Retreat of Once-Mighty Glacier Signals Water Crisis, Mirroring Worldwide Trend

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 29, 2006; A01

 

QUELCCAYA GLACIER, Peru — In the thin, cold air here atop the Andes mountains, the blue ice that has claimed these peaks for thousands of years and loyally fed the streams below is now disappearing rapidly.

Mountain glaciers such as this are in retreat around the Earth, taking with them vast stores of water that grow crops, generate electricity and sustain cities and rural areas.

Farmers here say that over the past two decades they have noticed a dramatic decrease in the amount of ice and snow on their mountaintops. The steady supply of water they need to grow crops has become erratic.

“There is less water now. If there is no water, this land becomes a desert,” said Benedicto Loayza, a 52-year-old farmer, standing under pear trees fed by channels dug on the mountain centuries ago to collect runoff.

Cuzco, a city of 400,000, has already resorted to periodic water rationing and started pumping from a river 15 miles away for its drinking supply. In Peru’s capital, Lima, engineers have urged successive governments to drill a tunnel through the Andes and build big lagoons to ensure that the city’s 8 million residents have water. Citing the expense, authorities have dawdled. Cities in China, India, Nepal and Bolivia also face drastic water shortages as the glaciers shrink.

“You can think of these glaciers as a bank account built over thousands of years,” said Lonnie Thompson, one of the first scientists to sound the alarm, as he stood by the largest ice cap in the Andes. “If you subtract more than you gain, eventually you go bankrupt. That’s what’s in process here.”

Thompson arrived at the blue-white face of the Quelccaya glacier this month after a two-day hike from the nearest road, climbing into the oxygen-thin air of 17,000 feet above sea level. Since he started his annual visits here in 1974, he said, the huge ice cap has shrunk by 30 percent. In the last year, the tongue of the ice has pulled back 100 yards, breakneck speed for a glacier.

He examined it as if it were a sick patient. The mountain of ice was pocked with holes where the surface had melted. A large chunk had broken off in March, crashing into the meltwater lake below and sending a flood wave into alpacas’ lower grazing grounds. The face of the glacier, once frozen so perfectly that Thompson could identify the yearly snowfalls back 1,500 years, now sagged and dripped.

“It’s not just a retreat,” he said. “It’s an accelerating retreat.”

Since Thompson’s first reports, he and others have confirmed a rapid recession of glaciers worldwide. Snows on Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, extolled by Ernest Hemingway as “wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white,” will be gone within 14 years, Thompson estimates. Glaciers in the Alps, the Himalayas and throughout the Andes are also shrinking, he and other researchers have found.

The dramatic rise in carbon dioxide that has accompanied the industrial age has brought a spike in global temperatures. Scientists have found that the jump in temperatures is even greater in the upper atmosphere, where the glaciers reign on silent mountain peaks.

Glaciers store an estimated 70 percent of the world’s fresh water. Water that falls as snow moves through the slowly churning ice and may emerge from the glacier’s edge thousands of years later as meltwater. Humans have long depended on the gradual and faithful runoff.

The melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, which feed seven great Asian rivers, will bring “massive eco and environmental problems for people in western China, Nepal and northern India,” a World Wildlife Fund report concluded last year.

“The repercussions of this are very scary,” agreed Tim Barnett, a climate scientist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. “When the glaciers are gone, they are gone. What does a place like Lima do? Or, in northwest China, there are 300 million people relying on snowmelt for water supply. There’s no way to replace it until the next ice age.”

At least three times a day, Eva Rondon, 38, walks the 18 worn steps carved out of the hillside of a shantytown on the far outskirts of Lima. She carries a plastic bucket to an old Shell Oil barrel with a rusty top and lid fashioned out of a few boards nailed together. She has paid a private water trucker to fill the barrel with water — the only source for her family and neighbors — and even that water is often dirty.

An estimated 2 million of Lima’s 8 million people have no water service. Some live decades without it, buying water at as much as 30 times the price per gallon paid by customers whose homes are connected to the government-owned water utility. They are organizing to demand service from a government they say is corrupt and uncaring. But they have no doubt who will be deprived if the melting glaciers make Lima’s water even scarcer.

“The poor will suffer. Our children will suffer,” said Adolfo Peña, the local representative of the grass-roots political movement Peruvians Without Water. “Lima is built on a desert, and in 20 years, there’s not going to be water.”

If every home were connected to the utility system, there would not be enough water to pump through the pipes, said Romolo Carhuaz. He is the engineer for Sedapal, the capital’s public water company, and is in charge of monitoring the reservoirs that feed Lima its water.

