Peru's Politicians Deny Crisis as Water Shortage Looms
Story published in An American in Lima, July 24, 2009: link
By Barbara R. Drake
LIMA: Peru’s Minister of the Environment Antonio Brack Egg told international glacier experts and other climate specialists last week that Peru cannot be expected to avert the country’s pending water shortage on its own and that regional and local administrations must bear responsibility.
“When we speak about these subjects (climate change), everything cannot be pinned on the central government,” Brack said on the closing day of the “Adapting to a World without Glaciers” conference, held in Lima and Huaraz July 7-15. The conference was organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Mountain Institute and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Brack criticized the 14-page preliminary report presented by conference leaders, saying its main recommendations are too ambitious in scope and too costly to implement.
“We must aim at two or three things that there are to do, because we often dream that we need larger and larger budgets,” he said, speaking to some of the 100-plus global glacier experts, environmental policy makers and others who had formulated strategies to help Peru cope with the immanent disappearance of its high-altitude glaciers.
“Unfortunately, with this world (financial) crisis and the recent loss of Peru’s exports by 12 percent, we have to put our feet on the ground,” Brack said. “We must agree and prioritize….The theme of climate change is very complex.”
Most of Peru’s glaciers will be gone between 2030 and 2040, experts say. Loss of glacier melt-water threatens Peru’s 30 million inhabitants with catastrophic water shortages and loss of life-sustaining crops
The 12 main recommendations made by conference leaders include determining how much water Peru consumes and has left (both unknown quantities); involving all stakeholders in decision-making about water use; educating local people about climate change; conserving biodiversity; paying indigenous communities for preserving rainforest; and recovering traditional knowledge about coping with rapid climate shifts.
The group’s recommendation to inventory all of Peru’s 2,000 glaciers and to estimate their mass, not just their surface area, struck a raw nerve with the Minister of the Environment:
“It costs US$40 per hectare a day to monitor these sites via satellite,” he said, apparently misinformed. “There are limitations to what we can do.”
Audience members pointed out that this information is freely available from European entities that help monitor Peru’s glaciers.
Ignoring these comments, Brack turned to Marco Zapata, head of the glaciology unit at Peru’s Natural Resources Institute (INRENA), a government agency. “How long has there been a glaciology unit in Peru?” he challenged the Peruvian glaciologist.
“Seventy years,” said Zapata.
“And in that time you have not managed to catalog all the glaciers?” retorted Brack.
A similar combative tone was sounded on the first day of the conference, July 7, at a press conference with Zapata, Ohio State glaciologist Lonnie Thompson and Eduardo Durand, the Ministry’s head of climate change affairs.
Discussing the rapid retreat of Peru’s glaciers, which supply about 80 percent of the country’s water for drinking, agriculture and power generation, Durand insisted that the situation was “not cause for alarm.”
“Yes, we must be on the alert, but it is not an alarm situation,” said Durand. “It is time to act.”
“I think we should be alarmed,” disagreed Thompson. “As a glaciologist watching how fast these glaciers are responding to climate change and having worked for 35 years on Quelccaya ice cap – the situation is very alarming.”
Thompson noted the discrepancy between Peru’s promises to protect the environment and its decision to permit the construction of the TransOceanic Highway, a 3,400-mile-long road through virgin Amazon rainforest that will link the coasts of Brazil and Peru.
“You know what will happen if it succeeds,” he said, referring to environmental impacts such as deforestation, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity.
There is a disconnect between “what I see happening here [in Peru] and the discussion,” Thompson said. “That disturbs me.”