Peruvian glacier melt challenges US security

The melting glaciers of Peru have figured in previous Hot Topic posts such as the review of Mark Carey’s book In the Shadow of Melting Glacier and the report from Guardian journalist John Vidal’s Oxfam-sponsored Andean tour. I was therefore interested to come across an article on what the loss of the Peruvian glaciers implies for US national security. Not that the national security of America normally figures on my list of concerns about what climate change is doing to Peru, but I’m happy to add it if it is required to awaken more widespread US awareness of the realities of climate change. The fact that a version of the article appeared in last weekend’s Washington Post was testimony to that potential. US national security concern might also represent Peru’s best chance of getting much-needed assistance in the enormous adaptation measures facing them.


Heather Somerville, the article’s author, is a member of a team of graduate journalist students from Medill School of Journalism who have been investigating the effects of climate change on US national security in various parts of the world.

Said a former CIA Director:

“Think what it would be like if the Andes glaciers were gone and we had millions and millions of hungry and thirsty Southern neighbours. It would not be an easy thing to deal with.”

Somerville summarises the effects already under way in Peru:

“…glacier melt has begun to deplete crops, displace communities, cause widespread drinking water shortages, destabilize hydroelectric power, diminish trade and affect transportation and tourism. The trend is expected to cause regional conflict, economic crises, increased crime, broken infrastructure and food insecurity.”

Without substantial foreign assistance within the next five years the climate change advisor at Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sees the shrinking of the glaciers leading to a social and economic disaster.

If the US does offer assistance it is likely to be bound up with strategic questions.

“[The Obama administration] must decide whether to send money, development assistance and possibly even military help south to an important democratic ally on a continent where Chinese and Iranian influence is growing, and anti-U.S. sentiment permeates certain regimes.

“Other U.S. allies vulnerable to the impacts of climate change will be paying close attention to how the U.S. responds. Peru’s crisis could set a precedent for how the U.S. uses diplomacy, foreign aid and the military to address the climate change threats around the world.”

The State Department is taking an active interest in the impacts of climate change on the region, acknowledging it as a significant threat which the US must come to terms with in respect to the security challenges it poses. Some assistance has been forthcoming from Washington but the article reports frustration from Peruvian officials with what they see as poor coordination among US agencies, US disregard for the importance of global cooperation and an agenda that fails to address the urgent need in Peru.

Somerville makes it clear that the need is urgent. And it is by no means limited to the areas adjacent to the glaciers, serious though it is for them.

“Life on Peru’s coast depends on water from the Andes. Most of its agriculture production is on the arid coast, fed by water from the Andes. Glacier-fed rivers also support the nation’s largest hydroelectric plants, which provide 60 percent of the country’s electricity.

“Lima, the world’s second largest desert city, is almost totally dependent on Andean rivers fed by glacier melt. Water shortages are widespread there, and even worse in communities nearby that can’t compete with the capital for meagre water supplies.”

The Pentagon’s Southern Command (SouthCom), responsible for Latin America, has also been looking at the security aspects of climate change in Peru.  Their environmental security expert comments that there is some way to go to get a complete buy-in from the Department of Defense that this is a core military role, but Somerville comments that SouthCom probably won’t have a choice but to start planning for climate change. One of SouthCom’s primary missions is humanitarian aid and it has a history of being called on for disaster response in Latin America.

Not that Peru is sitting helplessly waiting for outside assistance. Somerville reports that it created a national strategy on climate change in 2003 and in 2008 set up a Ministry of Environment with oversight of climate change programmes. Work is being undertaken in conjunction with the US Agency for International Development and non-profit organisations to build water reservoirs in Andean communities and monitor water flow from the glaciers.

But resources are lacking, and the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is asking Washington and other allies for at least $350 million every year through 2030 for reservoirs to collect runoff, dams to regulate water flow from the Andes and irrigation techniques. Said a spokesperson:

“If we don’t solve our problems … this will become a problem for the United States. When you have a dysfunctional country, you have a problem for the entire region.”

