Conflicts Break Out in the Andes as Glaciers, and Their Water, Disappear

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OxFam International has released a major study confirming that glacial shrinkage is deepening water conflicts in the Andes.

The numbers are stunning. Of the 218 ongoing and sometimes violent conflicts recorded by the People’s Defender of Peru as of February, 48 percent stemmed from environmental issues, many related to “problems with water management.”

The disappearance of glacial water supplies in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia is a growing problem. In the region as a whole, according to the World Bank, many of the glaciers could be entirely gone within 20 years.

OxFam’s new accounting of the social conflicts in Peru should serve as a global warning as events such as the recent evaporation of Bolivia’s Chacaltaya Glacier bring Andean glacial disappearance into extremely sharp relief.

In recent years, Peru’s glaciers have shrunk by over 20 percent, sharply reducing water flow to the country’s coast, where the majority of the population resides.

The loss so far is equivalent to seven billion cubic meters of water, 10 years’ supply for Lima, a city with a population of roughly eight million people. The average amount of water available to those living on the Pacific slopes of the Andes is 2,000 cubic meters annually. Seventy percent of the population is concentrated there.
On the other side, the average water availability is a staggering 291,000 cubic meters annually—a 100:1 ratio

Focusing in on the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, which contains 26 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, researcher Edward Sprang reports that the area covered by glaciers shrunk more than 15 percent in the last half of the 20th century.

The glaciers have an “integral impact on the runoff levels supplying downstream rivers by capturing and storing water as snow in the rainy season and releasing water as melted snow in the dry season," Sprang writes. "As a glacier decreases in size, its ability to provide this service decreases.”

The OxFam study highlights some of the largest ongoing water conflicts in the region.

One is the diversion of water from Lake Choclococha. Previously, it had been used for human consumption. Then a channel was built to divert the lake water, now employed in fields in desert-land in Ica province, growing export crops—asparagus, cotton. The affected communities, some of whom can no longer access this water source, haven’t been compensated.

In the northwest, the Chavimochic and Chinecas irrigation projects have similarly sparked conflicts over water resources. Chavimochic supplies water to around 155,000 hectares, also used primarily for agro-export. Nearly half of that land would be desert without the diverted water.

The report cites the primary reasons for many of the water conflicts as large hydro-projects, including water-transfer systems such as that used in Lake Choclococha; those that involve transferring water management from the state to private corporations, as in the Bolivian Water War; and the search for new sources of water in rural areas.

Compounding the water supply problem is water pollution.

In Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, more than half of the major rivers are contaminated, often by mining operations, oil drilling, fecal mater and the extensive use of chemicals in the regions’ agricultural systems. The Peruvian waterways includes the Chira and Piura rivers in Piura, the Llaucano in Cajamarca, the Santa in Ancash, the Chillón and the Rímac in Lima, the Chili in Arequipa, the Yauli and the Mantaro in Junin, and the Huallaga in Huánuco.

In Puno province, residents trace their problems to mining debris leaching into their water supply. In Condoraque, their alpacas, cattle and sheep have died. The peasant community says mineral tailings—the refuse left over after mining operations have extracted the valuable component of the ore—are polluting their water. They blame Sillustani SA, a local operation. According to Oxfam, there’s been no dialogue.

As a result water contamination, many people across the Andean region don’t have access to potable water, with the rural zones far more severely affected than urban areas. In Peru, 90 percent of city-dwellers can get clean water, compared to 40 percent of campesinos. The statistics are 80 and 30 percent in Ecuador and 60 and 30 percent in Bolivia.

The massive infrastructure investments that will be required to alleviate the problem of glacial shrinkage are expensive and far beyond the means of many in the Andean region.

Proposals have been advanced to divert significant revenue streams to poor countries that can’t afford to pay for their own adaptation strategies. If they’re not implemented, the Peruvian water conflicts will likely be but a taste of what’s to come.