This week’s Video of the Week is filmed in the Callejon de Huaylas, located at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca in the north central highlands of Peru, and features a song about coronavirus that is performed in the region’s native Quechua language.
The Cordillera Blanca is the world’s highest tropical mountain range and aside from Patagonia at the southern tip of South America, it is the most glacier-rich region in the Andes. Because it encompasses the largest area of glaciers in the Central Andes, glacier meltwater is a critical resource for agriculture, livestock and human consumption in this region. During this time of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the region is fortunate to be relatively well-supplied with water for handwashing. The song emphasizes instructions for people to wash their hands and not to ignore advice with “the ears of a pig.”
Note minute 3:45 where an older villager washes her hands as the song tells us to use water and soap to kill the dirty disease.
Quechua predates the Incan Empire, but once the Inca made it the official language of the domain, its use spread across the Andean highlands. When the Spanish arrived, they used the Latin alphabet to create the written version of Quechua. Today, many regional variations — approximately 45 distinct dialects — are still spoken by the indigenous Quechua peoples living throughout the highlands of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina. It is the most spoken indigenous language in the Americas, and the second most spoken language in Peru (where it originated) after Spanish.
Joshua Shapero, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who conducts research with Quechua speakers in this area, noted a number of specific elements about the video. As for the pigs ears, he noted “’kuchi rinriqa ama kashunnatsu’ translates as ‘let’s not be pig’s ears now;’ in parallel with ‘wiyakushunna yarpakushunna,’ ‘let’s listen up now, let’s remember well now;’ and ‘callekunachaw puriyaashunnatsu,’ ‘Let’s not go about in the streets now.’ So, I think it’s safe to assume that the relevant idea here is that a pig’s ear doesn’t obey human language!” he wrote.
Let’s listen now, let’s remember now
Let’s not go about in the streets now
Shapero emphasized the song’s use of paired elements, found in both the lines and verses, that complement each other and form a whole. The song tells “chuulukuna chiinakuna” (young men, young women) to take care. In the scene showing a woman purchasing fish at a market (starting at 3:25), it tells people to cover “sinqantsikta simintsikta” (our noses, our mouths). Then, some verses contain two lines that offer two words which are similar, but are not full synonyms, with the second being slightly stronger than the first. In this way, the musicians suggest a range of meaning. The singer, starting at 2:00, tells people to stay at home if they care for (kuya) their families, if they love (muna) their families.
“If there is one relevant thing to emphasize here, it’s that the song repeatedly employs a parallel verse structure that creates an analogy between Coronavirus and raqcha qishya (the dirty sickness),” Shapero said. “I am not sure if ‘raqcha qishya’ is a phrase that’s been commonly used for other diseases in the past. If so, this seems like just a means of getting the listener to put Coronavirus in this disgusting category of illnesses. If it has not been used for other things in the past, then it might be an attempt to establish a Quechua neologism for the disease,” he wrote to GlacierHub.
The final verses, starting at 5:18, combine these elements. The final message is ominous: “Watch out, disobedient young woman, or coronavirus will pursue you (qatishunkimá), watch out, disobedient young man, or the dirty sickness will take you away (apashunkimá).” This stern warning reinforces the importance of handwashing and social distancing.
In a comment about the video, artist Michel Trejo wrote: “This audiovisual work is a contribution in this difficult conjuncture, for the dissemination of information and prevention against coronavirus, especially for my Andean brothers, Quechua speakers.” As Shapero’s comments show, Trejo not only speaks fluent Quechua, but has made use of traditional Quechua forms to communicate powerfully the need to protect communities from the Covid-19 pandemic.
David and Goliath In a phone interview earlier this week with GlacierHub, Saul Lliuya, a mountain guide and farmer from Huaraz in northwestern Peru, explains how he is preparing for the next step in his legal battle with multinational German energy corporation RWE. Just last Nov. 30, a court in the northwestern German city of Hamm ruled that it will hear Lliuya’s climate lawsuit. The suit was previously dismissed in 2016 by the Essen Regional Court in Germany where the RWE headquarters is located.
Lliuya decided to sue RWE for roughly $20,000 in disaster preparedness funds for the Peruvian city of Huaraz in 2015. Moreover, Lliuya is demanding another $8,000 for the personal expenses he had to shoulder in preparing for the worst.
According to Lliuya, “RWE presented additional documents because they didn’t want to accept the judge’s decision. However, in the end, they [the German court] decided the case will move along and go into the evidentiary phase.”
Lliuya added that the Peruvian research organization Instituto Nacional de Investigacion en Glaciares y Ecosistemas de Montaña (INAIGEM) is studying glacial retreat in the region. They have agreed to provide him with information that he can use in his case against RWE. When asked how he felt about people thinking of him as a hero, he said he felt he was just doing his job. “I don’t feel like a hero… Glacier retreat since the 1940’s has killed a lot of people… just this feeling of climate justice,” he said. Lliuya understands that the odds are stacked against him, but he is still hopeful that he will win against RWE. He is happy to have received help from the NGO Germanwatch. Germanwatch focuses on advocating for global equality and preserving the livelihoods of the marginalized. Lliuya says if other people would like help, their team is in need of funding for future legal assistance. When asked why he selected RWE as a target for his suit, Lliuya pointed to RWE’s coal burning. “It’s one of the largest contaminators in Europe,” he said. He argues that the German company should be held responsible for the disasters caused by the rapidly melting glaciers in the Andes, disasters which have endangered his livelihood and people.
