Indigenous Communities and The Mountain Institute Awarded St Andrews Prize for the Environment

The Mountain Institute, Peru has won a major award for an innovative project to help mountain communities adapt to the complete loss of glaciers. The 2018 St Andrews Prize for the Environment was awarded on April 26 at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The project successfully integrates indigenous knowledge from the highlands of Peru with modern technology to help local communities.

The Mountain Institute, Peru received the 2018 St Andrews Prize for the Environment (Source: St Andrews Prize for the Environment).

The prize was set up in 1998 and is managed and awarded by a panel of trustees with varying backgrounds and expertise. Individuals and teams from across the world submit applications for the Prize, which has gained international recognition. It comes with a cash prize of $100,000, which The Mountain Institute, Peru plans to use to expand its cooperation with communities in the Andes.

The project began in 2013 to assist communities in the Nor Yauyos-Cochas Landscape Reserve, about 200 kilometers east of Lima, affected by water scarcity. It illuminates the issue of glacial retreat, an increasingly prominent issue for mountain communities in the reserve, which sits 2,500 to 5,700 meters above sea level. The Andes lost 48 percent of its glacial ice since 1975. Many of the smaller glaciers have completely vanished, exposing desolate rocks and creating hardships for those that depend on glaciers for their water supply. The project’s solution captures rainwater with pre-Inca water management systems that have revived the local ecosystem and recharged aquifers.

The prize, given by the University of St Andrews in Scotland and sponsored by the oil and gas company ConocoPhillips, seeks to recognize initiatives that promote positive impacts on the environment and communities. Lord Alec Broers, chair of the St Andrews Prize for the Environment Trustees, called the project “exciting and different” in a statement, referring to its bottom-up approach.

The Nor Yauyos-Cochas Landscape Reserve features the puna landscape (Source: The Mountain Institute).

The partnerships with indigenous groups allowed communities to co-design the revitalization with The Mountain Institute, Peru. Ancient water regulating systems, such as reservoirs and irrigation canals, were reinstated. They date as far back as 1000 A.D. The hydraulic system, which had not been used continuously for five centuries, was abandoned after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Only now are they being recreated to harnesses the natural resilience of the puna ecosystem, which is comprised of wetlands, peatlands, and grasslands.

The project’s staff indicate that the increased soil and groundwater storage has led to gains in livestock productivity, greater food security, economic benefits, and improved richness and abundance of biodiversity. The result is a healthy puna ecosystem and surrounding community that is more resilient to climate change.

Local farmers from Nor Yauyos-Cochas working to restore their ancient water management system (Source: The Mountain Institute).

In his comments at the award ceremony, Jorge Recharte Bullard, director of the Andean Programme of The Mountain Institute, Peru, said the award is “recognition to the urgency to find solutions that, rooted in local cultures, secure mountain peoples’ water and livelihoods.”

“The communities there are dynamic, full of initiatives, and aware of their role in the stewardship of their environmental resources,” added Enrique Mayer, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale University who conducted fieldwork in the region. “All solutions have a local dimension first and a wider science accumulation of knowledge and expectations afterward,” he told GlacierHub.

The initiative is part of a larger project throughout the Peruvian Andes by the Mountain Institute, Peru, which also won the 2017 Solution Search “Farming for Biodiversity” contest in the “water impact” category. The Mountain Institute has worked for many years in the high Andes, and “deserves the prize and all the applause one can give it,” Mayer said.

For an earlier report on this project, before it received the St Andrews Prize, see this link.

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Irrigation a Potential Driver of Glacial Advance in Asia

Glaciers in the High Mountains of Asia (HMA), like most mountain glaciers around the world, are retreating due to climate change. However, in the Karakoram mountains of northwest HMA, glaciers have remained stable, and in some cases, have actually advanced. A recently published study in Geophysical Research Letters delved into one of the potential drivers behind this climatic irregularity, irrigation.

The idea that irrigation, a human-induced change to the environment for agricultural production, could regionally counteract climate change, another human-driven change, might seem a bit far-fetched. And to Remco J. de Kok, Obbe A. Tuinenburg, and Walter W. Immerzeel, three of the authors of the study who spoke with GlacierHub, it did at first start out as a wild idea. Nevertheless, previous studies, including Tuineburg’s own Ph.D. thesis, found that evaporation from irrigation in India was being transported by atmospheric winds to Himalayan areas where it fell as snow or rain, likely contributing to the increased glacial mass observed.

