In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers


Adapting to climate change is a complex matter for human communities, as Mark Carey makes abundantly clear in his newly published book In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society. Carey is a historian and explores nearly sixty years of disaster response in Peru since the beginning of his story in 1941 when an outburst flood from a glacier lake in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range sent a massive wave of destruction on the city of Huarez, obliterating a third of the city and killing an estimated 5000 people.

There have been further disasters since that one.  Peruvians have, Carey points out, suffered the wrath of melting glaciers like no other society on earth.  Further outburst floods followed in 1945 and 1950, and glacier avalanches in 1962 and 1970 (the latter following an earthquake) killed many thousands.

The Huarez disaster prompted three national government strategies to protect the population from the hazards that the outburst flood had revealed: drain glacial lakes, prohibit urban reconstruction in the flood plain, and build retaining walls in Huarez to contain the glacier-fed Quilcay River. It all sounds quite rational. But only the first was able to proceed. Class and race issues, as Carey sees it, prevailed to counter the plans for hazard zoning and retaining walls. Huarez’s upper and middle classes wished to reconstruct the city in order to re-create the physical characteristics that helped symbolize urban authority and social standing in relation to the rural indigenous population. The socioeconomic order disrupted by the flood was to be restored.  Resistance to hazard zoning and relocation was not confined to Huarez but also occurred in other communities subsequently affected by disastrous outburst floods or glacier avalanches. One local writer reflecting on the triumph of “human will” which led to rebuilding in the same places of destruction concluded: “…[T]hey will be there forever, suffering. stoic, crying through their destiny. And that is the beauty of it, the poetry, the immortality of a people.” Defiant stuff, and part of the complexity Carey’s book explores.

But though people may have been unwilling to move from where they lived, they certainly supported the draining of glacial lakes and other measures to protect them from further disasters. Not that such measures are simple. Peru struggled to get a picture of the extent of the threat from glacial lakes in the Cordillera Blanca.  Indeed it was not until 1953 that an inventory of how many such lakes there were was finally achieved. There were 223. Today there are more than 400. It’s a growing problem. Once identified, lakes need to be assessed for the danger they pose. This is no easy matter. Accessibility is difficult.  The moraines behind which the lakes build vary greatly in their capacity to retain increasing volumes of meltwater. The incline of the glacier and the likelihood of large falls of ice causing large waves has to be taken into account. When drainage is undertaken the logistics of the operation can be daunting for both machinery and manpower.  Carey describes some of the on-site work as well as the difficulties at the national level of offices trying to carry out the task with limited resources and varying levels of support from successive governments.

Hydroelectricity is a complicating factor in the situation. The Santa River flows north through the valley parallel to the Cordillera Blanca. When it turns west and descends steeply to the coastal plain it feeds the large Cañón del Pato hydro-electric facility. The power station was itself the victim of the 1950 outburst flood, which destroyed it when it was nearing completion. It was the flood’s devastation of this facility and of the Chimbote-Huallanca railway line which transformed the piecemeal disaster prevention measures of the 1940s into the more effective and far-reaching response of a new government agency, the Lakes Commission. Carey notes that it was the setback to national industrialisation plans in 1950 rather than the deaths of thousands in the 1940s which led to this much better resourced body. The hydro-electric power station was rebuilt and, following privatisation in 1996 under Fujimori’s neoliberal progammes, is now owned by Duke Energy. Its generating capacity has increased considerably with successive upgrading.

Glaciers are not only hazards but also resources and Carey records a shift in emphasis after the 1980s from the hazard focus to the measurement and management of glaciers as hydrological resources, particularly for electricity generation and for irrigation. He notes that the information gathered has been of benefit to Duke Energy, a private company based in the US and responsible to shareholders rather than the Peruvian public. Duke Energy has been involved in attempts to retain glacial lake waters as reservoirs for regulating the flow of the Santa River and has encountered considerable local resistance. While glacier retreat has enabled expansion of water use in the region, this is a trend which is likely to change if the glaciers continue to diminish.

Hazards haven’t gone away because of the focus on resource, but the neoliberal agenda of the 1990s brought a severe reduction in the public funding of disaster prevention programmes. Neoliberalism exacerbated vulnerability to natural hazards, and although the state disaster prevention agency reopened in 2001 it never regained the status, budget and support it had in previous periods. Carey is even-handed in his treatment of neoliberalism, but sees it as a theory which collided with historical reality. Some of that reality is manifest in the local resistance which has prevented Duke Energy from managing the waterscape uncontested.

