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.”
Palcacocha Lake (Source: Daniel Byers YouTube).
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.”