The Glacier Law Conundrum: Protecting Glaciers or Limiting Hazard Response and Adaptation?

The environmental and socioeconomic benefits of the world’s glaciers, from their role in water storage to their influence in tourism, have led to the development of national laws to protect glacial environments from activities like mining that could adversely alter them. While legal protections aim to safeguard glaciers and the value they generate, the laws often fail to account for the actions necessary to mitigate glacial hazards or adapt to climate change. A recently published study in Ambio examined glacier protection laws in Argentina and Chile in an effort to explore how laws could better address interventions in rapidly changing glacial areas.

Figure of rapid growth of a glacial lake
Figure detailing the rapid growth of a glacial-dammed lake, highlighting the need for a quick mitigation response to glacial hazards (Source: Iribarren et al. 2018).

The study was part of the Newton Picarte project on Glacial Hazards in Chile, a partnership between Universidad Austral in Chile and Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. Its goal, according to author Pablo Iribarren, a glaciology lecturer at Universidad Austral, was to emphasize that glaciers not only provide environmental and socioeconomic benefits but also pose a threat to mountain communities. In addition, Iribarren told GlacierHub that “…this duality must be considered by Glacier Protection Laws (GPLs) to better face challenges associated with a rapidly changing cryosphere.”

It might seem impossible to protect glaciers, except by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. But there are other concrete steps that countries can take, particularly in relation to mining. GPLs are a relatively new phenomenon intended to preserve glaciers and their surrounding environments from commercial endeavors. Argentina was the first country to ratify a GPL in 2010. Chile and Kyrgyzstan have also developed GPLs, although these laws have yet to be ratified, due largely to the power of the extractive lobby. The opposition to GPLs from the mining industry and even the government is robust because of the economic benefits of natural resource extraction. For example, in the central Chilean Andes 55.1 billion dollars were generated from 2004 to 2011 and over 60,000 people were employed by the industry.

Photo of the entrance to Pascua Lama mine
The entrance to the controversial Pascua Lama mine. Barrick Gold is the Canadian mining company behind the project (Source: infogatecl/Twitter).

Mining and other natural resources extraction activities on and near glaciers in many cases destroy ice or cover it with debris and contaminate water resources. Chiles’s unresolved GPL, for instance, stemmed from a mining project known as Pascua Lama developed by Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining company that proposed the removal of glacial ice for mining purposes. However, despite intending to protect glaciers from destruction or alteration, GPLs can also inhibit the mitigation of glacial hazards and climate change adaptation by limiting intervention in glacial environments.

Glacial hazards are primarily caused by three sometimes concurrent processes: glacial advance, glacial blockage of mountain streams, and the growth and subsequent failure of glacial-dammed lakes. In the case of advancing glaciers, their leading fronts can become stranded, blocking streams and creating lakes. These glacial dams are then particularly vulnerable to melting. A well-known glacial disaster occurred through this mechanism in the Argentinian Andes in 1934, when an ice-dam blocking a stream failed. The resultant flood inundated a valley below, killing 20 people. Conversely, retreating glaciers often leave in their wake glacial lakes, some of which can be very large in volume. When the volumes of these lakes increase or when waves from glacial calving strike the dam, damaging outburst floods can occur.

Photo of the draining of a glacial lake
The draining a glacial lake in the Himalayas to reduce the risk of an outburst flood (Source: Renaud Meyer/Twitter).

To reduce the risks posed by glacial hazards, different strategies can be employed. One strategy for an ice-dammed lake is the modification of the ice dam itself through reinforcement methods like increasing its impermeability. Another strategy involves the actual excavation or blasting of ice to prevent glacial advance or to preemptively drain an ice-dammed lake. In another form of intervention, local communities near glaciers might utilize glacial lakes as a water reservoir in response to reduced water availability due to climate change or reduce the risk of outburst floods by lowering lake levels.

However, conflict arises between these glacial interventions and GPLs because interventions usually involve the modification of the glacial environment. Under Argentina’s GPL Article 6, activities that modify a glacier’s natural condition or result in the destruction or movement of glacial ice are prohibited. Section 6b continues by prohibiting the construction of infrastructure on or near a glacier, although it does allow infrastructure for scientific purposes or to prevent risks.

Glacial hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation would fall under this article, but any proposed intervention would be subject to an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), according to Article 7 of the GPL. Thus, the authors presume that “the most likely scenario for handling a hazard would be to conduct an EIS, yet this procedure may take months or even years.” During this possibly time-consuming process, a hazard “could put lives and infrastructure in danger.” For another view on this issue, GlacierHub spoke to Jorge Daniel Taillant, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Environment, and author of “Glaciers: The Politics of Ice,” who finds it unlikely that preventive action against a potential glacial hazard would be delayed by a GPL and an accompanying EIS.

Why the disconnect between Argentina’s GPL and glacial interventions for hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation purposes? For Iribarren, it’s a result of the GPL being developed in response to conflict between mining and local communities fighting to protect their water supplies. Glacial hazards were simply ignored in the midst of a seemingly existential fight between international mining conglomerates and local people.

Photos of mine waste on a glacier and a damaged road that was built on top of a glacier
Photo A shows the mine waste that was dumped on top of a glacier in Kyrgyzstan. Photo B shows a road built over a glacier in Chile which was damaged when the ice beneath it crept forward (Source: Iribarren et al. 2018).