Glacial retreat has resulted in dangerously high water levels in the glacial lakes above Huaraz, for example. Unfortunately, this places Huaraz and other cities along the river at greater risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). Lliuya argues that big energy players like RWE should be held accountable and contribute in preparing for the problems faced by the local population due to climate change.
The Risk to Peruvian Glaciers Peru’s glaciers have lost up to 90 percent of their mass. The meltwater could potentially end up in glacial lakes like Palcacocha. Palcacocha is located in the Ancash region in the Cordillera Blanca within the Peruvian province of Huaraz. The lake drains into Quebrada Cojup which drains into Quilcay River. The Quilcay River flows through the city of Huaraz and empties into the Santa River. Since 1970, Palcacocha has grown 34 times bigger. The lake itself contains 17 million cubic meters of water, which is the equivalent of 6,800 Olympic swimming pools. Unlike like some other lakes in Peru, Palcacocha has no early warning system. In fact, Johnny Salazar, a Huaraz civil defense official said in an interview with Reuters that he initially requested $1 million from regional authorities to fund the project. Unfortunately, the plan fell through because the regional authorities didn’t provide any money to help fund the early warning system.
German anthropologist Noah Walker-Crawford explained to GlacierHub that GLOFs are a very real threat. “Increasing glacial retreat is causing existing glacial lakes to grow in volume and new lakes to form. This is particularly significant for downstream cities with large populations living in areas that would be affected by potential GLOFs,” he said. “In Huaraz, around 50,000 people live in the hazard zone threatened by Lake Palcacocha. Saúl is one of them.” Anthony Oliver-Smith, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Florida, agreed, telling GlacierHub that a GLOF in the region could be disastrous, especially for a city like Huaraz. “If in fact, a GLOF took place…if a village is in the way, we’re talking total annihilation… complete obliteration.” In northwestern Peru, according to some studies, if a large scale avalanche were to take place and fall into Palcacocha it could result in a 100-foot wave within the lake. That wave could potentially create a flood made of meltwater, trees, mud, and rocks which would rush down the valley. That could mean death for the inhabitants of Huaraz living in flood risk zones who currently lack an early warning system to prompt an evacuation. However, according to Oliver-Smith, draining the lakes regularly is one way of making sure that GLOFs don’t happen. According to him, the drained water is used for things like irrigation. For now, the overflowing lakes are a valuable source of freshwater. However, he added that the water may eventually run out.
“The problem in the long term with glacial melt is that once that water is gone it’s gone,” he said. Walker-Crawford concurred, saying, “For rural farmers such as Saúl, this is an existential threat. With increasingly unstable rain patterns and decreasing water supplies, they will have no reliable source of irrigation for their crops. This is a threat to their livelihood.”
Setting Legal Precedent with a Climate Suit With so much at stake for mountain populations and the world’s glaciers, why can’t a company like RWE contribute $20,000 to mitigate climate change-induced losses? After all, the company earned 45.8 billion euros in 2015 by generating 216.1 terawatts of energy for 23.4 million customers.
According to Oliver-Smith, the reason RWE won’t bend is that any negotiation would set a precedent for future claims. “That’s pocket change for RWE,” Oliver-Smith said. “They could do that in a heartbeat and never even notice it, but if they do that they are accepting responsibility… so that’s not going to happen.”
Who Will Pay for the Damages Brought About by Climate Change? Huaraz is just one community facing climate change-related problems. According to some reports, developing nations around the world will need between $140 and 300 billion annually by 2030 for disaster relief funds and management. Right now, these expenses are being shouldered by local taxpayers, national governments, NGOs, and foreign aid. Some civil society stakeholders like Germanwatch, and Lliuya, argue that multinational energy companies who have contributed to climate change should help shoulder the financial burden. Lliuya says that watching the glaciers melt made him feel helpless. That’s why he filed the case against RWE. He wants everyone to know that addressing climate change will not be easy. However, he believes that we can make a difference if stakeholders around the world can come together to address the problem.
“Every kind of a change comes through a fight or perseverance,” he said. “If we don’t do anything, we know what the consequences will be. So I hope that cases like what we’re doing can be done in other places as well so that we can contribute to reduce the temperature.”
Human activities have drastically reduced the natural habitats of Polylepis, a rare genus of tree species that dominates the high-altitude forests of the Andes and can grow from an elevation of 3,000 meters close to the glacier line, at approximately 5,000 meters above sea level. A recent analysis by Beatriz Fuentealba and Steven Sevillano of reforestation efforts of Polylepis in Ancash, Peru, has highlighted the importance of local communities for the successful implementation of these activities.
