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Glacier melt in Peru becomes more than a climate issue

Huascaran Mountain in the Andes' Cordillera Blanca range has lost 30 percent of its glaciers since 1970 because of rising temperatures.
Huascaran Mountain in the Andes' Cordillera Blanca range has lost 30 percent of its glaciers since 1970 because of rising temperatures. (Photo By Heather Somerville/medill)

Japan, Australia and Switzerland also have offered assistance for climate change, Hart said. The World Bank is also working in Peru to monitor water supplies and implement drought-resistant agriculture, part of a larger climate change project that includes several Andean nations, according to Walter Vergara, a World Bank engineer who started the project in 2004.

But Peruvian officials say the United States has a majority share of the responsibility to help Peru, because of the close trade alliance between the two nations, and because the United States is the world's second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

"We are knocking on many doors, and obviously the U.S. is one big door we are knocking on," said Hart.

Bolivia and Ecuador are also threatened by glacier melt and Colombia's costal and riverside cities are being wiped out by floods and landslides - disasters that are only expected to get worse, according to a study by the Pew Center on Climate Change.

Climate change is "a significant threat" to the region, and the United States must "really come to terms" with the security challenges it poses, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Arturo Valenzuela said recently.

Its ice is melting, but the majesty of Huascarán Mountain hasn't diminished. 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 region of Ancash.

Communities revere Huascarán, Peru's tallest mountain, for its beauty and its water that allows them to survive the extreme terrain. But over the last 20 years, they've watched Huascarán's glacier diminish.

"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.

"We all get water from there," he said, pointing to HuascarĂ¡n. "But if the ice disappears, there won't be any more water."

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. But research by Cesar Portocarrero, the Peruvian government's lead glacier scientist, shows the Cordillera Blanca has lost 30 percent of its glaciers since 1970.

Most of Peru's agriculture is fed by water from the Andes. Glacier-fed rivers also support the nation's largest hydroelectric plants. Lima, the world's second-largest desert city, is almost totally dependent on Andean rivers from the Cordillera Central, where some mountains have lost more than 60 percent of their glaciers in the last 40 years.

Water conflicts have been frequent in southern Peru over the last few years, and glacier melt will create even more across the country, and, in extreme cases, spreading to neighboring countries, said retired Maj. Gen. Luis Palomino Rodriguez, head of Peru's National Civil Defense Institute, in an interview.

The Pentagon is starting to address the impacts of climate change. It gave the Southern Command, in charge of Latin America, $600,000 to develop a mapping tool that will allow Latin America and the United States to share information about climate change risks. It is also spending $1.4 million to study the climate change effects on foreign military bases.

SouthCom will release a new environmental security strategy in the next couple months, but the military is far from integrating its climate change studies into operations.

"We have a lot to do," said Myrna Lopez, environmental security expert with SouthCom. "We're not there yet where we have a complete buy-in from the DoD that this is a core military role."

Peru has taken steps, but lacks resources. It created a national strategy on climate change in 2003 and has set up a Ministry of Environment with oversight of climate change programs. Officials are working with USAID and non-profit organizations to build reservoirs in Andean communities and monitor water flow from the glaciers.

"We may think that current wait-and-see policies are adequate to the task," said Chad Briggs, Minerva Chair for Energy and Environmental Security with the U.S. Air Force. "Peru may be a looming example of how that is not the case."

This article is part of the "Global Warning" series on the national security implications of climate change produced by the National Security Reporting Project at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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