South America threatened by fast glacier thaw
By Fabiano Ávila, from Carbono Brasil*
South America’s glaciers are melting at an increasing rate, a very worrying phenomenon for countries like Peru, which depend on the glaciers for their water supply. The thaw may result in millions of climate refugees, potentially destabilising the whole continent.
Peru is home to seventy percent of the world’s tropical zone glaciers, which are vital for the water supply and even climate, of many countries. The global rise in temperatures, however, is causing the glaciers to melt at a much faster rate than previously predicted by scientists. There is an increasing risk that entire glaciers will cease to exist within the next ten years.
If this scenario occurs, the world may witness a great economic and social crisis, one that could destabilise the whole of South America, creating conflict amongst its countries.
“Imagine what could happen if the Andean glaciers disappear and millions of hungry people have to migrate to other regions”, explains former director of the CIA, James Woolsey to the Washington Post.
The Peruvian government has been collecting data for the past 40 years which show the impact of the thaw on agriculture and on the way of life of people who live in the areas close to the glaciers.
“I used to walk for about two hours to reach the glacier. Nowadays you have to walk five, six hours to get to it. This is where we get all of our water from. If it disappears we simply won’t have any water to drink” says Maximo Juan Malpaso Carranza, a farmer from the Andean community of Utupampa.
More than two million Peruvians depend directly on water collected in the Cordillera Blanca (White Mountain Range) (pictured). Research shows that these mountains have already lost 30 percent of their glaciers since 1970.
Peru’s government admits that they need help in dealing with this situation, be it through the construction of dams and reservoirs, or through investment in agricultural production
“If Peru and its allies don’t come up with projects to conserve water and control the thaw in the next five years, the melting of the glaciers may lead to an economic and social catastrophe”, says Alberto Hart, the climate change adviser for Peru’s foreign office. In an attempt to avoid this scenario, Peru’s government is trying to obtain annual funding of US$350 million from the international community.
Last year, Peru was donated US$30 million by the US to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, most of the money ended up being allocated to forestry projects. The World Bank has been working with Peru to monitor the supply of water and to implement changes in the farming system. Japan, Australia and Switzerland have also offered their help. But the melting won’t just affect Peru; it will have direct consequences for Bolivia and Ecuador, whose cities already suffer from flash floods and droughts. The rivers that form the Amazon River Basin will also be affected since they originate in the glaciers.
The full impact of the thaw is still not very clear and many more studies need to be carried out by South American governments. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) identifies South America as one of the areas most vulnerable to climate change. As well as the thaw of the Andes, practically all the continent’s coastal regions are subject to dangeroius storms and flooding. These severe weather phenomena put millions of lives at risk, mainly due to the population density and the disorderly occupation of the cities.
*This article was translated from the Portuguese by Marianne Arake