OPINION: What challenges does glacier retreat pose for Peru?
Karen Price Rios, from CARE Peru, responds to the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate with insights on the effects of glacier melt in Peru.
Peru and tropical glacier retreat
It is common in Peru to hear scientists and government officials discuss shocking figures about the rates of tropical glacier retreat, as a result of climate change. The recent special report from The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate reaffirms this situation and reveals how important the glaciers are for our country. The glaciers’ retreat poses challenges to farmers and to the local population of Cordillera Blanca (Editor: the Andean region in northern Peru).
Glacier retreat must also figure in Peru’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – the national climate plans that are submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. These NDCs identify adaptation measures and indicators, which must then be promoted in society at large.
We still know very little, or perhaps more accurately, there is still so much more to understand about the impacts of glacier retreat on the socio-economics, water volumes and infiltration over Peru’s territory. However, the existing information available for Peru and the Andean region is relevant and crucial.
Around 71% of tropical glaciers are found in Peru and glacier retreat here makes up around half of tropical glacier melt. Locally, the rate of retreat varies significantly and is more noticeable in small glaciers (≤1km²) which make up 87% of the 2,679 glaciers in Peru. This information is now being used in national reports to inform policy and law.
Despite the alarming statistics there still remains a significant lack of action on local, district and regional levels. I wonder, ‘What do we need to mobilise local political decision-making?’ and ‘Why is climate change adaptation still not a demand owned by civil society?’
Several hurdles prevent Peruvians from embracing adaptation action on the glaciers’ retreat and its impacts:
Poverty means that the most vulnerable communities in mountainous regions view climate change adaptation as something which pertains to the distant future. In other words, the long term is not prioritised. Thus, adaptation measures need to demonstrate a clear improvement not only for the ecosystem or natural resources, but also for more immediate cash flow and financial opportunities for families. Implementation of integrated adaptation measures, risk reduction, conservation and development should be key components of the strategies that aim to increase resilience in communities.
Misinformation about risks
Misinformation on risks is another important issue. Droughts, floods and landslides that have become more recurrent. However, catastrophic disasters related to glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) are wrongly seen as very unlikely to reoccur. Communication is critical and requires cooperation among scientists, technicians, the media and authorities.
Nevertheless, knowledge of the rate of glacier retreat, the increasing water volume in lakes and GLOF simulations are not enough to ensure that people take action. Consider that a large number of the communities living close to the glaciers are situated where floods have already occurred. It is literally impossible for these communities to leave their homes.
Therefore, early warning systems or sophisticated technologies provide the best option for risk reduction. Joint efforts of an institutional, local and scientific nature are required to achieve this.
Lack of local knowledge about the IPCC and its climate science assessments
While trying to identify the conditions for mobilising action, we must consider the low level of knowledge of and appreciation for national and international scientific authority.
In rural areas, local and regional governments know very little or near to nothing about organisations such as the IPCC.
Some international bodies are familiar with IPCC findings, and these tend mainly to be connected with human rights issues.
Scientific reports are seen as difficult to understand however. In Andean countries, locals are often dependant on opinions from the Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (Interamerican Commission on Human Rights), whose legal statements are also difficult to understand.
It is important that Latin American and local scientists are heard, so that people feel represented. This increases the legitimacy and value of reports.
When the scientific information is linked to a person’s daily life, such as water supply or the possibility of illness and disease, then the science is recognised as valuable because it relates directly to people’s realities. If geared this way, the science is considered as important as economic and policy information.
Lack of trust in the public and private sectors
Another key element is a lack of trust in the state and private sectors. Peru has a long history of corruption and bad practices stemming from misinformation about the conditions and social dynamics in the mountain regions, of inefficient communication and insufficiently participatory processes.
As a result of this, numerous mechanisms and good practices have been developed, from capacity building to empowering local leaders in order to create the conditions for good environmental governance. These measures are much needed to respond to climate challenges.
Communication processes are crucial. Communication will ensure that public officials, researchers, civil society and businesses understand each other, and open spaces for dialogue, planning and intervention on climate change adaptation.
It is evident that the IPCC’s call for immediate action in its Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere fits with the need for action in vulnerable communities due to glacier retreat. Both scientists and the population are speaking the same language and demanding the same thing: urgent action. What lies ahead is the arduous task of influencing the political environment and media that compel authorities to take decisions. Peru has a good opportunity to do this through the development of a National Policy on Glaciers and Mountainous Ecosystems, which is currently in process.
(*) The opinion in the article is based on experiences from the Glaciers+ Project, a climate change adaptation, risk management and water resources management project carried out between 2011 and 2019 in the 3 main mountain ranges in Peru. The project was implemented by CARE Peru and the University of Zurich and was part of the Global Climate Change Programme of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. www.proyectoglaciares.pe
(**) Karen Price Rios. Coordinator of the Nacional Glaciers + Project +. Climate Change, Amazon and Water Resources Programme. CARE Perú. firstname.lastname@example.org
Image: Peru’s Andean region, courtesy International Potato Center.