Peru: no global warming skeptics in Huaraz

International climate experts will gather in Lima this weekend to debate the impacts of global warming on the Andean region. Scientists from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, the US and France will meet at the seat of the Andean Community for the First International Summit on Climate Change in the Andes. (RPP, Sept 21) There is little debate on whether climate change is real in Huaraz, a town high in Peru’s Cordillera Occidental, where the impacts of global warming are already being felt—and threaten imminent catastrophe…

Reminders of the deadly power that can be unleashed when the fragile balance of the high Andean ecology is disturbed are everywhere in this long valley known as the CallejĂłn de Huaylas. The bus tour from Huaraz to the scenic glacial lake of Llanganuco in Huascarán National Park—which shelters Peru’s highest peak—stops at the site of Viejo Yungay, a buried village where 20,000 instantly died when an earthquake loosed a glacier on the mountan and unleashed a massive avalanche on May 31, 1970. There was a circus in town that day, and the populace was taken unawares by the massive wall of mud, rock and ice. The village was rebuilt as Nuevo Yungay further down the slope; the original site is revered as sacred ground. Few of the bodies were ever recovered.

Huaraz itself was demolished by the earthquake, which left a total of 70,000 dead. But this was the second disaster to befall the city in the 20th century. Half the city was destroyed, and 5,000 residents killed, when a flood originating in the glacial Lake Palcacocha washed down the Cojup Canyon to the north of Huaraz in 1941. The inundation was likely caused by a chunk of the overlooking glacier melting off. NASA satellites have recently detected a crack in this same glacier.

In 1962, the town of Ranrahirca was completely washed away by an avalanche from Huascarán, leaving 4,000 dead. If the ice pack that crowns the Cordillera Blanca—the highest part of the Cordillera Occidental, forming the eastern wall of the Callejón de Huaylas—were to be generally destabilized, the grim implications are obvious.

JosĂ© Antonio Salazar MejĂ­a, a professor at the National University at Huaraz, is director of Proyecto URPI, for Unidad de Registro del Patrimonio Inmaterial de Ancash—dedicated to preserving oral histories, folklore and music of Peru’s Ancash region, which is centered on the CallejĂłn de Huaylas. A native of Huaraz, he has noted obvious changes to local ecology. “You can see more rock and less snow on the peaks of the Cordillera Blanca each year for the past several years,” he says. “New lakes are forming. Just 15 years ago, there were 270 lakes in the Cordillera Blanca. Today there are 500.”

Salazar MejĂ­a recalls that Yungay was the scene of an April 1885 battle in which a campesino revolution in the CallejĂłn de Huaylas was put down by Peru’s armed forces. In 1985, Salazar MejĂ­a wrote a song for the centennial celebration of the revolution in honor of its leader, Pedro Pablo Atusparia, a Quechua campesino from the village of Marián. He recalls that one line anticipated the changes that can now be seen in the local landscape:

Se podrĂ­a secar el Rio Santa
Se deshielará la cordillera
Pero el camino que va a Marián
No se olvidará de Atusparia

The Rio Santa could run dry
The snow disappear from the cordillera
But the road that goes to Marián
Will not forget Atusparia

“When I wrote that song, people laughed at me,” says Salazar MejĂ­a. “They said the ice and snow are eternal, nothing could ever destroy them. But now, 25 years later, what I wrote is becoming a reality.”

Conflict over disappearing water
In addition to the disappearing snow on the Cordillera Blanca, every year there is less water in the Rio Santa, the river that runs through the Callejón de Huaylas, Salazar Mejía says. This has already affected the operations of the Cañon del Pato hydro-electric plant on the Rio Santa (operated by the US firm Duke Energy since the privatization policies of the Fujimori era). It has also had the effect of exacerbating local conflicts over water.

A key conflict in the region is over the Chinecas irrigration project in northern Ancash. Completion of the project, unveiled in 1985, has languished for over 20 years. Meanwhile, waters of the Rio Santa are being diverted to the north, out of the local watershed and into La Libertad, the next administrative region to the north, for the Chavimochic irrigation project, around the city of Trujillo. Chavimochic was initiated at the same time as Chinecas, but was completed on schedule in the first administration of Peru’s current president Alan GarcĂ­a, in the late ’80s. It was key to consolidating support for GarcĂ­a’s APRA party in La Libertad. And while the beneficiaries of the Chavimochic project are big agribusiness interests growing artichoke and asparagus for export to the US, those still waiting for water from the Chinecas project are comuneros—campesinos who hold collective title to their lands.

