Fighting the Impacts of Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes

September 21, 2016

Irrigation schemes, adaptive agricultural practices, alternative livelihoods and water supply sub-projects were designed and implemented in glaciered Bolivian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian basins, supporting over 760 poor families. High-mountain glacier retreat monitoring networks were designed and installed and are currently capturing data about glacier dynamics in the three countries and in Colombia. Climate change scenarios were used to inform climate change strategies and investment plans.


Glaciers in the tropical Andes of South America are a key aspect of the region’s water cycle. Scientific observations have shown that glaciers are retreating, at a higher rate since the 1970’s, with overwhelming evidence pointing to climate change as the main cause. Climate change-induced accelerated retreat results in alterations to the regional water cycle. These changes have impacted many critical sectors, such as water supply for human consumption, agriculture and hydro-electric generation. Moreover, impacts due to rainfall variability and glacial melt further degraded ecosystems, which in turn face reduced capacity to retain water and buffer runoff intensity. As a result, intense rainfall events were more likely to increase soil erosion and sedimentation rates and cause severe floods, glacial lake outbursts, or landslides. These challenges pose a major obstacle to the development of high-mountain areas in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.


Cutting-edge scientific knowledge was created through the application of the Earth Simulator, a Japanese super-computer that generates climate change scenarios and further estimates impacts in key sectors (high-mountain ecosystems, agriculture, and water). Subsequently, specific investments, targeted towards demonstrating and validating adaptation strategies, were carried out to: strengthen agricultural practices; improve irrigation infrastructure; reduce water losses for the water distribution system of large urban areas (such as La Paz and El Alto in Bolivia); increase the resilience of key glaciered basins with ecosystem restoration and conservation at high-altitude, and increase irrigation efficiency at low altitude. The capacity to better understand the glacier retreat phenomenon was also strengthened by installing eight glacier monitoring stations. Moreover, investment plans, integrated watershed management plans, and strategic development plans were informed by climate change considerations. This was a regional project, and key institutions of the participating countries met regularly to share experiences and knowledge.


The project, implemented over a period of six years, generated climate change and glacier retreat scenarios; satellite images were purchased to describe historic glacier retreat; and all information generated was used to define or inform policy instruments. During this time, the project also designed and implemented adaptation investments:

  • A supply and sanitation system for over 180 people in Ecuador was established,  which helped remove anthropogenic stresses over the ecosystem. Complementary activities contributed to improved cattle ranching, ecological tourism and wild fire prevention.
  • In Bolivia, the La Paz water utility worked to improve its water distribution efficiency through the installation of equipment and the implementation of an efficiency program, reducing water losses in El Alto’s District 4 from 39.6 percent overall losses down to 26.5 percent, with a total water loss reduction of approximately 619 m3/year. Efficient irrigation schemes were built in Bolivia and irrigation committees were formed and then trained in water efficiency practices. These committees helped enforce improved operational procedures, including sprinkler irrigation; improved canal lining; creating, formalizing, training for water users associations; the promotion of climate resilient crop varieties; and integrated crop-management activities. These activities helped 155 local families.
  • In Junin, Peru, irrigation activities included strengthening irrigation committees, installing three sprinkler irrigation systems and the lining of an open canal, together with an intense capacity building and training component. The irrigation systems added 334 hectares of cultivation area and helped 526 local families.

Bank Group Contribution

The overall project cost was US$33.6 million. Funding was provided by the World Bank through other complementary projects (US$12.8 million), a grant from the Global Environment Facility (US$7.9 million), resources from project countries (US$6.6 million), and from other partners: CARE (US$3.9 million), the Japan Policy and Human Resources Development Fund (US$0.9 million), and bilateral agencies - Japan’s Meteorological Research Institute, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, the French Research Institute for Development, and the General Secretariat of the Andean Community of Nations (US$1.5 million).


The governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, through their respective Ministries of Environment, were the main partners and driving force of this Project. The Project was administered by the General Secretariat of the Andean Community of Nations. Other strategic partners included the Meteorological Research Institute of Japan and the Japanese Space Agency, CARE, the French Research Institute for Development, AGRORURAL, the Fund for the Protection of Water, the Hydraulics and Hydrology Institute, the Institutes for Hydrology and Meteorology in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru; the water and sanitation utility companies in La Paz, El Alto Quito,  and Huancayo). Leadership and implementation in Colombia was provided by IDEAM, the Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies.

Moving Forward

The Project has adopted a comprehensive approach toward climate change adaptation that will help instill some of the main elements for improving national and regional adaptation efforts. Some of the elements that will underpin the next steps are: (i) well-trained government agency staff with the potential to carry out project activities; (ii) the completion of plans for project partners to continue ongoing work; and (iii) the ability for Project partners and beneficiaries to maintain investments. The national governments, through their Ministries of Environment, have been closely following project results and now have mandates to promote the replication of the Project’s activities elsewhere in their countries.


Direct beneficiaries are high-mountain communities highly vulnerable to climate change impacts and often living in poverty. These communities benefited from the development of management tools and the implementation of pilot measures in agriculture, livestock, irrigation, water supply and others. Large settlements, such as La Paz and El Alto in Bolivia, Quito in Ecuador, or Huancayo in Peru also benefited indirectly from improved management of the upstream water resources upon which they depend.

US$33.6 million
was the overall project cost.

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