The analysis, published in the book Beyond Restoration Ecology: Social Perspectives in Latin America and the Caribbean, focused on the project “Conservation Corridor of Polylepsis in the South of Los Conchucos” that was implemented by the non-governmental organization, the Mountain Institute. The project was developed in 2004 for a period of five years to preserve, restore and recover the Polylepsis forests— or queñuales, as they are known in the Peruvian Andes— of the southern area of Conchucos in the Ancash region. This new study makes the results of the project available to a wide readership.
The Ancash region, located in the northern part of Peru, is known for the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, which runs through the region and preserves the largest reserve of tropical glaciers in the world. Polylepsis forests located in this area have received protection from the national government since 1975 when Huascaran National Park was created. The protection of the national park was strengthened in 1977 when UNESCO recognized it as a biosphere reserve.
Queñuales are a type of Andean forest ecosystem. Manuel Peralvo, a researcher at the regional NGO CONDESAN, told GlacierHub in an interview that these ecosystems generate multiple benefits that are key for the well-being of Andean communities including hydrological regulation, reduction of risks of natural hazards and long-term maintenance of Andean biodiversity.
As Beatriz Fuentealba told GlacierHub, Polylepsis forests in the Cordillera Blanca help store soil water and maintain a moist environment throughout the year. She explained that queñuales are important for water regulation because the roots of these species support the infiltration of water into the soil. The abundant leaf litter that the queñuales produce allows for more water storage and improves soil nutrients. These forests also support the protection of puquios, or water springs, situated near local communities.
Moreover, Fuentealba pointed out that queñuales also generate a distinct microclimate. As a result, they become a biodiversity refuge. “Inside queñualesthere is less solar radiation, more moisture and extreme temperatures are attenuated,” she explained. This microclimate allows for the development of particular mosses and other plants that do not grow in other areas. Several bird species also depend on the natural resources located in these forests.
Steven Sevillano told GlacierHub that queñuales are recognized as islands of biodiversity. In addition, he pointed out that in a climate change scenario they will be key for high-Andean biodiversity conservation. For this reason, the disappearance of queñuales would not only indicate the loss of a rare species but also the loss of habitat for several other species that use these forests as a refuge.
Unfortunately, the queñual populations have sharply declined due to logging for firewood, clearing for pasture for ranching and other activities. In 1978, before the Mountain Institute implemented the project, several reforestation efforts had been developed. One of these initiatives was initiated by Pompeyo Guillen, a park ranger in Huascaran National Park, who promoted the planting of queñuales with the support of the population living in the surrounding areas. National government programs contributed to this initiative with food in exchange for the labor provided. In the last 20 years, private mining companies established in the region have further supported these activities by paying a wage to people who take part in reforestation work.
The project “Conservation Corridor of Polylepsis in the South of Los Conchucos” sought to reach conservation agreements with local communities. Thus, it established ways for the project to support an increase in economic development of the local communities working on reforestation efforts. These conditions included cattle breeding, tourism promotion, and the improvement of local education. In exchange, the communities would propagate, reforest and preserve queñuales.
“Participating in reforestation activities is not easy, it requires effort, time and attention in order to increase the success of the reforestation,” Sevillano told GlacierHub.
Despite these difficulties, such efforts allow participants to become engaged with conservation projects and to recognize the importance of these forests. They take care of them and appreciate them more because they also start to value their own efforts, he added.
Fuentealba indicated that the challenge of working with communities is understanding the reasons that each local community has for participation in reforestation initiatives, which leads them to participate in these activities. Furthermore, the approach of particular reforestation projects to include local populations differs.
Considering these experiences, the study suggests that a strategy to ensure the sustainability of reforestation projects of queñuales involves increasing the awareness of the benefits provided by queñuales, as well as connecting local communities with their natural resources.
When working in restoration efforts, it is not only relevant to understand the degradation level of the forests. It is also important to connect with local populations and comprehend how they will be impacted, their relationship with these ecosystems, and their values. Such participatory projects can reduce negative community impacts on forests while supporting positive ones.
Last month, a German court ruled that it will hear a case brought by a Peruvian farmer against Germany’s largest energy producer, RWE, potentially having huge ramifications in so-called climate justice cases. Farmer Saul Luciano Lliuya sued the company in 2015 for emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases, increasing the threat of glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) that endanger his home in Huaraz, in the foothills of the Andes.
This is only the second time a case against a greenhouse gas emitter has reached this stage— the first coming in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, which was swiftly reversed— says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, who spoke to GlacierHub about the proceedings. Gerrard noted that this case is “very unusual,” and added, “We’ll see what happens with this one.”
NEWS: German Higher Court recognizes that a private company can be held liable for the climate change related damages resulting from its ghg emissions as a general matter and moves case forward to evidentiary stage. Update in our Case Chart: https://t.co/jZyLasfk76
The claim cited a 2013 report that stated RWE emitted 0.47 percent of worldwide carbon and methane emissions from 1751-2010, since industrialization, partly due to its use of coal-fired power plants. To reflect this figure, Lliuya is only seeking reimbursement of 0.47 percent of the damages, or $20,000, out of a total cost of about $4.3 million, to help pay for his home flood defenses.
