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What Happens When The Water Runs Out?

An Andean family eat lunch in front of their house with the Pastoruri glacier in the background in Huaraz, Peru, Nov. 4, 2006. Peru's "White Mountain Range" may soon have to change its name. The ice atop the Cordillera Blanca, the largest glacier chain in the tropics, is melting fast because of rising temperatures, and peaks are turning brown. The trend is highlighting fears of global warming and, scientists say, is endangering future water supplies to the arid coast where most Peruvians live.

CREDIT: AP/Karel Navarro.

Until 2009, Bolivia’s Chacaltaya mountain had ice on top.

The 17,400-foot peak was one of the Andean nation’s most famous glaciers and also hosted a ski resort. Its disappearance is both an early casualty of climate change and, in a region that depends upon glacial runoff for drinking water and irrigation, an ominous sign of things to come.

“Glaciers are fundamental for a variety of reasons,” Daniel Mira-Salama said, team leader of the World Bank project Adaptation to the Impact of Rapid Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes.

Aside from being a natural water reservoir, glaciers also regulate the flow of water by providing a steady runoff during dry South American winters and provide the water for important ecosystems, according to Mira-Salama.

The twin cities of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia, a metro area of about 2.5 million people, receives 15 percent of its drinking water from glaciersand an even sharper percentage of it during the dry season.

A warming climate has cost Andean glaciers 30 to 50 percent of their mass since the 1970s, according to one recent study, and an article in Earth Science Reviews claims “Many smaller, low-lying glaciers are already completely out of equilibrium with current climate and will disappear within a few decades.”

“Glaciers that are below 5,400 meters, those are heavily endangered because they are not so high that they can collect more snow every year,” Mira-Salama said. “There’s a clear and dramatic trend to retreat and disappear.”

That means the loss of a water source for cities like La Paz and countless small high-mountain Andean communities. The World Bank expects glacial melting to threaten the water supply of 80 million people in the Andes. Needless to say, it’s a problem with a future bias: By the time a 20-year-old Bolivian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, or Colombian from the Andes has grown children or grandchildren, much of the water they drink or nourish crops with today may be gone.

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The Andes is considered one of the regions of the world most vulnerable to climate change, and the transformation is already underway.

“Production in our community normally follows a cycle,” Irene Ccana Maqque, of Amaru, Peru, said. “September, October, and November, I believe, is the planting season for everything we produce, for example potatoes and barley. […] All of this is harvested more or less in April and May—in June it’s totally done. But when frosts come before the harvest, they interrupt the growing process.”

Ccana Maqque is a participant in the Andean Youth Program (AYP), a scholarship for indigenous youth leaders from rural highland communities around Cuzco, Peru, supplied by glacial peaks like 5,800-meter Pitusiray and 6,300-meter Ausangate. AYP, run by Canadian nonprofit Mosqoy, sponsors students to study in the city of Cuzco and return to their communities prepared to be local leaders.

Harsh frosts are more common. Floods have destroyed crops and homes. Specifically, Choclo, a local variety of large-kernel corn, is growing smaller, drier, and less flavorful. Even certain species of local flora and fauna are seen less frequently. 

Communities like those in the Cuzco region “depend on heavily on the water flows [of glaciers] for agriculture, for their own cattle ranching,” Mira-Salama said.

The loss of those glaciers could provoke migration or worse.

“This is of course speculation, but we’ve witnessed some migration from the upper watersheds downstream, migrated into bigger populated centers where perhaps people have other possibilities other than agriculture or cattle,” Mira-Salama said. “There is this possibility of abandoning the higher areas or abandoning of communities or villages.”

Of course, moving to a city is hardly the solution to water issues. Glacier retreat threatens the water supply of Peruvian capital Lima.

Climate change is expected to lead to water scarcity for 100 million city dwellers by 2050, and one recent study predicts that climate change could cause “severe water shortage” for 20 percent of the world’s population. In 2012, the United Kingdom’s energy secretary suggested that nations may soon begin fighting wars over water.

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Across the Andes, people are preparing for the coming increase in scarcity. Mira-Salama’s World Bank project used a three-pronged approach to climate change adaptation.

First, knowledge generation: creating climate models and trying to predict the impact of glacier retreat on important crops. They also installed high-altitude ready weather monitoring equipment in the mountains of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. And finally, the Bank tried to help with “on the ground adaptation” in select Andean communities.

“We’re working with farmers [in the Santa Teresa region of Cuzco] in showcasing better irrigation practices that are more water efficient, working with them in organizing them in water associations so that they can irrigate with pre-defined schedules, working with them in finding more climate-resilient crop varieties […] and also increasing the diversity of their crops,” Mira-Salama said.

Not all communities will have World Bank help facing glacier retreat, though. As future leaders, AYP students will have to build a viable future for their communities in a glacier-parched world.

“We need to start now to make people aware of what’s going to happen, that there’s not going to be water,” Karina Jimenez Suma of Ollantaytambo said.

One idea: plant more Queyña and Chachacoma trees, which are native to the area and do not rely heavily on water.

“We can have a campaign to plant more trees in our communities, avoid wasting water, and do more sprinkle irrigation. You see very little of that [in Ollantaytambo], only a few people know about it. I think sprinkle irrigation is one of the things that can help not use much water,” Jimenez said.

Some possible solutions are more outlandish. One Chilean geologist is exploring strategies to artificially reduce glacier melting or even create new human-made glaciers.

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No matter the strategy, though, people in the Andes are reacting to a phenomenon of external making, and they could use some external help.

“Most of the CO2 in the atmosphere is being produced by the so-called occidental world—and this includes Europe, the US—and this is probably the main cause of that glacier retreat,” Mira-Salama said.

According to Mira-Salama, people in the western world can pitch in by being more conscientious about their use of resources and talking to their peers about the impacts of global warming.

“I see now that many people from the United States or powerful countries maybe don’t suffer as much from [climate change] as what’s happening to us in Latin America,” AVP student Eurelesis Sallo Ccorahua of Ollantaytambo, said.

“So when they begin to suffer from these different changes that are now small, when they begin to have really big changes, when they begin to live what they heard about happening in other places, then they will begin to change.”



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