Peru prepares to address Andean glacier retreat

March 25, 2013


Reforestation activities in Huancayo.

Photograph: Comunidad Andina de Naciones - CAN

  • 71% of the world’s tropical glaciers are located in Peru.
  • 22% of the glaciers' surface area has disappeared over the past 30 years.
  • In three watersheds in the country, adaptation activities are underway to protect local populations and ecosystems.

In the Andean worldview, apus (Quechua for lords) refers to mountains associated with a divinity, an important character or to a group of mountains whose summits nourish nearby inhabitants by supplying them with water. These mountains, crowned with pristine snow year round, are thought to have a direct influence on the lives of the people living in their foothills.

Peru is home to 71% of the world’s tropical glaciers. For Peruvians, it is hard to imagine the beautiful Andean landscapes without their white mantle, or even to conceive of life in the areas surrounding these glaciers without the water they supply. However, 22% of the surface area of Peruvian glaciers has disappeared in the past 30 years alone.

Tropical glaciers play a key role in regulating water in the Andean region. During droughts or the dry season, the white apus provide abundant water for human consumption, agriculture and hydroelectric energy. One result of accelerated glacier retreat is the formation of new lakes in the highlands, which increase the risk of floods and landslides, in addition to hindering the glaciers’ ability to regulate water, thereby increasing water shortages.

The Glacier Retreat Project

In light of the serious impact of the retreat of Andean glaciers on local populations, the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, in collaboration with the World Bank, have implemented the regional project Adaptation to the Impact of Rapid Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes Project (known as the PRAA). The project is administered by the Andean Community of Nations.

The Global Environmental Fund (GEF) contributed nearly $ 8 million to the project to strengthen the capacities of governments, ecosystems and local populations to implement concrete actions to mitigate the imminent effects of climate change and glacier retreat in selected areas.

A donation from the Japanese government was used to install a network of eight glacier monitoring stations situated more than 4,000 meters above sea level (13,100 feet) in BoliviaEcuador, Peru and Colombia.  With support from Senamhi, this network will obtain regional information on glacier conditions and help define more efficient adaptation strategies in the high Andes.

What are the potential consequences of accelerated glacier retreat in the region? What impact will the absence of water regulation have on agriculture, drinking water and the Andean ecosystems that depend on it? What risks do the possible increase of huaicos (Quechua for landslides) pose for local populations? A group of project researchers is currently seeking answers to these questions.

In the case of Peru, the project focuses on three key areas: increasing scientific knowledge of glacier dynamics; defining adaptation strategies based on the information obtained; and implementing some of the adaptation measures identified.

" ...previously, the rains began before September but now they start after October…before, everything was green in September; now the fields are still dry in that month... "

Chaupimayo resident–Santa Teresa sub-basin, Cusco

Adapting to change, thinking about the future

The project is contributing to generating contexts and tools to mitigate the impact of climate change and glacier retreat. In the Mantaro and Urubamba watersheds, the project has developed maps and climate scenarios until 2030, and has conducted a detailed assessment of the impact of climate variability and change, prioritizing crops such as coffee, granadilla and avocados in the Santa Teresa sub-basin, and potato and corn in the Shullcas sub-basin.

These studies provide valuable information for improving crops and increasing productivity in these zones. At the same time, these experiences can be used as models for other locations.

 “…previously, the rains began before September but now they start after October…before, everything was green in September; now the fields are still dry in that month …” said a resident of Chaupimayo in Santa Teresa sub-basin, Cusco.

Specific measures to adapt to climate change have been implemented in three areas – Santa Teresa, Shullcas and Piura – prioritized due to their vulnerability, political importance, socioeconomic impact, poverty level and direct relationship with the glaciers.

In the Santa Teresa sub-basin in Cusco, the project works closely with local populations to promote innovative water usage, such as efficient irrigation systems, integrated pest management or selection of crop varieties more resistant to climate variations. The project also focuses on how best to use water for human consumption and sanitation.

Thanks to the project and the leadership of the Municipality of Cusco, beneficiary families receive assistance that enables them to increase their incomes by growing coffee, granadilla and avocados. They also receive support to develop new activities such as beekeeping, tourism and vegetable production, although project activities focus mainly on promoting agriculture more resistant to climate change.

In the Shullcas sub-basin in Junín, the project has concentrated on integrated pest management through reforestation with native grasses and trees, installing 833 hectares to retain water and closing off 604 hectares of degraded grasslands. In addition, modules have been established to improve water distribution efficiency by installing plots with automated irrigation systems, lining dirt ditches and building small water reservoirs.

 “The intervention in Shullcas” said Daniel Mira-Salama, World Bank Project Coordinator, “is a good example of comprehensive water resource management tailored to specific water management needs in each ecological floor of the watershed.”

Finally, on the Piura plains, studies are being conducted to better understand the complex interactions of the ecosystem with water, temperature, carbon retention and other variables. These groundbreaking studies will provide key data for defining activities for adaptation to the effects of climate change.

With partners including the Environmental Ministry of Peru, Agrorural and CARE, the project is also providing training in climate change, automated irrigation, soil conservation and other techniques for the effective management of available water.

Knowledge generation, together with direct interventions in priority areas of the country, is proving to be the right formula for learning about, testing and raising awareness of an issue as important as adaptation to climate change in the high Andes.