The Cost of Climate Change: Peru feels the heat of global warming

Arabella Fraser | Update 118. 30 November 2006

As world attention focuses on the latest round of climate change negotiations in Nairobi, a continent away, Peru is already feeling the effects of global warming. Peru has always experienced high variability of climate, but still experts warn that it is unprepared for what might lie ahead. Ranked the third most vulnerable country in the world to climate-induced disasters, Peru's vulnerability is compounded by the dependence of agriculture and fishing on current climatic conditions, poverty and inequality, and environmental degradation.

The starkest illustration of the impact of global warming is the deglaciation currently occurring in the Peruvian Andes. CONAM, the National Environment Agency, estimates that the area of glacial ice in Peru's mountain ranges decreased by 20% between 1970 and 1997. At the current rate of retreat, glaciers under 5500 metres could disappear completely in the next decade. Although the glaciers are sensitive to local climatic conditions, their decline coincides with a period of overall warming in lower atmosphere of the Andean region.

Glacier retreat will have a major impact on water availability in the medium to long-term, with Peru anticipated to become the only South American nation to experience permanent water stress by 2025. Glacial meltwater feeds the major valleys on the Pacific Coast and is critical to water supply in the dry season. Taking the country as a whole, Peru is not short of water. The problem is that where there is water there is little demand, but in the area of greatest demand water is scarce (see Table 1). The vast majority of Peru's population and economic activity is situated on the coast, a desert zone, which makes glacial water all the more critical.

Glacial waters are also crucial to electricity generation through hydro-power. One of the rivers likely to be most affected, Mantaro, generates about 40% of energy used by the country, and drives most of the industrial plants in Lima. Conflicts over water supply in Peru are already evident: a dispute between the states of Arequipa and Moquegua in the Southern Region over use of water from the River Tambo is much-cited in Peru as an example of things to come. In most cases the poorest groups, with least access to clean drinking water facilities and more efficient irrigation technologies, stand to lose the most. Water scarcity and conflict will be exacerbated by water contamination, particularly by the mining industry.

In the short-term, glacial melt poses another danger for mountain communities. With the formation of more glacial lakes, the rise in volume of existing lakes and new areas of exposed moraine where glacial ice used to be, there is a higher risk of avalanches and landslides. Earthquakes can trigger these events - and were the cause of such a catastrophe in 1970 in Yungay, at the foot of Peru's highest mountain peak, in which the entire town was destroyed and 20,000 people killed.

Another major threat to Peru is that of a more frequent and more intense El Niño phenomena. During El Niño warmer ocean surface temperatures cause droughts and floods across the Pacific Ocean region. Although the precise magnitude of the impact cannot be predicted, the historical evidence shows that whereas the phenomena previously arrived every 15-20 years, its frequency has increased to every 4 years.

More intense El Niños hit the Peruvian economy hard. In 1998 it caused damages worth an estimated 4.5% of GDP. Infrastructure on the coast, not designed to withstand heavy rains, was in many places destroyed by floods and landslides. El Niño can also cause either drought or heavy rainfall in the Andes - lost or affected crops amounted to 204,000 hectares in 1997-98. It also brings with it adverse effects on human health. The 1998 episode saw an increase in malaria and cholera cases, with the impact aggravated by the damage to Peru's health infrastructure, estimated at nearly 10% of facilities.

Peru itself scarcely figures in the league table of greenhouse-gas emitters - as Table 2 shows, it contributes 0.1% of the total of world emissions. Of this, its biggest contribution is the result of deforestation. Burning and other means of destruction causes the conversion of carbon stored in living material from forests and in forest soils into carbon dioxide.

The main challenge for Peru, therefore, is being prepared and adapting to new climatic conditions. Better forecasts of El Niño, for instance, are estimated to reduce the damage. However, politically, the government often finds itself overwhelmed by day-to-day issues, while economically, financing adaptation projects is costly. One possiblity, building a tunnel to augment the flow of water to Lima from neighbouring catchments is estimated to require around US$120 million. Another proposal, piping water through the mountains to the coast, would run to far more. There are other solutions that might not always be appropriate for Peru - building reservoirs, for example, is made more difficult by the mountain topography and the risk of earthquakes, although new dams have been constructed. And some proposals to combat a potential energy crisis, such as the installation of gas-fired power plants to replace hydro-electric ones, would in turn augment Peru's greenhouse gas emissions.

Critical to Peru's success in confronting climate change is ensuring that investment in adaptation technologies and infrastructure is equitably distributed. In the agricultural sector, most recent investment has taken place along the coast, but productivity remains low for the country as a whole. The introduction of new seed varieties and better irrigation techniques is a critical programme not only for large, modernised farms, but also for small farmers in the highlands, where rural poverty is most concentrated.


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    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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