Diagram detailing how irrigation drivers glacial advances
How the presence of irrigation impacts local climate and glaciers (Source: Remco de Kok/Twitter).

The most famous of the advancing glacier areas is the Karakoram anomaly, first coined in 2005 by Ken Hewitt. According to Immerzeel, the term gained traction in subsequent remote sensing studies that partly confirmed the anomaly. As it turned out, the Karakoram range was not the only region with stable or advancing glaciers. Studies published in 2013 and 2017 also found positive mass balances in the Pamirs and the Kunlun Shan mountains northeast of the Karakorams.

Prior research pointed to atmospheric circulation patterns and a particularly seasonal pattern (precipitation was concentrated in winter). These studies were conducted across a large spatial scale, and therefore their proposed mechanisms should support stable and advancing glaciers uniformly across the region. Yet, the glaciers just south of Karakoram show some of the highest glacial melt rates in the region, notes de Kok, while at the same time glaciers in the Kunlun Shan region northeast of Karakoram exhibit positive mass balances. These differences in a relatively small geographical area led the authors to consider two hypotheses: either the glaciers are responding differently to similar climatic changes or that the glaciers are experiencing different climatic changes.

To assess these hypotheses, the authors selected China’s Tarim basin. According to de Kok, “It is adjacent to the areas of largest glacier growth and has some of the biggest increases in irrigation.” Next, the authors needed to assess whether recent irrigation increases in the basin were impacting neighboring mountain climates in a way that would be conducive to glacial growth.

Satellite image of the Tarim Basin
Satellite image of the Tarim Basin. The green to the southwest are the new irrigation areas potentially driving glacial advances (Source: Stuart Rankin/Creative Commons).

The authors utilized a regional climate model known as the Weather Research and Forecasting model, or WRF for short. The model was run under two scenarios: a historical or stagnant scenario and a recent change scenario. The historical scenario represented the difference between model runs with modern irrigation and no irrigation, along with atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations (GHG) held at 1900 levels. On the other hand, the recent change scenario represented the intensification of irrigation over the period 2000 to 2010 and a concurrent increase in GHG concentrations.

By applying these two scenarios, the authors were able to more accurately depict climatic changes and evaluate whether the impact of irrigation is significant in comparison to climate change. The authors were then able to compare the two to see if either had a dominant influence on the regional climate.

After running the models, the first apparent impacts of irrigation were an increase in evapotranspiration, a decrease in summer daytime temperatures, and an increase in atmospheric moisture directly over the basin.

Photo of Muztagh Ata
Muztagh Ata, a mountain of over 24,000 feet in the western Kunlun Shan (Source: dreamX/Creative Commons).

Then things got interesting.

The model runs showed increased summer snowfall in Kunlun Shan, Pamir, and northeast Tibet. These increases were largest for the historical scenario with 1900 GHG levels and modern irrigation, showing that the increase was primarily caused by irrigation, not GHG. The authors also analyzed changes in net radiation, the difference between incoming solar and outgoing terrestrial radiation. Across most of HMA, net radiation increased; conversely, in Kunlun Shan, net radiation decreased. This decrease is a result of a decrease in incoming solar radiation due to increased cloud cover and the increase in snow cover, which has a high albedo.

Map showing the changes to snowfall and net radiation
Changes to snowfall and net radiation in the Tarim basin region (Source: de Kok et al.).

The decrease in net radiation was found to counteract climate change’s enhanced greenhouse effect. Strikingly, when GHG were raised to current levels and irrigation was held at zero, the model results revealed an increase in net solar radiation across the entire region, signaling that irrigation is the principal reason for negative net radiation in Kunlun Shan.

While it was clear that increases in irrigation are leading to favorable conditions for glacier growth, where was this increased moisture coming from?

Model results pointed to the hypothesized Tarim basin as the main source of the increased moisture in the Kunlun Shan. The authors were able to corroborate this by conducting two model runs for the Tarim basin, one with no irrigation and one modern irrigation, while the rest of the region was held at modern levels. These runs revealed an increase in snowfall and a decrease in net radiation only when the Tarim basin had modern irrigation, confirming its influence.

Map of moisture source for summer snowfall in the Kunlun Shan
Map detailing the moisture source areas for Kunlun Shan summer snowfall (Source: de Kok et al.).

The irrigation of the Tarim basin is creating an advantageous environment for glacial growth, but the study is unable to attribute just how much this mechanism is contributing to the positive mass balance of the Kunlun Shan, a topic that will be the focus of future research, according to de Kok.

