Peru's climate crisis ahead of UN gathering

September 29, 2014
Andean glaciers, a vital source of fresh water for tens of millions of South Americans, are retreating at their fastest rate in

Peru will host the UN-sponsored Conference of Parties climate talks this December. The world’s peak climate conference, the COP is an annual event first held in Berlin in 1995, leading to provisional developments such as the Kyoto Protocol.

Peru is also a country increasingly affected by the consequences of climate change. A study published by the United Nations Development Project said: “Peru has been ranked third globally in terms of risk to climate related disasters.”

Already, as the glacial run-off dwindles, water reserves in Lima (a coastal desert city totally dependent on mountain water) are coming under growing pressure. A study on drinking water by the US-based National Academy of Sciences found: “About one in four Lima residents have no water service, and the city already struggles to provide for them.”

The water shortages are replicated in Peru’s regional centres west of the Andes, leaving one-third of the rural population without access to reliable supplies.

Despite the rapid growth in Peru’s GDP over the past decade, the water situation is getting worse. The burgeoning mining sector is placing further demands on fresh water supplies already depleted by global warming effects.

The Peruvian coast, where 70% of the country’s 30 million inhabitants live, has only 2% of the country's fresh water supplies. Without flows from the high mountains that rise dramatically from the coastal plain, much of the coast would be uninhabitable.

Although Peru has contributed very little to the carbon emissions that have led to a dramatic rise in global temperatures, like many “developing” nations around the world, it finds itself in the front line of the emerging climate crisis.

This point is dramatically underscored by the rate at which Peru’s high-altitude ice reserves are dwindling to apparent extinction. The Andean region as a whole possesses 99% of the world’s tropical glaciers, with Peru accounting for 70% of this total.

For millennia, the glaciers have provided water for sustainable agriculture in the high Andes, where rainfall is unreliable. They underpinned the rise of a succession of advanced cultures such as the Wari and Inca.

The people of the Andes have long regarded the mountains and glaciers as sacred god beings. Every year, the holy ice is revered in a string of religious rituals whose origin long pre-dates the arrival of Catholicism.

But the distances the pilgrims have to walk to reach the ice fields grow ever larger. Stone shrines, originally built at the base of seemingly eternal ice walls, now stand at considerable distances from the glacial boundary.

As documented in a TIME-published photo essay by Andrew McLeish, “The church and main campsite in the Sinakara Valley [the site of one such ice pilgrimage] were originally at the foot of the glacier. Now they are more than a mile away.”

Bare, denuded valleys now dominate the landscape, particularly in regions below 5000 metres of altitude.

Anecdotal evidence such as this correlates with most meticulous scientific studies. The glaciers of the Andes are all seemingly in inexorable retreat, as numerous peer-reviewed investigations have shown since observations began in the 1970s.

A recent multi-authored study published by the European Geosciences Union concluded that, “In terms of changes in surface area and length … glacier retreat in the tropical Andes over the last three decades is unprecedented since the maximum extension of the Little Ice Age.”

On average, Peru’s glaciers have lost between one-fifth and one-third of their surface area since 1970. Rates of depletion are predicted to increase in the coming decade, with some projections estimating that most of Peru’s glaciers will disappear completely by 2025.

Given the importance of glacial water in the agricultural cycle, it does not take much imagination to discern the potentially catastrophic consequences of this trend.

The Ancash region of central Peru is home to the Tamara family, typical of many who have farmed these lands for generations.

“I've lived here ever since I was born, and there used to be tonnes or rain and hail, and it wasn't hot”, 50-year-old Luis Ernesto Tamara told Oxfam investigators. “Now the climate has changed far too much.

That's why there isn't as much production about 90% less. We used to have very tall potato plants, but now they're very small.

“And we didn't use fertiliser, but now we rely on it. It doesn't matter how well we work our land, we need to use fertiliser and it's extremely expensive.”

His father, Leoncio Tamara, added: “But suddenly there won't be any snow on the mountain. The water will go with it. Maybe in 20 years, from what I hear.

“We used to have snowslides every day, but now nothing. The snow used to come to this level, but no more. There are no more avalanches, no more snow.”

Another family member, Olga Tamara Morales, observed: “Before, when we would irrigate the land, it would last two weeks, now it only lasts four days because the sun is so strong. So we need more water.

“Water used to come from Huascaran, but now it's coming less and less. The snow on Huascaran is only up, up, up above, and each day it goes further up. Huascaran is dying because of the heat.”

Officially, this year’s COP is being billed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as the forum where the nations of the world will sit down in earnest to thrash out a proto-agreement to be signed in 2015 on legally binding emissions reduction targets. But will families like the Tamaras have a chance to address the jet-in jet-out delegates?

The parlous state of Peru’s rapidly-retreating glaciers should serve as a particularly forceful reminder that decisive action must urgently be taken to cut carbon emissions.

The plight of the Andean glaciers, and the predicament faced by those who live in this region, reflects the uncertain future facing the entire human species as temperatures soar in the 21st century, perhaps by 4 degrees by century’s end.

Given the track record of the capitalist system’s efforts to regulate itself, it is doubtful whether real progress toward climate sanity will be made in Lima.

As the UN recently acknowledged in the 2014 Millennium Development Goals report: “Global emissions of carbon dioxide continued their upward trend and those in 2011 were almost 50 per cent above their 1990 level.

“Millions of hectares of forest are lost every year, many species are being driven closer to extinction and renewable water resources are becoming scarcer.”

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