Whether national security concerns will drive significant aid for countries like Peru remains to be seen. But the concerns are clearly making some think seriously about what climate change is doing to the world. I found myself wondering about how this is going down with the climate change deniers so prominent among Republicans in the House. Presumably if climate change is not happening it can’t be posing a security threat to the US.  But what if you’re a politician who professes great concern about national security?  And what if that question comes close to home as it does in some of the other articles in the series to which Somerville’s belongs?  There’s an article on the threat to Houston. Another on the what sea level rise will do to military bases on the US coast. Another on the threat of climate change-related disease in the US as well as other countries.

A day must eventually dawn when denial becomes impossible to maintain even when it is bolstered by wealthy vested interests. If perceived national security threats will help bring about that day, then the more they are pointed out the better.

Tropical ice land: climate change hits Peruvians

It may not be strictly scientific, but anthropological observation like this is invaluable because in the end, people’s interpretation of the events they see around them count as much as or more than any peer-reviewed paper.” Guardian journalist John  Vidal has been with other writers on an Oxfam-guided tour of Peru and Ecuador  to see on the ground how changing weather is affecting human development in the Andes. He’s been blogging as he goes. No doubt there will be longer and more carefully constructed articles to follow, but these reminders that already people are suffering the effects of climate change, often severely, are worth immediate attention. I agree entirely with the quote from Vidal which opens this post, and last year welcomed a number of Oxfam reports which recounted many human stories from frontiers of climate change in Bolivia, Nepal, the Pacific Islands, and elsewhere.


Vidal reports meeting Julio Hanneco, “possibly the world’s greatest potato grower”. He grows 215 varieties of potatoes in the high Andean region of Peru.

“…folk like Julio and their extraordinary diversity of crops are critically endangered by the massive changes they observe taking place in the High Andes. When Julio was a boy, (he’s now in his 50s) a glacier was just two minutes walk from his door. Now it is a nine-hour hike away.”

In Julio’s own words:

“The seasons used to be very clear, we knew when to plant. Now we have less water. We used to get the water from the glacier. Now we have twice as many mosquitoes. We have no light from the glacier. I don’t understand what is going on. We feel very disoriented. I think that I will have no water and that will be the end of the world for us.”

Peru has more than 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers. Vidal reports most in rapid retreat, leaving behind devastated farmers and communities short of water.

In another blog post Vidal reports massive protest in the Espinar region. The Apurimac river “is about to be hijacked”. The Peruvian government has signed a memorandum of agreement with the neighbouring province of Arequipa, to build a giant reservoir from where the water would be used to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation. But it will not benefit the people of Espinar who stand to actually lose the little water they have. The benefit will be exported to rich farmers growing food for export on the Pacific coast.

Vidal’s group found a massive strike under way in the city of Yauri. They spoke with the leader who described it as a climate change strike.

“They are condemning us to a slow death. In the future we know we will have less water. We cannot trust the rainy season any more. Every year the water levels are diminishing. Climate change and global warming indicate in the next years we will have even less. You don’t need to be clever to see climate change is affecting everything here.”

Out in the villages in the hills, whose inhabitants expressed solidarity with the striking townsfolk, the story was the same.

“Here we had snow and ice on all the hills. We don’t any more. All these lands had water but no more. Our grandparents lived very differently to us. It used to rain from October to April, and May, June and July were frosty. We used to use the snow melt water. Now we have nothing. Before we could have 300 to 400 sheep and llamas; now we have 20 to 30 and no more.”

Oxfam and a local NGO partner are working to demonstrate adaptation measures to cope better with the semi-permanent drought which now afflicts the region. There are grounds for hope that these will be effective.  But civil unrest is rife, with numerous ongoing conflicts over water.

Vidal asks “Is this the future everywhere? Have the climate wars begun?”

[Fiery Furnaces]

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.]