in the Andes
Climate change in Peru’s Andes turns lagoons into deadly traps
by Sandra Weiss
Peru itself generates few greenhouse gases, but is one of the countries most affected by climate change. Warming has transformed glaciers into lagoons that can burst their banks at any time and devastate the villages below. With Swiss assistance, the Andean village of Carhuaz has installed an early warning system. But high tech in the Andes is not without its pitfalls.
"The mayors prefer to construct stadiums and squares because that is how they win votes."
It happened on a sunny Easter Sunday in April: "We were just about to decorate the church in the village centre," recalls Antonio Pariona. Easter is one of the most important festivals in the villages of the Peruvian Andes. "The cries echoed from the top of the mountain. They spread like wildfire: Water, Water! Many people ran frantically around the area, others prayed and waited for the catastrophe. It was pure chaos." the journalist says. Stones and mud fell from the mountain; the avalanche took down houses, bridges and a trout farm. The moment has engraved itself deeply in Pariona's memory. In 2010, it was the first climate catastrophe for the small town of 11,000 inhabitants in the central Andes of Peru. 22 kilometres above, on the glacier of Lagoon 513, a block of ice the size of an apartment building had detached itself due to the greenhouse effect. It had plunged into the emerald green water and triggered a tidal wave almost 30 metres high, which spilled over the stone wall on the shore into the valley. Miraculously, no one was killed. But for weeks there was no electricity and no drinking water. The villagers were paralysed in shock. The mountain with which they had lived in harmony for so long had suddenly become a threat.
About 70% of all tropical glaciers are located in Peru. According to biologist Alejo Cochachi from the glacier unit of the National Water Authority, almost half of them have melted completely or partially in the past four decades. This creates "dangerous lagoons", such as the one above Carhuaz, where the glacier has lost 18% of its expanse in ten years. The scientist has counted twelve critical lagoons in this so-called ‘white Kordillere’ in central Peru alone. One of them lies above the provincial capital Huaraz, which has a population of 100,000.
The region is also considered earthquake prone. The lagoons are a time bomb ticking ever faster as a result of climate change. Prevention is necessary, but politicians have other priorities admits Deputy Environment Minister Gonzalo Llosa - and hides behind the argument that his ministry has neither the money nor the administrative responsibility for it.
"If science, politics and citizens work together, we can at least reduce the impact of climate change“.
„The mayors prefer to construct stadiums and squares because that is how they win votes.“They only become interested in the environment after the disaster has happened.“
Not so in Carhuaz.
There, after the initial shock, the population pulled themselves together and put pressure on the mayor. Supported by glacier specialists from the University of Zurich, Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC-Cosude) and the Care Aid Organisation, risk areas were identified and an early warning system set up. The headquarters are located in the town hall, in a tiny room next to the office of Luis Meza, the civil protection officer.
It consists of a few maps, telephones and a PC on whose monitor Meza can see and, above all, hear the lagoon in real time. If a large piece of glacier breaks off, a warning message appears on the screen. "Then each of us knows what to do", Meza says at his desk with a view of the snow-covered peaks of the Andes: the population is alerted by whistles and church bells. Up to now, there has been no money in the community budget for warning sirens. Maps showing the evacuation routes are hung in strategic places like the town hall square, schools and the market, but almost no one in Carhuaz needs them anymore. Civil protection drills are held five times a year.
The primary school ‘Esther La Rosa Sánchez’, lies in a ‘red zone’ and is therefore particularly vulnerable to landslides. It was partially destroyed in the 2010 accident, but because it was Sunday, there were no victims. "Afterwards, the parents were worried and we teachers did not have an answer as to how we could save the children in an emergency", remembers school director Irma Caque.
Nowadays, she knows exactly how and likes to demonstrate it: she knocks two tin cans together - the agreed signal - and the children immediately run in groups of two to the schoolyard and from there up the hill. "In 13 minutes we'll be in a safe place on the hill," says Caque. The 43 pupils proudly demonstrate their knowledge about climate change and its dangers. They are the ones who pass the knowledge on to their parents.
At the foot of Lagoon 513, at an altitude of 4431 metres, an icy wind blows shreds of clouds in front of it. Depending on the reflection of light, the almost round lagoon shines ice grey, dark blue or milky turquoise. Up here, between 2013 and 2014, geographers from the University of Zurich installed solar-powered sensors and video cameras. If a lump of ice falls into the lagoon, the alarm bells will ring at the civil defense in the town hall. There is enough time to warn the population via the loudspeakers installed in the municipality and to evacuate the village.
“The disaster control in Carhuaz is a model for the whole of Peru," praises Vice Minister Llosa. "But it is expensive." The relief agencies have spent US$ 370,000 on it - more than the annual budget of many Andean villages. After all, it is not only about disaster prevention, but also about modern water management. Not only is the lagoon constantly monitored, but also the amount of water flowing into the valley. With this information, the water committees of the surrounding communities draw up a management plan. This is because climate change is disrupting the normal rainfall cycle, and in some months rainfall drops dramatically - which is a tragedy for the mountain farmers and has already led to the first conflicts between communities. The Care Aid Organization is responsible for educating and involving the communities. It is not an easy task. Glaciers, mountain peaks and lagoons are mythical creatures for the indigenous communities of the highlands - animated with magical powers and the wisdom of their ancestors. Before any intervention, "Pachamama" must be asked for permission.
The incident has prompted lengthy debates in Swiss development aid on how to prevent such intercultural misunderstandings in the future.
„If science, politics and citizens work together, we can mitigate the consequences of climate change," sums up the coordinator of the glacier project, César Gonzalo. But this is precisely what proved to be a stumbling block in the climate project in the Andes. The problems began with the local elections in 2015, with the opposition candidate Jesús Caballero winning in Carhuaz. As is customary in Peru, he dismissed the entire city hall staff of his predecessor - including the experts trained for monitoring. Although he could make little direct profit from the project himself, he let himself be convinced of its benefits and kept it going. Then, a few months after he took office, the cameras were stolen - a report went nowhere. But that was by no means the end of his run of mishaps.
When an unusually severe drought hit the area in the middle of the rainy season in the autumn of 2016, a rumour spread among the residents, nourished by a deep-seated distrust of everything the ’whites’ bring with them: The plant had been financed by the nearby mines. The antennae drove the rain away so that agriculture in Carhuaz would perish and a search for mineral resources could be conducted here too, it was said.
When there was still no rain in November, it became too much for the farmers. They organised a march and forced the mayor to climb up to Lagoon 513 with them. At a crisis meeting they asked him to dismantle the apparatus at least for a while and see if it rained then. Caballero said he tried to dissuade the farmers from their plan, but his argumentation did not succeed. The antennas were dismantled the same morning and stored in the town hall. A few days later it began to rain. Caballero sees no chance of rebuilding the early warning system during his term of office.
The incident has prompted lengthy debates in Swiss development aid on how to prevent such intercultural misunderstandings in the future. The cooperation with Carhuaz has been terminated.
The journalist excursion was organised by Care and Deza-Cosude