The omission of glacial hazards and climate change adaptation during the development of GPLs means intervention into the glacial environment could possibly be impeded or even prohibited altogether. To improve upon this current intersection, the authors argue that GPLs should include allowances for glacial interventions that protect lives or infrastructure. They further argue that the process to authorize intervention should be sped up so that hazards are addressed in a timely manner, reducing the possibility of disaster. Finally, they propose that GPLs should clearly designate the government institutions responsible for glacial interventions.

While these proposals would likely help to improve GPLs, challenges would still remain. The biggest of these, according to Iribarren, is the possibility that GPLs that allow for easier glacial interventions could be used as a loophole for parties to intervene in glacial environments for strictly economic purposes like mining.

With Argentina’s GPL, the only one of its kind enacted worldwide, future research is undoubtedly needed to truly assess the conflicts these laws potentially pose. A first step in this process, Iribarren believes, is to study how other glacial countries like Peru or Switzerland have balanced “conflicts between economic interests and the protection of the cryosphere and surrounding landscapes.”

Participation: The Key to Water Governance in Glacier Regions

To conserve dwindling water resources, government policies will need to ensure that communities which live near main water sources are involved in water management, according to a new study by Margot Hurlbert and Joyeet Gupta.

This year, 2015, is marked by a global focus on sustainable development and climate change. Currently, a new set of universal goals, named the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is being negotiated, building off the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Access to clean water and water security remains a top goal and is integrated into all 17 SDGs.

The new study suggests that effective stakeholder participation in water management and climate change requires organizational learning and social trust, as well as appropriate policy structures and levels of consensus among stakeholders.

A number of questions emerge from a review of successful cases in which stakeholders have been part of effective policy making. For example, how can stakeholder participation be promoted within regional policy making,  and under which circumstances the stakeholder participation will be important for policy making? The researchers use what they term a “split-ladder participation model” to study stakeholder participation and policy under different settings in South America (Mendoza, Argentina and Coquimbo, Chile) and Canada (Alberta and Saskatchewan). They build on an influential 1969 paper by Sherry Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” which has been cited over 1600 times.  They follow Arnstein’s image of a ladder which ascends from lower ground (less participation) to higher ground (more participation), and amend it by suggesting that the ladder has two split, or partially separated, sides, one with more tightly structured organizaitonal frameworks and one with less tightly structured frameworks. They draw on a set of case studies to document that both sides allow the climb upward to higher levels of participation, though with varying degrees of trust and social learning. The authors propose that this split-ladder approach can serve as a means to examine stakeholder participation in the formulation or implementation of  regional water policy.

Clear waters of lake and Andes Mountains in Mendoza, Argentine
Clear waters and mountains, Mendoza, Argentina (Photo: Flickr)

In the Mendoza region of the Argentine Andes (one of the four case studies presented in the study), local residents depend on glaciers for water supply. Many small communities manage water resources locally and independently in Mendoza. Access to water in this region is closely tied to land ownership, so individuals whose lands are close to the glacier control the meltwater. The authors argue that this control by local landowners allows residents to create sustainable policies and regulations, avoiding the domination of narrow special interest groups. This management, in turns, led to the creation of a Glacier Preservation Law to conserve glaciers as a valued resource. This law has gained public trust over the last couple of years, according to the study

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 11.01.02 PM
This image depicts the split- ladder model. (source: Hurlbert & Gupta 2015)

Water governance varies in the four cases. In Coquimbo, Chile, water is bought through a water market while in in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, water is licensed through government institutions.

In Coquimbo, a region also fed by Andean glaciers, water markets and water privatization structure current water management practices. Participation and water governance are monitored via involvement of The Chilean national government, regional government bodies and civil society organizations support participation, though privatization has limited water rights for some stakeholders, and the building of dams  has caused further problems for management of water resources.

Water management and participation are handled slightly differently in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, through the provision of government licensing and availability of limited water markets and through water policies in which technical experts and criteria are highly influential. Canada manages drinking water quality standards through a combination of legislation, monitoring and reporting. In Alberta, where glacier meltwater from the Rocky Mountains is an important resource, water conservation efforts are undertaken through the Alberta Water Act 2000 while the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency governs water in Saskatchewan. The levels and forms of participation influence the patterns of effectiveness of water governance in these provinces.

The Oldman River Dam (shown here is its reservoir) in Alberta, Canada is categorized as a successful example of quadrant 1 of the split-ladder model. (Photo: Flickr)
The Oldman River Dam (shown here is a glimpse of its reservoir) in Alberta, Canada is categorized as a successful example of the split-ladder model. (Photo: Flickr)

Elsewhere in the world, organizations such as ICIMOD and the Mountain Partnership have categorically found that stakeholder participation and development of local scale solutions are critically needed for long term sustainability of water resources in mountain regions, where glaciers are melting as a result of climate change. The use of water resources could range from drinking supply to hydroelectric power and provision of ecological services. The split-ladder model framework could be potentially used in these areas as well for assessing importance of local participation in policy making.

In sum, this study offers the split ladder approach as a promising avenue to assess the role of stakeholder participation in water resource governance.  Its broad scope invites researchers, managers and community members around the world to apply it in sustainable management of this critical resource.

For more details on water governance in these areas, visit these posts on Canada and Chile.