There’s also the question of sustainability for the recent increase in irrigation in the region as groundwater becomes more and more stressed and adverse ecological impacts in the otherwise arid Tarim basin take hold. A future reduction in irrigation could be bad news for glaciers, as the authors note it might “mean that the anomalous glacier mass balance in Kunlun Shan is of temporary nature.” Nonetheless, in a world where melting glaciers have become the new norm, stable glaciers, even if fleeting, are a welcomed respite.

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Asia’s High Glaciers Protect Communities from Drought

A recent study in Nature by Hamish Pritchard, a glaciologist at Cambridge University and researcher for the British Antarctic Survey, shows that the high mountains of Asia, including the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and Karakoram, are being greatly affected by global warming. In some areas of the Himalayan region, for example, temperatures have risen faster than the global average. From 1982 to 2006, the average annual mean temperature in the region increased by 1.5 °C, with an average increase of .06 °C per year, according to UNEP. Even though studies on the high mountains of Asia are incomplete, it is believed that the mountains will lose half of their ice in the next 30 years.

Farmers in Pakistan are shifting from wheat to cope with the droughts (Source: Muhammad Darjat/Google Images).

This glacial loss has consequences for Asia as the glaciers provide an important ecosystem service to 800 million people by acting as a regional buffer against drought and providing summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers. If the glaciers in the eastern and central Himalayas disappear by 2035, the ecosystem service protecting against drought would be lost. Despite the fact that glaciers can promote drought resiliency, the surrounding areas would be particularly vulnerable to water scarcity because the glaciers will not supply enough meltwater to maintain the rivers and streams at adequate levels.

Lack of water could lead to devastating food shortages and malnutrition, further impacting the economy and public health. Based on a projected estimate of glacier area in 2050, it is thought that declining water availability will eventually threaten some 70 million people with food insecurity. Droughts in the Himalayan region have already resulted in more than 6 million deaths over the past century. Glacier loss would only add to drought-related water stress in the region, impacting a surrounding 136 million people.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Pritchard explained, “Without these glaciers, particularly in the Indus and Aral, droughts would be substantially worse in summer than they are now, and that could be enough to drive conflict and migration, which becomes a regional and potentially global issue. It could result in social instability, conflict, and migrations of populations.”

According to Pritchard’s research, the high mountains of Asia supply 23 cubic kilometers of water downstream every summer. If the glaciers were to vanish, the amount of water during the summer would decrease by 38 percent in the upper Indus basin on average and up to 58 percent in drought conditions. The loss of summer meltwater would have its greatest effects on the municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with water stress being classified as medium to extremely high. For example, the Indus River, which has one of the world’s largest irrigation networks, is Pakistan’s primary source of freshwater. About 90 percent of Pakistan’s agriculture depends on the river and much of the world’s cotton comes from the Indus River Valley. Additionally, decreased meltwater would further affect upstream countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Nepal that rely on hydropower. The Toktogul hydropower plant and four smaller plants downstream produce almost 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity.

An irrigation system in the Indus basin in Pakistan (Source: GRID Arendal/Creative Commons).

Pritchard presents data that show how much the glacier meltwater contributes to different regions within Asia during drought. Some areas, such as the Aral Sea, rely exclusively on the glacier water during the drought months. The glaciers provide meltwater when rainfall is minimal or nonexistent under drought conditions because glaciers store precipitation for decades to centuries as ice, which then flows to lower altitudes when melting in the summer. Twila Moon, a postdoctoral research associate at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, recently discussed the consequences of global glacier volume loss on populations worldwide in Science magazine. “Rising seas, to which melting ice is a key contributor, are expected to displace millions of people within the lifetime of many of today’s children,” she stated. “This loss of Earth’s land ice is of international concern.”

As temperatures continue to rise, the surrounding regions will begin to lose their source of water for food, agriculture and survival. Due to inadequate scientific studies and evidence, the trends and status of glaciers in the Himalayas and other ranges are not being sufficiently observed and recorded. A lack of adequate monitoring of the glaciers means political action to adapt to the foreseen changes will be limited. More communication between the scientific community and policymakers is needed to relay knowledge about the impacts of changes in glaciers on the region’s hydrology, environment and livelihoods.