Justin Gundlach, staff attorney at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told GlacierHub, “Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the case, the court’s order to the parties to submit evidence is highly significant. Effectively, the court is announcing that it is theoretically possible to trace liability for harms arising from climate change, in part, to a particular corporate defendant.”
“I think the case is mostly seeking to establish legal precedent,” said Gerrard. “He’s alleging very significant injury with a clear causal to climate change.”
Huaraz, a city of population 200,000, was struck by a GLOF in the past from nearby Lake Palcacocha. In 1941, about 5,000 were killed from a GLOF event, and another flood in 1970 also killed thousands following a 7.9 earthquake. While pipes have been installed to lower the water when it gets too high, climate change continues to melt glaciers, some by 90 percent, and increases the size and threat of glacier lakes.
A report in The Guardian indicated that the judges in the case said “Even people who act according to the law must be held responsible for damage they cause to property.”
According to Deutsche Welle, a German news organization, a representative for RWE stated, “We don’t believe it’s possible under civil law to hold a single emitter responsible for something that countless human and natural resources also contribute to.”
Gundlach told GlacierHub that while RWE may not be liable, “Its decision to admit evidence indicates to would-be plaintiffs around the world that they might prevail if they can present the right set of facts.”
In the last week, calving events at Lake Palcacocha in the Peruvian Andes released masses of ice from a glacier on Mount Pucaranra. The ice fell into the lake, sending waves across the lake that destroyed infrastructure designed to prevent dangerous outburst floods. Fortunately, the waves were not high enough to overtop the moraine dam and send floodwaters downstream, where they could have taken many lives and damaged urban infrastructure. A glacial lake outburst flood from Palcacocha devastated Huaraz, the largest city in the region, in 1941, killing about 5,000 people. Other, more recent, glacier floods in the region have also been very destructive.
Marco Zapata, the director of glacier research at INAIGEM, the Peruvian National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, spoke about the events recently in a press conference reported in the Peruvian daily El Comercio. A Spanish-language video of the full press conference is available online.
Zapata indicated that the calving event occurred around 8 p.m. on May 31. The resulting waves, three meters in height, were strong enough to move and damage ten large pipes, rendering them inoperable. These pipes, known locally as “syphons,” are designed to draw water from the lake at times when its level is high; in this way, they were thought to reduce flood risk significantly. They had been a point of local pride, seen as a successful application of modern technology to protect against the dangers to which the region has long been subject.
Zapata mentioned that the waves also destroyed several gauges and a sensor which measures lake levels. And the event was not an isolated one, at least according to a regional newspaper, which reported a second calving event at 5:40 a.m. on June 2.
Representatives of INAIGEM and two other organizations, the National Water Authority and the local municipality of Independencia, visited the lake a few days later. They found that the workers on Pucarthe site had restored two of the drainage pipes. These officials anticipated that the other eight will soon be functional. Zapata and the other authorities called for increased investment in infrastructure at the lake to reduce the risks of a flood. They estimated that an expenditure of US $6 million would prevent about $2.5 billion in potential damages, including a hydroelectric plant and irrigation facilities on Peru’s desert coast; it would also protect the lives of the 50,000 people who live in the potential flood zone.
The Causes of the Calving Events
These events were not entirely unexpected. Marcelo Somos Valenzuela, a postdoctoral fellow at the Northeast Climate Science Center at the University of Massachusetts, is the lead author of a study, published last year in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, which concluded “there is consensus among local authorities, scientists and specialists that Lake Palcacocha represents a glacier lake outburst flood hazard with potentially high destructive impact on Huaraz.” This paper also stated that a “small avalanche” like the ones that recently occurred are “the highest likelihood event” and that they would “produce significantly less inundation.” Somos Valenzuela wrote to GlacierHub, “There are empirical models and hydrodynamic models which provide estimates of the height of the wave in the lake… In this case, it seems that the ice-fall was small, and 3 meters is a reasonable estimate of the wave height.”
Moreover, several sources indicated high risks at this time of year. Noah Walker-Crawford, an anthropologist at the University of Manchester, spoke recently with the workers at the drainage site at the lake. He wrote to GlacierHub, “According to the people who work at the lake, the icefalls were likely due to unusually strong fluctuations between cold nights and warm days.” He mentioned that they said “there is a block of ice that is ready to fall, but we hope that that won’t happen.”
Jeff Kargel, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, told GlacierHub that both calving events and avalanches at Palcacocha “dump energy into the lake, and if they are large and sudden enough, a big wave can form. As with other more classical tsunamis, the shoaling in Palcacocha toward the south end of the lake— where the syphons are— can cause a relatively small displacement wave to build up to a much larger size when it nears the shore. Avalanches and calving events are frequent occurrences at this lake, and both should be especially active in the late May-July period, which tends to be the dry season, hence mainly sunny, thus allowing high solar radiation. The air temperature doesn’t vary much throughout the year, this being deep into the tropics, so variations in sunny versus cloudy days are the main seasons.”
The weather data indicate some warm days in May at Palcacocha. The data also demonstrate that May had less rain than usual, particularly toward the end of the month. Such dry weather is typically associated with less cloud cover, supporting Kargel’s suggestion and a report in a regional newspaper, Ancash Noticias, which stated that “intense solar radiation” in recent weeks had been the cause of the calving events. The data also support the observations of the local residents about the temperature fluctuations between day and night, since cloudless nights in this region are colder than ones with overcast skies.
