S. officials. The 2007 Center for Naval Analyses report (pdf), a pivotal document that spearheaded high-level discussions about the security threat of climate change, says that Peru will “face a precarious situation” as the “loss of glaciers will strain water supply,” threatening the region stability. The National Intelligence Council warns (pdf) about social conflict over water as resources dwindle and demand for hydropower and crop irrigation rises.

The threat in the Andes has the Pentagon’s Southern Command more engaged in climate issues in the region, and Peru has emerged as a key partner. SouthCom and the State Department hosted a Climate Change and Regional Security Conference in Lima last June and plan to host a similar event next year for militaries from around the Western Hemisphere, said Myrna Lopez, an environmental security expert with SouthCom.

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  1. vucja says:

    We need some numbers (and their sources) to verify the statements of both sides, i.e, no. of acres of crops affected, diminished board feet of water, actual monitoring of temperature changes, etc. Until this is possible, it
    just sounds like another argument where the sides are diametrically opposed and you don’t know who to believe.

  2. Robin Smith says:

    Thank you for this excellent article and your work on this series. It’s tremendously important for the next generation of journalists to be developing experience in this area. There’s no doubt that the decline of the Andean glaciers, like glaciers worldwide, will cause major disruptions for the people who depend on them to support their food and water systems. Those of us in the developed world need to be aware of the repercussions of our energy usage for the developing world, which has a reduced ability to adapt to changes in resource distribution and will suffer the worst impacts of climate change. Keep up the good work, and I look forward to your work in the future.

  3. Ted Gray says:

    Another BS Global warming alarmist story/projection from an AGM alarmist institution.
    This article has a personal side, I have extensive family who make their living in Peruvian Andes mountain tourism and teaching eco, mountain and glacier study’s, I have spent years there, they like me can’t believe the alarmist rhetoric! The Medill students are a fuzzy bunch of Gore like ecotards and quit obviously knows nothing about climate, science or the study of Glaciology or Oceanography.

    The project continues to be widely acclaimed by select group of AGW academics and professionals who have a financial stake in the continuation of phony temperature data, crappy modeling (garbage in = garbage out) and the scare mongering climate change hoax that is starting to backfire and fall flat on it’s face. The truth is out so called climatologist, social(ist) engineers, the UN and professional doomsayers are proven wrong EVERY TIME! They fudge data & have no valid science or ability to forecast 6 months away never mind 90 years.
    I suggest these students find another job because the public and the people who really know climate are on to them. Any climate alarm headlines in the news media are suspect and generally disbelieved by all but the party (IPPC) faithful.
    Disgusting reporting that leaves a bad taste in any honest persons mouth!