Local communities in the Andes are dependent on water resources from glaciers and precipitation for their agricultural activities. Unfortunately, climate change has made these mountain populations highly vulnerable to alterations in the hydrological cycle. A recent study by Anna Heikkinen of the vulnerability of small-scale farmers in Ancash, Peru, suggests that climate change is just one of several factors placing pressure on farmers; rather, a collection of socio-political and economic factors are the main cause of vulnerability.
The research, published in the Iberoamericana – Nordic Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, measured the vulnerability to climate and hydrological changes of local communities along the Quillcay River basin, situated in the city of Huaraz in northern Peru. The river originates in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, which preserves the largest reserve of tropical glaciers in the world. Meltwater from glaciers is a major source of water for the communities located throughout the region. Additionally, as indicated in the study, rain contributes to the river watershed during the rainy season, which starts in October and ends in March.
The author investigated the relationship between glacier retreat, changes in rainfall patterns, and socio-economic elements on vulnerability in the region. For the research, she used mixed methods: a qualitative and a quantitative assessment. For the qualitative aspect, the researcher interviewed local authorities and 16 small-scale farmers about their perceptions of climate change and external supports. For the quantitative part, she analyzed statistical data of harvested areas, the value of agricultural products, and the growth rate of local population. The results of the quantitative method were then compared to the qualitative findings to endorse the results from the qualitative evaluation.
According to the research, water in the river has diminished as a result of a shorter rainy period and reduced glacier melt. Moreover, during the wet season, there are heavy and less continuous rains than what was observed decades ago. These findings were further supported by Junior Gil Rios, a water resource management specialist at the Peruvian National Superintendence of Sanitation Services, who told GlacierHub that it has been estimated that the rainy season has been reduced from six to three months, running from December to February.
“This does not indicate that it rains less,” he said. “The precipitation intensity has increased.”
Rural populations are highly vulnerable to these alterations in rainfall patterns and changes in the water level of the Quillcay river due to glacier melting because the main economic activities of these communities are small-scale agriculture and cattle production. As access to potable and irrigation water is limited, crops are impacted and income levels have fallen.
Javier Antiporta, a researcher at the regional NGO CONDESAN, told GlacierHub that local residents in the Quillcay river basin rely on glaciers as a main source of water. The accelerated glacier retreat and water scarcity represents a danger for the communities. In addition, variations in precipitation patterns have changed the crop seasons and reduced the agricultural area.
However, Heikkinen, the author of the study, told GlacierHub that climate change itself does not make these populations vulnerable, as it is often claimed.
“The vulnerability of population in the Quillcay River Basin has existed long before,” she said, noting other factors such as historical marginalization, transformations in political-economic structures, and globalized market forces.
The research points out that government officials, who were interviewed for the study, consider major socio-economic issues like education, technical agricultural knowledge, lack of political entitlement, and other problems as leading contributors to vulnerability and development.
“In the rural highland regions access to education, health care or social services is often limited, and therefore, rates of school attendance are low and illiteracy, malnutrition or infant and maternal mortality high,” Heikkinen explained. “Poverty levels in the rural highland regions are also relatively higher than elsewhere in Peru. People who already live in deprivation, not having the economic assets or other capacities to adapt, are the ones who are the most vulnerable to climatic changes.”
She further indicated that for smallholders in the rural highlands, it has become difficult to compete with the large-scale farming industry. Smallholders produce fewer crops and have higher production prices, higher transportation costs, more challenging climate circumstances, less access to modern irrigation technologies, and less knowledge in modern seeding techniques, for example.
“The challenges posed by climatic changes only make their situation worse,” Heikkinen said. “The options for other sources of income for highland farmers are very limited considering the long traditions of small-scale farming and limited access to education to be trained for other professions.”
The study revealed that in order to adapt to these changes, locals are seeking alternative livelihoods, constructing canals and irrigation systems, and diversifying their crops. Educated populations have the strongest adaptation capacities to climate changes, but the majority of the locals do not have access to education. To sustainably eliminate vulnerability, policies should aim for structural changes to reduce the inequalities between rural highland residents and other sectors. For example, policies should provide equal opportunities for political representation, promote greater autonomy in decision-making, improve infrastructure, and give fuller access to agricultural markets.
“These kinds of policies would create more possibilities for local people to be able to influence development, such as building roads, bridges, water management systems and schools of the region, and most importantly to have more equal opportunity to receive income and accumulate assets in order to to build capacities themselves to mitigate vulnerabilities as glaciers retreat,” Heikkinen said. The most important adaptation measure would be to transform the current social, political and economic structures to promote sustainable development to reduce the vulnerability of Andean local communities to climate change.