Throughout the book Carey devotes much attention to the ways in which various groups in Peruvian society and the relationships between them have played a part in forming the country’s response to melting glaciers. Many interests have had to be — sometimes have insisted on being — consulted and taken into account. Socio-economic divisions have played a part. Increasing international interest has become part of the interaction. Carey the historian has brought a valuable insight into the way a society functions or malfunctions in facing up to the impacts of climate change. He emphasises the need for understanding social relations and power dynamics at the same time as deciphering how much water will flow from a glacier in fifteen years’ time.

As Carey recognises, the acceleration of glacier melt is an issue not just for Peru but worldwide. Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Nepal, India, Russia, Switzerland, the US and scores of other countries have populations which live near or depend on water from melting mountain glaciers. If there is a message to others from the Peruvian experience it is that disaster mitigation is a political and social process as much as it is a matter of science and engineering. Social conflicts, for example, may be more urgent to people than the potential floods or even water-shortage issues that experts see as the most pressing. It’s not only technical and scientific skills that will be needed but also a sense of social relations and of the perceptions of the populations affected.

As history Casey’s book is an engrossing read. What he recounts hardly leaves one sanguine about the ability of societies to navigate the adaptation requirements ahead as climate change begins to bite, but it offers some useful signposts.

[More at: Fishpond (NZ), (US), Book Depository (UK)]

No Rain in the Amazon

U.S. writer Nikolas Kozloff aims to give a voice to the peoples of the Global South in his new book No Rain in the Amazon. At the same time, as indicated by the sub-title How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, he warns that what happens in the Amazon affects us all, wherever we live.

In this book the South is mainly Peru and Brazil. For the purposes of the book Kozloff traveled throughout the two countries, speaking with government officials, experts, environmentalists, and indigenous peoples. A specialist in Latin American affairs, Kozloff is not a scientist but is well acquainted with current climate science.

He has a lot to tell as he develops his major themes. Among them: climate change is already being experienced in the region and taking effect on poorer people’s lives; it poses further threats for them in the future; the Amazon forests are threatened by climate change, particularly drought; they are also severely threatened by the deforestation caused by humans; loss of Amazon forest is global in its impact because of the vital part it plays in the global environment; the Global North is complicit in deforestation and must help stop it.

In Peru the melting of glaciers carries serious implications on many levels, from  irrigation for farming and water for pack animals through to the long term threat to the water supply to Lima, a city of 7 million built on a desert.  Unpredictable and testing weather patterns are emerging in some regions. The Andean cloud forests, which carry out a vital hydrological function as well as maintaining extraordinary biodiversity, are under threat from climatic change as clouds condense at higher altitudes. Kozloff considers the drastic effects of El Nino events on Peru, including outbreaks of cholera and dengue, and points to the IPCC expectation that El Nino-like conditions are expected to become more frequent with continued global warming.

Kozloff doesn’t constantly enter scientific caveats when assigning the effects of climate change on the lives of poorer people. It’s reasonable that he doesn’t: the cumulative picture is strong, and he’s not arguing the scientific case but giving a voice to people whose plight is being ignored. He comments on the extreme inequalities whereby, in general, the people who are most at risk from global warming live in the nations that have contributed the least to the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. They also, like Peru, tend to be among the poorest and hence ill-equipped to deal with the changes they are facing.

Turning to the Amazon Kozloff points out that it contains about one-tenth of the total carbon stored in land eco-systems and recycles a large fraction of its rainfall. Drawing on the expertise of much-cited Brazilian scientist Philip Fearnside he explains how El Nino-driven drought is threatening the forest. The warming of sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic may also be linked to Amazonian droughts. Climate change is responsible for these enhanced threats. And of course the effects are not just local. Tropical rainforest literally drives world weather systems. The billions of dollars needing to be provided by the rich nations to tropical countries to sustain forests are an important and necessary insurance policy.

But the Amazon is threatened by more than climate change.  Deforestation as a result of human activity is the focus of a major section of the book.  Kozloff sets the scene for his survey by pointing out that the relentless slashing and burning of tropical forests is now second only to the energy sector globally as a source of greenhouse gases.  Powerful political and economic forces within Brazil are pushing deforestation, but the Global North is complicit  in the destruction. The affluent nations, acting through large financial institutions, fund destructive tropical industries and buy up the tropical commodities that are hastening the day of our climate reckoning.

The cattle industry accounts for 60 to 70 percent of deforestation in the Amazon. Kozloff recounts some of the brutal realities of ranching and its “insidious alliance” with politicians. Land ownership is often unclear and plagued by corruption. Poor workers can labour in conditions amounting to virtual slavery.  An activist like Sister Dorothy Strang who worked on behalf of landless farmers and advocated for sustainable development projects was eventually simply assassinated. She was an “agitator” who had only herself to blame for her death, said a local cattle ranchers’ leader.  The Brazilian state seems hopelessly compromised by powerful agricultural interests and finds it hard to police the Amazon and control deforestation. But financial institutions in the Global North, like the World Bank, provide key investment backing to the ranching explosion. Northern companies purchase leather, beef and other products and consumers buy them. Blame is shared.

