An undated photograph of the Huaytapallana glacier in Peru's Cordillera Blanca mountain range. EFE/Wilmer Sanchez

Rapidly melting glaciers could provoke water crisis in Peru

By Paula Bayarte

An undated photograph of the Huaytapallana glacier in Peru's Cordillera Blanca mountain range. EFE/Wilmer Sanchez

Lima, Mar 23 (EFE).- Dry faucets loom in the near future for rural and urban communities alike in Peru, according to experts, who are now sounding the alarm about the impact of accelerated glacier melt on water supplies.

An undated photograph of the Huaytapallana glacier in Peru's Cordillera Blanca mountain range. EFE/Wilmer Sanchez

“Glaciers provide water to the main cities of the highlands and the coast. As the mass of ice diminishes, the supply of water will be lower (and) the level of the lakes will fall,” expert Wilmer Sanchez told Efe. “And there will also be greater pressure due to a larger population that will require more water resources, but the glaciers will no longer be providing this good.”

Tropical glaciers are constantly melting due to their geographic location, which makes them more sensitive to temperature increases and other climatic changes, he said.

A total of 70 percent of these types of glaciers worldwide are located in Peru, and experts say they are disappearing at an alarming rate: over the past 50 years, Peru has lost 40 percent of its tropical glacier mass.

With the aim of bringing this problem to light and showcasing its numerous environmental effects and the consequences for different communities in the Andean nation, an award-winning film project known as “Chasing Glaciers” was launched in 2018.

Via documentaries filmed in Peruvian mountain ranges, young director Mark Gregory and cinematographer Rodrigo Ramirez show the magic of the country’s pristine white summits but also delve into the causes of their rapid retreat.

“It’s beautiful, majestic, when you’re up there. The glacier seems like a living thing,” Gregory, an American who arrived in Peru to study those giant sheets of ice but quickly understood the true magnitude of the problem, said in an interview with Efe.

“While I was investigating the Huaytapallana glacier (in the central highlands of Peru’s Huancayo province), I saw that it was going to disappear in about 15 years and that there were many glaciers that would disappear over the next 100 (years). I also saw the water problems. I couldn’t show this problem just in a paper that would only stay in the academic community,” he said of the film project.

Working with Ramirez and experts like Sanchez, they scaled summits to show the viewing public that these massive water sources are not eternal and are being degraded by human activity.

“Huaytapallana recharges 30 percent of the communities’ year-round potable water supply. And so in the dry season there’s no water. There are already people who lack access to water for days and have to use bottled water to survive, and this is going to be a reality in a lot of places,” Gregory said.

“Water is a good that many people here are lacking, and we wanted to see how to help in that sense,” Ramirez said, adding that experts need to show the communities how to better capitalize on this resource and that authorities must show greater interest.

Besides water scarcity stemming from rapid glacier melt, there also are quality concerns because the water reaching nearby communities occasionally contains acid rock drainage.

Sanchez explained that glacier melt is exposing rocks that contain different ferrous acids from different heavy metals.

“It flows downstream to cities, farmland … and finally reaches human beings when they eat foods that have been irrigated with this water,” the expert said.

Rapid glacier melt is triggered both by higher global temperatures and by so-called black carbon, which strongly absorbs sunlight and is produced by incomplete fuel combustion and forest fires in the Amazon.

Although black carbon stays in the atmosphere for just a few days or weeks (compared to a century or more in the case of carbon dioxide), it is a major short-term driver of global warming.

Sanchez has spent years studying the impact of these solid particles.

“Once (these particles) are emitted, they … are transported to the upper atmosphere and reach the glaciers,” he said, adding that the research he conducted in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain range showed that glaciers located closer to cities and to greater concentrations of black carbon are melting more quickly. EFE