Each week, Carhuaz puts on a baseball cap, grabs an oxygen bottle and drives out of Lima up a jolting dirt road into the Andes mountains. He negotiates past bulls, llamas and fierce sheepdogs on his 13-hour circuit, finally grinding to a halt at a mountain plateau where cactuses bake in the cold sun. There, at 15,000 feet, lies a series of brilliant blue lagoons filled by rainwater and glacial runoff from the peaks above. Both sources, the historic lifelines for arid Lima, are now fickle, he said.

“Look at those mountains,” Carhuaz said, gesturing to the rocky heights that tower over his reservoirs. White patches of snow and ice cling to some of the higher crevices. “They used to be covered with glaciers to halfway down the mountains 20 years ago.”

“We call that Cat’s Eye,” he said, pointing out one small circle of ice left on a mountain. “It used to be huge.”

Carhuaz blames the changing weather. He said average temperatures here have risen significantly in little over a decade. What used to fall as snow, adding to the glaciers, now comes as rain. And that rainfall is erratic, he said.

The changing rainfall and shrinking glaciers have also alarmed the companies that operate Peru’s hydroelectric plants, which supply most of the country’s electricity. “What we have seen in the past three years is a pattern that is quite different from the 40-year average,” said Mark Hoffmann, the head of ElectroAndes, a private power company. “The historical data is not particularly useful in projecting anymore. We are hoping it’s a blip.”

Uncertain of the water supply, electric companies are building plants to generate power by using natural gas, relying on a new gas field discovered in southern Peru and government controls on prices.

“The ‘wise men’ believe natural gas is going to be the solution. They are clearly wrong,” said Guillermo Romero, an official of Electroperu, which operates the two largest hydroelectric plants in the country. Natural gas eventually will run out, he said — sooner rather than later if the government builds a liquefied natural gas port to export the gas. He expressed hope that the recently elected government would return its attention to building reservoirs and hydro plants.

“The problem isn’t with us. It’s with the government,” he said.

The government has put off projects to relieve Lima’s looming water deficit. Such large initiatives are expensive for a poor country, and some plans — including the one to drill a tunnel through the Andes — carry risks in this earthquake-prone region. In 1970, an earthquake shook loose a wall of ice and rock from the Huascaran mountain in the Andes north of Lima, burying the town of Yungay and killing tens of thousands of people.

Politicians find the scientists’ broader warnings easy to ignore amid the more immediate water problems posed by burgeoning populations, increased agricultural development and contamination of water sources by mines. Some authorities acknowledge the looming crisis; others deny it.

At the local power company in Cuzco, “we are conscious that it will affect us a lot,” said Mario Ortiz, a top director. But Ortiz acknowledged the company does not really know how much of its main source, the Vilcanota River, originates from glaciers. What would it mean in the dry season if the glacier is not there? Ortiz simply looks down at his desk and shakes his head.

“We’re like firefighters. We only move when there is a fire,” he said sadly.

The warming climate is causing other effects. In the Andes mountains north of Lima, Hugo Osoria, 32, used to work as an “ice fetcher,” walking two hours from his village of Paria to cut off a chunk of glacier ice, haul it down and take a short minibus ride to the city of Huaraz to sell it. But the glaciers have retreated so much, the longer walk each way is no longer worth it. Osoria noticed changes in the local crops — potatoes were not growing well, and worms not seen in the area before were attacking corn. So he experimented by growing flowers that were also new to village. His wife puts them in a wheelbarrow to sell them at hotels and markets in Huaraz.

“Only a few of us are trying to take advantage of the changes and make it positive,” he said. For most, the climate change portends hardship.

“We are in a real critical situation,” said Vincente Velasquez, 42, who grows potatoes in an area near Cuzco that the Incas called the “sacred valley” because it was so fertile. “We are talking about the melting glaciers, but we don’t know what to believe. If the glaciers go away, people will think it’s God’s punishment.”

Loayza, the 52-year-old farmer who grows fruit trees and rosemary on his land north of Cuzco, said he and his neighbors often discuss the bleak future.

“Everyone in the valley is worried about the melting ice,” he said, standing in his fields, now thriving with winter sun and irrigation. “Without water, how can you work? How can you live?”

Correspondent Monte Reel in Buenos Aires, special correspondent Lucien O. Chauvin in Lima and researcher Natalia Alexandrova in Toronto contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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Doug Struck has been a journalist for 35 years. He was a national roving reporter, foreign bureau chief, war correspondent and an environmental reporter for The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. He has reported from six continents and 50 states. He is now senior journalist in residence at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches and continues to report on environmental issues.

He earned a master's degree in Environmental Sustainability in 2015 from Harvard Extension School.

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