The depressing news doesn’t end with cattle. Kozloff moves on to soy and its reach into the Amazon and the Brazilian cerrado, which covers one-fifth of the country and is the world’s most biologically rich savannah.  Soy monoculture liberates carbon from the soil of the cerrado and its advance also displaces cattle farming into new forest development.

Kozloff acknowledges that there are problems with the Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation progamme (REDD), not helped by the blocking by the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand of moves to incorporate protections for indigenous peoples into the programme. But he sees it as “the only game in town right now that makes preserving forests more economically valuable than cutting them down”. Which is the nub of the matter.

Kozloff is not impressed by the “clean energy” initiatives being pursued in Brazil, hydro-electric dams for electricity and biofuels from sugar cane for transport. Apart from the population displacement and road building associated with dam-building, the dams in forest areas lead to vast emissions of methane from the decaying vegetation.  Ethanol from sugar cane has been one of Brazil’s apparent success stories, but it involves destruction of the coastal Atlantic rainforest, one of the world’s top five biological hotspots. The nasty hell of debt-slavery operates in many sugar cane plantations. American agribusiness giants are now rushing to set up shop in Brazil to help greatly expand the industry. Much of the growth may be outside the rainforest, as officials claim, but it is planned to be within the cerrado.

If the Global North wants to avert yet further climate change, Kozloff says, it needs to get serious about the transfer of truly green technologies, particularly wind, solar, and waves. He points to the need for a “Manhattan Project” scale development of alternative clean energies, and the sharing of the new technologies with tropical nations such as Brazil. There’s little sign of such transfer taking place.  Indeed before Copenhagen the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to ensure that the negotiations would not “weaken” US intellectual property rights on wind, solar, and other green technologies.

Full of interesting accounts though it is, the book is hardly a cheering read. Not because nothing can be done for Peru and Brazil by way of mitigation and adaptation but because it is by no means clear that the Global North is ready and willing to provide the necessary assistance. Nevertheless Kozloff presses the case for action convincingly.

Note: There’s a Democracy Now interview with Nikolas Kozloff relating to his book here on YouTube. (It’s in two parts.)

[Buy through: Fishpond,, Book Depository.]

A sustainable energy future for NZ (without all the hot air)

This is a guest post by Phil Scadden, a regular commenter at Hot Topic (bio at the end of the post). Phil’s interested in energy issues, and has spent a considerable amount of his personal time developing an overview of New Zealand’s energy issues, inspired by the approach used by Cambridge physicist David MacKay in his recent book Sustainable Energy – without all the hot air. I’m very pleased to say that Phil is making his work available via Hot Topic (PDF here), because the perspective he brings provides a starting point for the strategic energy debate we need to be having. Over to Phil:

Sustainable Energy – without all the hot air by Cambridge physicist David MacKay is an excellent and highly readable book of numbers about the questions associated with sustainable energy (available as a free download at As an advocate of sustainable energy, he describes himself as “pro-arithmetic” rather than a campaigner for one type of energy production over another, which is surely what informed debate needs. Rather than dealing with daunting numbers, he reduces energy calculations to units of kWh/person/day. 1kWh is the unit we pay for in our electricity bills — the energy used by one bar heater switched on for one hour. If you want to prioritise savings then you need to read this book. Turning off a cell phone charger when not in use for a year saves the energy found in one hot bath. “If everyone does a little, then we will achieve only a little”.

The majority of MacKay’s calculations are done for the UK, and I was interested in a New Zealand perspective. To this end, I have used a similar approach to look at two questions.

  • Can New Zealand maintain its current per capita energy consumption without fossil fuels and, in particular, can we live on renewable energy sources alone?
  • How can we achieve a BIG reduction in our personal and national energy consumption, in order to reduce our power requirements?

The detailed document (about 20 pages) can be downloaded here, but this is a quick overview.

Currently 30% of NZ’s energy comes from renewable generation. My calculations (based mainly on 2007 data) show that NZ has the potential to increase this to nearly 100% over the next few decades, thus eliminating fossil fuel use, while still maintaining our current per capita energy consumption (assuming no significant population growth). We could do this initially with new hydro, geothermal and wind generation, while large-scale solar and marine technologies are promising options for the future. Biofuels are feasible but only at the expense of considerable agricultural intensification.

Continue reading “A sustainable energy future for NZ (without all the hot air)”