Responses to the Calving Events
What can be done to protect Huaraz and neighboring communities from floods, now that the syphons are damaged? Mark Carey gave a long-term view to this question. “Palcacocha has its history of death, destruction, and near misses,” he wrote to GlacierHub. “The issue is partially one of climate change and ever-shrinking glaciers that have caused the lake to expand and fill with more water, creating a hazard waiting to morph into a disaster if Palcacocha’s dam ruptures. Avalanches provide the trigger to help destroy dams.” Referring to Peruvian activities, starting in the 1940s, to lower the lake level and to reinforce the moraine, he added, “The story is also one of engineering and technology. Since the 1990s, funds and political support for actual glacial lake engineering projects have been extremely limited. Now we have regular declarations of states of emergency at Palcacocha, but no engineering projects to provide a more long-term solution.” He also pointed to the need for “an early warning system, and… educational programs to train the population how to respond in the event of an outburst flood or alarm system.”
It might be thought that the damage to the syphons would generate support for such solutions. However, obstacles still limit effective responses. Barbara Frazer, a journalist based in Peru for many years, offered a note of concern, linking these events with other disasters in Peru. She told GlacierHub, “Peru’s response to natural disasters is improving, but the country still clearly lags in prevention. The most recent flooding on the coast was an extreme reminder, but every year, there are also landslides on the Central Highway, and children die of pneumonia during the cold snaps high in the Andes. And every year, there’s an emergency response, but little or no long-range planning. Part of that is due to the way responsibilities and budgets are divided among the various levels of government, part to turnover of government staff, and part simply to a lack of a culture of prevention and planning.”
A recent online exchange in Huaraz shows awareness in the region of these issues raised by Carey and Frazer. Most discussants call for greater investment in infrastructure to protect the areas below Palcacocha. However, others suggest that self-interested government agencies play up the risk in order to increase their budgets, which they will divert to personal ends. A scientist, Sonfia González, commented that the regional government lacks the skills needed to manage risks. Others expressed a concern that publicizing the risks would harm the region by reducing tourism. These disagreements point to a lack of confidence, at least on the part of some local residents, in the agencies whose task it is to protect them from natural hazards.
The calving events confirmed scientific research in the area. They also showed the weakness of the existing infrastructure, designed to protect the region from floods. And the discussions in Huaraz show a second, equally serious deficit: the limits of the trust between society, experts, and public agencies, even in ones of the areas of the world most familiar with glacier risks.
In the Cordillera Blanca Mountains of the Peruvian Andes, glacier retreat caused by climate change has led to an increased risk of flooding for residents living below. Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a farmer and mountain guide who faces the imminent threat of losing his house in a massive flood, argues that large polluters are to blame. This led him to file a lawsuit against the German energy giant RWE demanding the firm take responsibility for its CO2 emissions and help reduce the risk of flooding.
The lawsuit could set an important precedent – if Luciano Lliuya wins, anyone affected by climate change impacts could potentially sue for damages or compensation beyond the borders of their own country. This may provide a more fruitful strategy in light of stalling political efforts at the United Nations level to combat climate change and promote adaptation. In December 2016, the lawsuit was dismissed by the Essen Regional Court in Germany and is currently pending appeal.
Climate Change in the Cordillera Blanca
Growing up below the snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, Lliuya has borne witness to a changing Andean climate over the past decades. Now aged 36, his work as a mountain guide brings him to high altitudes where he has observed the glaciers progressively receding year after year. This led the glacial lake Palcacocha to rise exponentially in volume – from 0.5 million m3 in 1974 to 3.9 million m3 in 2003 and 17.4 million m3 in 2016. A dislodged piece of glacial ice falling into the lake could lead to a massive outburst flood that would destroy large parts of the city of Huaraz below, according to a recent scientific study.
Huaraz is no stranger to disaster. In 1941, Lake Palcacocha produced an outburst flood that killed thousands and devastated the city. In subsequent decades, the Peruvian authorities drained Palcacocha and other glacial lakes, constructing dams to prevent future disasters. Residents of Huaraz rebuilt the city. Today, existing dams and drainage systems are no longer sufficient at Palcacocha as glacial retreat has increased dramatically and authorities struggle to fund security measures after neoliberal cuts to public finance since the 1990s.
In the short term, glacial retreat in the Cordillera Blanca causes the threat of too much water flooding populated valleys. But if glaciers disappear in the long term, the region will lose its primary source of water. Both scenarios can have devastating consequences. In addition, residents face an increasingly unpredictable climate that disrupts agricultural cycles.
Lliuya argues that Peruvians have contributed little to these problems. “The big companies are mainly responsible for climate change through their emissions. They need to take responsibility and help us face the problems they caused,” Lliuya told GlacierHub. He wanted to take matters into his own hands. When a colleague put him in touch with members of the German environmental NGO Germanwatch, he found partners who were willing to help him take action. Introducing him to the German environmental lawyer Roda Verheyen, the NGO offered to support a legal claim for climate justice against a major polluter. In November 2015, he traveled to Germany and filed a lawsuit against RWE, the largest single CO2 emitter in Europe.
