In October 2011, while I was conducting ethnographic research on water and climate change in southern Peru’s Colca Valley, I was invited to join the villagers of Pinchollo on a hike up to the point at the foot of a glacier where meltwater starts flowing down towards the village. There, we offered a gift to the mountain lord Hualca Hualca, whom they regard as a living and powerful being. The gift contained dried alpaca fetuses, llama fat, maize, coca leaves, sweets, fruit, flowers, wine and chicha, a kind of maize beer. As the leader of the village irrigation group presented these gifts, he asked Hualca Hualca to not forget the people, to give them more water and to protect the village. At that moment, a large chunk of ice fell down. The villagers understood this to mean that Hualca Hualca was pleased with the gift and was saying to them, ‘Look, here is the water!’
Rising 6,025 meters above sea level in the southern Peruvian Andes, Mount Hualca Hualca provides several villages in the Colca Valley with glacial meltwater for irrigation and human consumption. In the village of Pinchollo, about sixty percent of the fields are irrigated with water from Hualca Hualca. During the last couple of decades, however, villagers have been increasingly noticing glacial shrinkage and decreasing water levels in the springs, which are fed by rainwater and meltwater.
Several mountain springs have dried up completely during the last few years. Local people are starting to blame global warming, as they frame water scarcity in new narratives that are promoted by national and international NGOs and governmental agencies. Moreover, though water is scarcer, the flow of the meltwater is stronger when it does occur, destroying the canals and eroding the soil. Hence, the water flows downvalley rather than being used for irrigation. The villagers are concerned that the water will be wasted as it flows down into the Pacific Ocean. One of the elderly peasant farmers in Pinchollo expressed his concern about Hualca Hualca in this way:
“In August and September there is a strong flow that starts in the glacier, it is the meltwater. The white snow can no longer be seen after September. There is less ice than before. […] If the glacier disappears, there is no life anymore; there is no village anymore. The mountain supports us. Who will contain the thaw? Earlier the snow of Hualca Hualca reached the foot of the mountain. Now there is little snow.”
Living with the highly unpredictable weather in the semi-arid Andean mountain environment, the peasant farmers are dependent on water and the administration of it, including modern institutions of water management as well as various other-than-human beings like the mountain lord to whom we made an offering.
Today, global warming produces effects on temperature, precipitation, seasonality, glacier retreat and water supply. The dwindling resources lead to new uncertainties about the future. Peru contains seventy percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, which are the most visible indicators of climate change due to their sensitivity to increased temperatures and the visibility of their shrinkage. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there has been a 22 percent reduction of the total glacier area in Peru during the last 35 years, and a reduction of up to 80 percent of glacier surface from very small glaciers the last 30 years.
For the peasant farmers in Colca Valley, climate change is not something that may happen in the future but is an immediate, lived reality that they struggle to apprehend, negotiate, and respond to. The valley is a poverty-stricken area where a peasant family might lose everything in case of a failed harvest: without savings and insurance they would be dependent on government relief, help from the community, expensive credit loans, or alternative income-strategies to make ends meet.
This challenge is the main concern in the article “Climate Change, Water Practices, and Relational Worlds in the Andes”, published online in Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology. The article argues that ethnography can contribute to disrupt the boundaries that might separate ecological and political dynamics by focusing on how nature and water are practiced in different, but overlapping ways in Colca Valley.
Researchers, activists, and politicians all over the world agree that situations like this one necessitates urgent ecological and political action. What is not necessarily agreed upon, however, are which entities this action should relate to, and which outcomes it could lead to? Ultimately, this divergence is about what kind of world – or worlds – we live in.
This guest post was written by Astrid B. Stensrud, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo’s Department of Social Anthropology. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or @glacierhub on Twitter.