In the privatization policies of the past two decades, the communal sector is threatened in Peru, but still exists. The comuneros of Chinecas had their lands titled to local communities in the agrarian reform era under Gen. Juan Velasco. Other Ancash communal lands, most notably at Pira, have held title since colonial times and are a survival of Inca allyus (peasant communities).

The Departmental Agrarian Federation of Ancash (FADA) is petitioning for aid to the campesino sector in the region generally, and for survival of the communal sector. But the organization’s power has waned since its leader Macedonio Lirio LeĂłn was killed—probably by the army, although the government claims by Sendero Luminoso—during Peru’s “dirty war” in the 1980s.

With the shrinking of the Rio Santa, the comuneros of Chinecas face another obstacle in their struggle for the water that has long been promised them. The changes in the local ecology contribute to the matrix of oppression and process of cultural extermination.

There are no global warming skeptics in Ancash and the CallejĂłn de Huaylas—which demonstrates once again the truth of the old Marxist saw: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

World War 4 Report on the scene in Huaraz

See our last posts on Peru, climate change in the Andes and regional struggles for control of water.

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  1. Report on climate threat in Peruvian Andes
    Public Radio International’s The World Feb. 26 reports from Peru’s “Cordillera Blanca Range” (a redundancy of course) on the fears of local campesinos that their villages could be wiped out by catastrophic floods as the glaciers melt. It notes one incident at the “hamlet of Carhuaz” (which is not a hamlet, but a provincial seat) in April 2009, when a flash flood unleashed by destabilization of a glacier on overlooking Mount Hualcan destroyed or damaged some 100 homes, although amazingly claiming no lives. Apparently, it could have been worse if not for government efforts to shore up alpine lakes in danger of bursting their banks.

    CĂ©sar Portocarrero of the Glaciology Office in Huaraz says Lake Palcacocha above the city has swollen to 30 times its size when workers started reinforcing its banks in the ’70s. He says a flood of 10,000 tons of water, soil and rock per second could arrive in Huaraz in less than half an hour—and Palcacocha is but one of almost three dozen precarious glacier lakes in the Cordillera.

    The Carhuaz incident was just a few months before my visit to the Cordillera Blanca, and it was not among the incidents locals told me about (described above). One wonders how many other such flood there have been…

  2. Correction on flood devastation in Peruvian Andes
    This blogger visited Huaraz in May, and spoke with researchers at the Glaciology Unit to clarify the recent history of floods and avalanches in the Sierra Blanca. The inundation of Carhuaz actually took place on April 11, 2010 (which explains why I did not hear about it when I was there in 2009). The PRI report may have also overestimated the destruction of this incident, as Glaciology Unit records indicate it destroyed 20 homes. There have been two major inundations in the Sierra since then, in December 2010 and February 2011—only failing to cause major damage because they occurred in isolated areas.

    The Glaciology Unit has compiled a list of all such incidents going all the way back to 1702, when Huaraz was destroyed for the first time—only to be devastated again in 1725. The rate of the inundations has definitely been picking up pace dramatically—14 major incidents are noted to 1950, with 15 just in the half-century since then. Of course, this could be partly due to better record-keeping. The Glaciology Unit has been keeping its own records since its establishment in 1948, in response to the devastation of Huaraz. (It has been under the National Water Authority since the agency’s founding in 2009.) Before ’48, researchers had to rely on historical records.

    Ranrahirca, a village within Yungay province, was actually destroyed twice in the second half of the 20th century—on Jan. 11 1962, and then in the May 1970 deluge that also wiped out the provincial seat. (See Peruvian Times, May 1, 2009; BBC News’ On This Day)  The village has been rebuilt a third time, at a new location. There is a small museum there dedicated to the twin disasters. 

    Engineer Arnaldo Tacsi Palacios says the Glaciology Unit notes 14 lagunas in danger of collapse in the Cordillera Blanca as of 2010, among a total of 830 counted in 2003. A new count is now underway, as new lagunas have been appearing over past 20 years.