“This is a precedent. RWE AG releases significant emissions, principally through its coal-fired power plants, which makes global temperatures rise, causes glaciers to melt and leads to an acute threat to my client’s property,” Verheyen argued. “We request that the court declare RWE liable to remove this impairment.”
The lawsuit relies on article 1004 of the German Civil Code to argue that RWE is partially responsible for the impairment that Luciano Lliuya faces to his property through climate risk. Drawing on the Carbon Majors study which quantified industrial greenhouse gas emissions and linked them to individual companies, the lawsuit states that RWE contributed 0.47% to historical emissions and should provide its share to reduce flood risk in Huaraz. The Peruvian authorities are planning a multi-million dollar project to drain Lake Palcacocha and build a new dam. Lliuya demands that RWE pay 0.47% of this amount, or around $20,000. The amount is miniscule for a large company but could set a massive precedent.
RWE rejects the claim, arguing that climate change should be discussed at a political level rather than in the courts. In its legal response, the company claims that climate change is so complex that individual companies cannot be linked to specific impacts. In addition, the company denies that Huaraz faces an imminent risk of flooding. RWE did not reply to GlacierHub’s request for comment.
In December 2016, the Essen Regional Court dismissed Lliuya’s lawsuit on formal grounds, stating that his claims lacked legal foundation and coherence. In their verdict, the judges argued that RWE may have partially caused the risk of flooding in Huaraz in scientific terms, but this does not translate into causality in legal terms.
“The pollutants, which are emitted by the defendant, are merely a fraction of innumerable other pollutants, which a multitude of major and minor emitters are emitting and have emitted. Every living person is, to some extent, an emitter,” reads the finding.
Following the judges’ argumentation, individual polluters cannot be held responsible for climate change because emissions are so widely dispersed. While RWE welcomed the verdict, Lliuya is defiant and vowed to continue. His lawyer is currently preparing an appeal.
The lawsuit is the first of its kind to come this far, but it could set the stage for future climate justice initiatives. In glaciated mountain ranges around the world, people face increased threats of flooding. Even if Lliuya’s lawsuit fails upon appeal, it forms part of a larger trajectory of legal initiatives that demand immediate action while political solutions remain stymied. In the United States, Our Children’s Trust supports lawsuits by children and teenagers against local and federal authorities demanding more sustainable policies. In the Netherlands, the Urgenda citizen’s initiative successfully sued the Dutch government demanding more ambitious climate targets in a suit that is currently pending appeal.
In the long term, Lliuya hopes lawsuits against large polluters will create political pressure to find sustainable solutions to the impacts of climate change. These solutions should account for the historical responsibility of companies such as RWE. Only few people have the means to take legal action; a sustainable strategy must benefit all. As long as policy makers fail to make polluters pay, Lliuya will continue his legal battle against RWE.
“The biggest contributors to climate change must finally take responsibility,” he said. “I want justice.”
A major international forum this month in Peru has resulted in calls for strengthening research capabilities and for programs in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. It also had demonstrated the need for greater public participation and the development of new financial mechanisms to support these activities. It showed the importance of flexible governance systems that can draw on emerging research and on growing citizen engagement with environmental issues.
The scientific forum’s focus on climate change in the mountains took on particular meaning, as it was held in Huaraz, a a small Peruvian city located at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca, a major glacier-covered range. The forum, held Aug. 10-12, specifically centered on climate change impacts in mountains, with particular emphasis on glacier retreat, water sustainability and biodiversity.
A new Peruvian organization, the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, known by its Spanish acronym INAIGEM, organized the forum, with support from a number of other organizations.
The forum’s more than 1,400 participants came largely from Peru, but also included a substantial number of scientists, policy experts and agency staff from 18 other countries. They met in Huaraz, attending plenary lectures in the morning and breaking into smaller groups in the afternoon for topical sessions and discussion groups, which considered specific recommendations for action. These recommendations led to two final documents. The forum produced a set of eight conclusions and a final declaration, both presented to the participants, a number of public officials and the media by Benjamin Morales, the president of INAIGEM.
Researchers from the natural and social sciences reported on water availability and natural hazards in the Cordillera Blanca and other mountain ranges. Jeff Kargel of the University of Arizona reported on the connections between earthquakes and glacier lake outburst floods in the Himalayas and the Andes. Bryan Mark of the Ohio State University discussed research methodologies to measure “peak water”—the point at which the contribution of glacier meltwater causes a river’s flow to reach its highest levels, after which the glaciers, smaller in size, contribute less water to the streams.
Several talks traced links between ecosystems and water resources. They showed the importance of wetlands in promoting the recharge of groundwater and in maintaining water quality. The latter role is particularly important, because as glaciers retreat, new areas of rock become exposed to the atmosphere. As these rocks weather, minerals leach into streams. Since these wetlands are important grazing areas for peasant communities, they raise challenging issues of coordination between communities and agencies charged with environmental management.
