The Cordillera Blanca was originally named for its snow-capped peaks, which have long brought tourists and climbers to the region. Now the glaciers are melting at an average rate of about 66 feet per year. Peru has lost more than a fifth of its glacial area since 1970, and some small glaciers could be gone entirely within the next few decades according to a 2009 World Bank report.
Local residents are already feeling the consequences. Ice-climbing guides find that favorite routes vanish over-night. Pastoruri, a massive glacier that was once a tourist attraction, has shrunk to a fraction of its former self. In response, Huascaran National Park is creating a “Climate Change Tour” for tourists, complete with placards and walking trails.
The principal problem is water. Glaciers store precipitation during wet periods, releasing it slowly over the course of the dry season. This makes them key sources of water for farmers and cities. Peru’s arid coast, home to a majority of the country’s population, depends on the water storage provided by Andean glaciers.
For now, glacial melt has meant a temporary surge in water supplies. Water that fell as snow centuries ago is now flowing through rivers and streams. But with the glaciers melting fast, Peruvians could face serious shortages over the coming decades.
Glacier retreat is not the only problem. Precipitation patterns are also changing, with the rainy season becoming more and more erratic. Demand for water is growing rapidly, driven by population growth, new mining projects and the expansion of export-oriented agriculture. The Rio Santa, which originates in the Cordillera Blanca, is a prime example. Although it is one of the largest rivers to the west of the Andes, the Rio Santa no longer arrives at the Pacific during the dry season. This is partially due to two huge new agricultural developments on the coast, Chavimochic and Chinecas, which draw from the Rio Santa for irrigation. Mines, small farming communities and a hydroelectric plant also draw on the river’s water.
With demand increasing on all sides, conflicts over water have become routine. From 2008 to 2010, residents of a small town in the Cordillera Blanca blocked access to a local lake, protesting use of its water by a large hydroelectric plant. The Peruvian Ombudsman’s office estimates that there are 148 ongoing socio-environmental conflicts in the country, many of them related to water. At times, these struggles have spilled over into violence. Five men were killed during protests over mining concessions in southern Peru last June.
Climate change will put even greater pressure on water supplies. “It’s my grandchildren that worry me,” says César Portocarrero, head of the Department of Glaciology and Water Resources at the National Water Authority of Peru. “They are the ones who will suffer.”
The situation is most urgent in Lima. This city of eight million receives less than four inches of precipitation a year, making it the world’s second-largest desert city after Cairo. The Rio Rimac, which supplies most of the city’s water, is insufficient to meet demand. And residents’ wells often run dry. Some 8% of the city’s households are not connected to municipal water supplies, relying instead on expensive water trucks. Other districts receive water only during certain hours of the day.
With the city’s population continuing to grow, government officials are left with drastic options. The city already uses tunnels and pipes to bring water across the Andes from the Amazon watershed. Officials are now considering plans for a desalinization plant powered by natural gas. Conservation will also have to play a role. The city is upgrading pipes to reduce leaks, educating residents about water scarcity and encouraging water recycling.
“If we do not confront the problem…there will be no possibility of having water in the year 2020,” says Carlos Ollé, who has worked as a consultant for Lima’s municipal water company
These problems are not unique to Peru. The U.N. has reported that by 2030, almost half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas. Climate change is a major culprit. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Europe and Latin America depend on meltwater from high-mountain glaciers, and water supplies in these regions will be less and less reliable as the glaciers recede. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, severe droughts are also expected in many arid and semi-arid areas, including southern Africa and northeastern Brazil.
EMILY KIRKLAND spent a summer traveling Peru to learn about climate change adaptation with the help of an AT&T New Media Fellowship.