Dying slower in a changing climate: water scarcity and flood hazard in the Peruvian Andes
Noah Walker-Crawford (Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, UK) and Angela Thür (Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Switzerland) discuss water scarcity and flood hazard in Peru. This is the first in a series of blog on the Impacts of and Responses to Climate Change which will be featured on the PLOS Responding to Climate Change Channel.
Snow-covered peaks and glaciers are emblematic representatives of the Peruvian Andes. As these glaciers recede at the highest rates worldwide, the mountains have also become a symbol for global climate change. Watching glaciers melt away above their villages in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain range, small-scale farmers worry about the future. The prospect of water scarcity puts their way of life at risk. Government authorities assert that water scarcity is a lesser problem and have focussed their efforts on addressing glacial lake flood hazard. When perceptions of climate change impacts differ between local communities and public officials, authorities risk implementing adaptation measures that insufficiently address villagers’ needs.
Scientists have extensively documented the impacts of climate change in the Peruvian Andes. While glaciers are retreating at unprecedented rates [1, 2], research points to substantial flood hazard from glacial lakes [3, 4] and longer-term concerns about water scarcity [5, 6]. Socioeconomic research highlights mounting local concerns about glacial melting and future water availability [7, 8].
Farmers in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range above the city of Huaraz face significant uncertainty about environmental changes. They perceive these in a context of socioeconomic inequality and historical marginalisation in Peruvian society. According to ethnographic research and interviews carried out in 2017 and 2018 , Quechua-speaking villagers were particularly worried about a perceived decline in water resources for irrigation and household use as they depend on glaciated mountains for water, one villager argued:
“If the glaciers disappear, we’ll have to die.”
-Middle-aged villager, Yarush
Many locals see water scarcity as an existential threat to their livelihood. To the present day, many depend on rain and glacial meltwater for irrigation. Rainfall has become increasingly unpredictable and glaciers are retreating in the context of climate change. Faced with decreasing reliable water resources, many worry that agriculture will become more difficult, threatening the rural way of life.
While villagers in the Cordillera Blanca possess a strong conception that their environment is changing, few utilise scientific terminology to express their concerns. ‘Climate change’ has no equivalent in the Quechua language and its discourses are foreign to many villagers. Their understanding of environmental change arises from a lifelong daily engagement with mountains losing their white cover and shifting weather patterns. This gives rise to practical concerns about impacts and adaptation: when should farmers plant crops if rainfall no longer begins in September, but can happen anytime between August and December? Where can households find drinking water when mountain springs dry up?
Government authorities in the region tend to have a different perception than villagers. In a qualitative survey, officials argued that water scarcity is easier to mitigate than other climate change impacts such as glacial flood hazard. Some authorities even said that water scarcity is not a problem in the Cordillera Blanca. For them, glacial flood hazards are the most worrying in the region while they see water scarcity as less important.
“The [water problem] is less urgent. The amount of water can be regulated. You have to drink less water, bathe less, look for water elsewhere, look for a solution.”
-Leading local authority, Huaraz
This situation is problematic at multiple levels: villagers feel misunderstood and neglected, while authorities may implement adaptation measures that fail to meet the villagers’ needs.
Given the lack of understanding between government officials and rural communities in a context of widespread corruption allegations, many villagers have little trust in authorities. Accordingly, a majority of farmers interviewed expressed doubt about authorities’ warnings about glacial flood hazard. Rather, they suspected that this was a ploy for corrupt authorities to siphon money into their pockets through unnecessary public infrastructure projects. Even if flooding were a real possibility, one elderly lady remarked in an interview that water scarcity was much worse:
“In a drought you die slower. It’s much sadder.”
-Elderly villager, Cantu
To improve relations between authorities and rural communities, both sides would benefit from finding a common conceptual framework and terminology to discuss climate change impacts. But in a first step, communication between the two groups must improve for them to understand each other’s concerns and prevent misunderstanding. In the Peruvian Andes and beyond, public officials, scientists and local communities must find common ground to face the impacts of global warming.
Featured Image: Lake Palcacocha and surrounding glaciers (Photo: Alexander Luna/Yuraq Janka)
- Rabatel, A., et al., Current state of glaciers in the tropical Andes: a multi-century perspective on glacier evolution and climate change. Cryosphere, 2013. 7(1): p. 81-102.
- Vuille, M., et al., Rapid decline of snow and ice in the tropical Andes–Impacts, uncertainties and challenges ahead. Earth-Science Reviews, 2017.
- Somos-Valenzuela, M.A., et al., Modeling a glacial lake outburst flood process chain: the case of Lake Palcacocha and Huaraz, Peru. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 2016. 20(6): p. 2519-2543.
- Emmer, A., et al., Glacier retreat, lakes development and associated natural hazards in Cordilera Blanca, Peru, in Landslides in cold regions in the context of climate change. 2014, Springer. p. 231-252.
- Drenkhan, F., et al., The changing water cycle: climatic and socioeconomic drivers of water‐related changes in the Andes of Peru. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, 2015. 2(6): p. 715-733.
- Mark, B.G., et al., Glacier loss and hydro-social risks in the Peruvian Andes. Global and Planetary Change, 2017. 159: p. 61-76.
- Rasmussen, M.B., Andean Waterways: Resource Politics in Highland Peru. 2015, Seattle & London: University of Washington Press.
- Heikkinen, A., Climate Change in the Peruvian Andes: A Case Study on Small-Scale Farmers’ Vulnerability in the Quillcay River Basin. Iberoamericana–Nordic Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 2017. 46(1).
- Thür, A., Perceptions of low and high flow water risks in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru, in Geographisches Institut. 2018, Universität Zürich: Zürich.
This is part of a blog series on impacts of and responses to climate change. The blog series is edited by PLOS ONE Academic Editor Christian Huggel, Professor at the Department of Geography, University of Zurich, and features in the PLOS Responding to Climate Change Channel.
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