Many speakers focused specifically on this management, stressing the importance of the coordination of scientists and other experts, policy-makers, and wider society. Carlos Fernandez, of UNESCO, stressed the importance of water governance systems that integrated social, economic and environmental sectors, rather than relying on market-driven approaches.
Others examined financial mechanisms, such as the payment for ecosystem services and the expansion of user fees for water and other resources. GlacierHub’s editor Ben Orlove spoke of the cultural importance of glaciers, and of the role of glaciers as symbols of social identity.
The forum was sponsored by over two dozen institutions, including Peruvian agencies (Ministry of the Environment, the National Service for Protected Natural Areas, the National Civil Defense Institute, and the National Water Authority), NGOs (CARE, The Mountain Institute, CONDESAN) and the international aid programs from Switzerland, US and Canada, as well as several mining firms in Peru.
The critical role of mountain societies was signaled by a speech from Juan German Espíritu, the president of the peasant community of Catac, located in the Cordillera Blanca. Speaking first in the local indigenous language, Quechua, and then in Spanish, he emphasized the importance of full participation, environmental justice, and a vision of human well-being that is broader than measures of economic development.
He and Morales then signed an agreement that gave INAIGEM the right to conduct research within the territory of Catac. This agreement is a departure from earlier practices in Peru, in which communities would often be bypassed.
The comments of German Espíritu were echoed in a speech by María Foronda, a congressional delegate from the region where Ancash is located. Drawing on her personal and professional experiences, she argued for the incorporation of indigenous knowledge in environmental management and for the Quechua concept of allin kawsay, emphasizing sustainability and community over unchecked economic growth. The importance of the forum was emphasized by the presence of the Minister of the Environment, Elsa Galarza, who gave the closing speech of the forum. She affirmed her commitment to sustainable development and to addressing the basic needs of the full citizenry of Peru. Both of these points are major issues in Peru, where mining companies often clash with rural communities and environmental groups over issues of water and air pollution.
Galarza also spoke of the importance of scientific research in shaping environmental policy. Her speech, along with coverage of the forum in national newspapers, shows the growing recognition for INAIGEM, founded only last year as a branch of the Ministry of Environment. This attention, along with the support for the forum evident in its broad sponsorship, suggests that INAIGEM may take an increasingly prominent role in addressing glacier retreat and other climate change impacts in Peru and in other mountain regions.
A recent geological study has shed some light on the cause of a major, yet elusive destructive natural hazard triggered by failed natural dams holding back glacial lakes. The findings show how previously unrecognized factors like thinning glacier ice and moisture levels in the ground surrounding a lake can determine the size and frequency of Glacier Lake Outburst Floods, or GLOFs.
The risks of these glacial floods are generally considered increasingly acute across the world, as warming atmospheric temperatures prompt ice and snow on mountain ranges to retreat and to swell glacial lakes.
The Landslides article is a step in understanding a previously understudied geological phenomenon. As little as five years ago scientists acknowledged the lack of research on the subject.
“We don’t really have the scientific evidence of these slopes breaking off and moraine stability… but personal observations are suggesting there are a lot of those…” said Ph.D. environmental historian Mark Carey in a 2011 video where he describes GOLFs.
Glacial Lake Outburst Flood risks do not always emanate from mountain glacier meltwater that flows downstream. As this study shows, in some instances, trillions of gallons of water can be trapped by a moraine, a formation of mixed rock, which forms a natural dam. A weakening over time, or a sudden event, such as a landslide, could then result in the moraine dam’s collapse.
The massive amount of water is suddenly then released, and a wall of debris-filled liquid speeds down the mountainside with a destructive force capable of leveling entire city blocks.
GLOFs have presented an ongoing risk to people and their homes dating back to 1703, especially in the Cordillera Blanca region, according to United States Geological Survey records. In December of 1941, a breach in the glacial moraine restraining Palcacocha Lake led to the destruction of a significant portion of the city of Huaraz and killed approximately 5,000 people.
Scientists and government agencies, like the Control Commission of Cordillera Blanca Lakes created by the Peruvian government following the 1941 GLOF, have recognized the need to better understand and control GLOFs. The study found that as global temperatures rise and glaciers retreat, greater amounts of glacier melt water will continue to fill up mountain lakes, chucks of ice will fall off glaciers, and wetter moraines will become more prone to landslides.
The team of mostly Czech geologists and hydrologists (J. Klimeš; J. Novotný; I. Novotná; V. Vilímek; A. Emmer; M. Kusák; F. Hartvich) along with Spanish, Peruvian and Swiss scientists (B. Jordán de Urries; A. Cochachin Rapre; H. Frey and T. Strozzi) investigated the ability of a glacial moraine’s slope to stay intact, called shear strength, and modeled the potential of landslides and falling ice to cause GLOFs.
After extensive field investigations, calculations and research into historical events, the study found several causal factors that can determine the severity of a GLOF. These include size and angle of entry of a landslide, shape and depth of the glacial lake, glacier thickness and human preventative engineering such as canals and supporting dams. Frequency and size of a landslide is determined by the stability of surface material, a characteristic called shear strength, which can be influenced by something as subtle as the crystalline shape of the predominant mineral in the rock.
