Glacier melt in Peru becomes more than a climate issue

By Heather Somerville
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 11:39 PM

HUARAZ, Peru - Glacier melt hasn't caused a national crisis in Peru, yet. But high in the Andes, rising temperatures and changes in water supply over the last 40 years have decimated crops, killed fish stocks and forced villages to question how they will survive for another generation.

Without international help to build reservoirs and dams and improve irrigation, the South American nation could become a case study in how climate change can destabilize a strategically important region, according to Peruvian, U.S. and other officials.

"Think what it would be like if the Andes glaciers were gone and we had millions and millions of hungry and thirsty Southern neighbors," said former CIA Director R. James Woolsey.

Peru is home to 70 percent of the world's tropical glaciers, which are also found in Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile. Peru's 18 mountain glaciers, including the world's largest tropical ice mass, are critical to the region's water sources for drinking, irrigation and electricity.

Glaciers in the South American Andes are melting faster than many scientists predicted; some climate change experts estimate entire glaciers across the Andes will disappear in 10 years due to rising global temperatures, creating instability across the globe as they melt.

If Peru and its allies don't fund and create projects to conserve water, improve decrepit water infrastructure and regulate runoff from glaciers within five years, the disappearance of Andean glaciers could lead to social and economic disaster, said Alberto Hart, climate change adviser at Peru's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"This will become a problem for the United States," he said. "When you have a dysfunctional country, you have a problem for the entire region."

The United States spent $30 million on climate change assistance in Peru in fiscal year 2010, according to documents provided by the State Department. The funding, allocated as part of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, went mostly to preserving the Amazon rainforest in Peru.

Peruvian officials would hardly turn away money to preserve the Amazon. But the immediate problem is adaptation to rapid glacier melt, Hart said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which administers the majority of climate funds, recently received a $1.25 million grant to work with The Mountain Institute, a Peruvian non-profit organization, through 2012 and assist mountain communities in adapting to glacier melt.

"It will take more resources than are currently available . . . but the trend is going in the right direction," said Steve Olive with USAID in Peru.

The Peruvian government is asking Washington and other allies for at least $350 million every year through 2030 to build reservoirs and dams, and improve irrigation, said Hart.

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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