Peru Faces Tensions Over Water

Pastoruri, Peru. Image by Taco Witte/Flickr
Pastoruri, Peru. Image by Taco Witte/Flickr

Peru will face a “new normal” as greater agricultural and energy demands, population growth and climate change chip away at what is left of its glaciers, according to a recent article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs. Glacial retreat could ultimately lead to conflict in the country, the author found.

“Peru offers an early view of the challenges mountainous regions worldwide may face in coming decades,” wrote Peter Oesterling, the author. “The country—if successful—may also provide the world a model for effective policies to mitigate threats to environmental and human security.”

For people in Peru, glaciers are the essence of their existence. Most people live on the west coast, an arid region, and rely on glacier meltwater for day to day use, crops, hydroelectric power and mining. But since the early 1980’s, Peru’s glaciers have shrunk by more than 22 percent. Further loss could lead to increased risk of flooding and water scarcity as well. Already, seven out of nine watersheds in the Cordillera Blanca are already past “peak water,” meaning that the glaciers have passed the upper limit of melt water they can release.

At the same time, water demand in Peru is on the rise as water security dwindles. The population is projected to grow by 35 million by 2020, which will put pressure on the country’s existing land and water resources. Millions of households rely on the  Cañon del Pato hydropower plant on the Rio Santa, but as water availability declines, the plant could lose 40 percent of its power generating capability.

The country’s mining industry also consumes a great deal of water. Eleven percent of Peru’s land is being mined for minerals. In addition to using water for mineral extraction, mining releases contaminated water back into the watershed.

View to Tocllaraju Summit, 6036m. Photo by Twiga269/Flickr
View to Tocllaraju Summit, 6036m. Photo by Twiga269/Flickr

“Peru’s trends in water use and supply are incompatible,” wrote Oesterling. “Glacially-fed rivers are already at emergency levels—insufficient for the country’s agricultural and hydroelectric demands during the dry season.”

The result has been socio-environmental tensions in the country, which have roots in the country’s history. Peru’s government historically cut indigenous communities off their land and limited their access to water resources for the sake of economic development. Still now local populations are dis-empowered and unable to take part in any decision making processes on their land even though they are the first to suffer from water contaminated by mining. Oesterling discusses a protest in which angry villagers blocked a major highways for several days, even though they were physically attacked by police, in order to bring attention to the concerns over pollution from mines.

To prevent future conflict, the country will need better regulatory processes that shifts the responsibility of environmental impact assessments away from private companies and into the hands of government bodies, said Oesterling. Existing regulatory government bodies could also benefit from being strengthened.

“With a sound response that addresses clean water access, environmental protection, and public participation in resource allocation decision-making, Peru can mitigate the effects of glacial recession and acclimate to new environmental realities,” he concluded. “Yet—much like Peru’s water supply—the time for effective action against glacial recession is dwindling—and quickly.”

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