The scientists determined that waves caused by moraine landslides and falling ice would most likely lead to over-toppings of the natural dam. An example would be the 2003 Palcacocha Lake GLOF, which was caused by falling ice. No one died in this flood, but sediment from the floodwaters blocked the Huaraz’s main water treatment facility, leaving 60 percent of the population without drinking water for six days. Additionally, small events like the one in 2003 weaken the natural and manmade dams, which without monitoring could eventually give out and result in a more catastrophic occurrence.
Most recent measurements estimate Palcacocha Lake holds 4.5 trillion gallons of glacier meltwater, which is enough to fill approximately 6,800 olympic size pools. The potential of a catastrophic flood following the collapse of the moraine dam is a serious threat to the growing city that lies beneath it. “Climate-driven environmental changes may critically affect stabilities of slopes above glacial lakes, possibly triggering large moraine landslides,” write the authors in the article. They call for continued monitoring of glacial lakes.
Peruvian farmer and mountaineering guide Saul Luciano Lliuya, and the town of Huaraz where he lives, long known as the “Switzerland of Peru,” may go down in climate-change history.
The hundreds of tropical glaciers that blanket the mountains above Huaraz are melting, and Lliuya lays partial blame on German energy company RWE, Europe’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Last Friday, Lliuya sent a letter of complaint to RWE, demanding that it pay $21,000 in compensation for its role in climate change, pocket change for a company that earned $1.38 billion in 2014. According to Lliuya’s claim, all the carbon RWE emits into the atmosphere contributes to glacial melt that threatens to flood his town, destroy his home and displace his family.
It is the first such claim in Europe and is backed by a German environmental NGO called Germanwatch, a representative of which met with Lliuya during the Lima Climate Change Conference, COP20, last December. Lliuya sent the letter to RWE through his lawyer Roda Verheyen, a Hamburg-based environmental attorney. If RWE is not willing to pay or does not answer his request by April 15, Lliuya will evaluate the possibility of suing the company.
“This move is unparalleled in Europe,” said Christoph Bals, Germanwatch’s policy director, in a statement. “It is unprecedented both in legal and political terms. It empowers potential climate change victims. It implements the ‘polluters pay’ principle, a step which is long overdue. A company which creates risks to others has two obligations: stopping to hurt them and limiting the damage.”
Michael Murphy, a spokesman for RWE, told GlacierHub via email that the company could not comment on the letter because it had not yet received it. There is no chance a lawsuit would turn into a class action, because Germany does not have a legal framework for such cases, Verheyen said, also via email. “I do not know whether this will spur similar cases,” she wrote. “My client takes a very courageous step.”
Given the timing, the case could have an impact on negotiations at the climate treaty meeting in Paris this December. According to the most recent assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, retreat and melting in the tropical glaciers of the Andes are caused by climate change. In fact, there are few environmental risks in which climate change can as clearly be faulted as Andean glacier melt, says Germanwatch.
“We do think that both the present claim and a potential lawsuit could lend new momentum to a climate agreement and in the international climate debate,” wrote Stefan Küper, Germanwatch press officer, in an email.
Huaraz is the capital of the region of Ancash, which is a site of great social unrest in Peru, in part due to the environmental impacts of mining mega-projects, which have long been charged with contaminating local water resources. Ancash registered the highest number of social conflicts of any region in Peru during February, with 24 cases, according to the Peruvian government’s Public Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo).
The mountain range that towers over Huaraz is known as the Cordillera Blanca, or white mountain range, the highest tropical mountain chain in the world. These dramatic white peaks are covered in 722 glaciers and 296 lakes, according to some estimates. But as the glaciers melt, they threaten not only to deplete a critical water source for the region, but to overwhelm the lakes below, causing torrential and devastating flooding in what are known as a glacial lake outburst floods. One of these lakes, called Lake Palcacocha, sits directly above Huaraz and is thought to pose major flood risk to the town. Over the past 40 years, the lake has grown in size by eight times and in volume by 30 times, according to Lliuya’s claim against RWE.
“Two glaciers could collapse into the lake, that would cause a big flood wave which would destroy the house of my family and many other houses in Huaraz. This is an unacceptable risk,” Lliuya told the Guardian. About 40,000 people live in the high-risk zone for flooding from Lake Palcacocha, according to the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas, Austin. In 1941, the lake banks were breached by flooding, and within a matter of minutes Huaraz was inundated.
Lliuya says RWE owes Huaraz $21,000 because that sum is equivalent to 0.47% of the estimated cost of protecting the town against flooding and other risks associated with glacier melt. According to the Institute of Climate Responsibility in Colorado, RWE is responsible for 0.47% of all global warming emissions produced between 1751 and 2010. The cost of protecting Huaraz would include drainage of Lake Palcacocha until safety works can be completed, including the building of new dams and the repairing of old ones.
A mutual friend of Lliuya and Germanwatch first introduced them, prior to the meeting at COP20. A small Germanwatch team including Christoph Bals subsequently visited Lliuya and his family in Huaraz, and made a joint visit to Lake Palcacocha. Lliuya could not be reached for comment.
To read more about glacial lake flooding, check out these glacierhub.org stories.