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Addressing Mountains in a Peruvian Village

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Farmers from Pinchollo village clean a water reservoir for the glacial melt water from Hualca Hualca mountain. Source: A. Stensrud

From 2010 to 2012, Astrid Stensrud, currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oslo, researched climate change in the Colca Canyon of southern Peru, as part of the project “From Ice to Stone” from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. With climate change, water insecurity has caused new uncertainties for farmers in this part of Peru. For her article “Climate Change, Water Practices and Relational Worlds in the Andes,” Stensrud researched water practices to provide an anthropological perspective on how local people adapt to climate change. The research is based on ethnographic material generated during eight months of fieldwork in various villages of Peru, located at different altitudes in the Colca-Majes-Camaná watershed. Examining climate change from a social science perspective can complement natural science perspectives, because it allows for an analysis of the integrated relationship between infrastructure, technology, material objects, and culture. Taking this connected web into account, water serves as a link to join every part, including not only natural factors but also social and cultural ones. Stensrud’s research shows that these aspects are connected, offering locally-based solutions to address the current water crisis caused by climate change.

Stensrud spoke with Glacier Hub by email.

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Farmers from Pinchollo village, Peru. Source: A. Stensrud

GlacierHub: As an anthropologist, why did you decide to focus on the intersection of culture, water security, and climate change— and what does looking at culture add to the climate change conversation?

Astrid Stensrud: Climate research has been largely dominated by the natural sciences, but social anthropologists ask different questions and have the advantage of doing long-term, in-depth fieldwork among people affected by climate change and declining water supplies. Anthropology can contribute by drawing attention to cultural values and everyday politics that shape climate-related knowledge and responses to environmental change. Understanding climate change is not only about melting ice and changing precipitation patterns. In order to understand how climate change affects lives, it is necessary to look at stories and narratives, imaginations of the past and anticipations of the future, and knowledge, values and worldviews that inform people’s actions and engagements with the environment.

GH: Why did you choose the Colca Valley in Peru as the site for your research?

AS: I was invited to join a research project called “From Ice to Stone” at the University of Copenhagen for two years in 2010-2012, and it was led by anthropologist Karsten Paerregaard who has been doing ethnographic research in Colca Valley since the 1980s. Since this is an arid area, water access and irrigation have always been crucial issues in Colca, and these concerns are now exacerbated because of climate change. In my current position as a postdoctoral researcher in the research project “Overheating: the three crises of globalization” at the University of Oslo, it was a natural choice to return to the Colca-Majes watershed in order to continue the research on perceptions and responses to climate change and neoliberal economic policies.

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The celebration after finishing the work on the reservoir. Source: A. Stensrud

GS: In the course of your research, what was your biggest surprise?

AS: I was surprised to find that issues of water and climate change were so visible and present in conversations among people. I was expecting to patiently dig for information, but when I arrived to Chivay in March 2011, water was discussed in private and public arenas on an everyday basis, and climate change was a term that was used extensively. Later on, I realized that this was not necessarily a good thing, for example when the threat of climate change is used to make poor farmers pay for licenses for water use rights. Climate change was also used as an excuse by a mining company in their response to farmers’ complaints about disappearing water sources nearby a mining site; they claimed that the mine was not to be blamed, because the culprit was global warming.

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The return trip to the village. Source: A. Stensrud

GS: You use the word “cosmopolitics” in your study. What does it mean, and how does that word help explain water issues in the Colca Valley?

AS: Here I am inspired by the anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena, who has used the term “indigenous cosmopolitics” – or a “pluriversal politics” – to describe a politics that would allow for disagreements on the definition of nature itself, and accept nature as multiplicity. It contributes to my argument that different water practices enact multiple versions of water, for example relational water and modern water, and that a stronger ethnographic focus on material practices can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of climate change effects and water politics. In Colca Valley, it might for example say something about why relating to mountain-beings is not “indigenous religion,” but part of communities’ responses to water scarcity.

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A canal leads the glacial meltwater from the Hualca Hualca mountain to the reservoir. Source: A. Stensrud

GH: Colca Valley is deep. Are the glaciers visible from the villages? Does the fact that people do (or don’t) see them regularly influence the way that they think about them?

AS: Yes, the Colca River runs through the deep Colca Canyon. However, the villages are not located at the riverbank, but further up in the mountainsides, and they have very clear views of the mountaintops that used to be covered by glaciers – permanent snow and ice – but which now are black. When it has snowed and the mountains are white, people comment upon their beauty. The visibility of the mountaintops makes the absence of the glaciers very dramatic.

GH: At GlacierHub, we focus on glaciers. But perhaps we think about them more than the people who live near them. Did glaciers come up spontaneously in conversation, or only if you asked about them?

AS: When explaining the topic of my research for people, or when asking questions about weather and water, the first thing that many people mentioned was the lack of snow on the mountaintops and the permanent ice that had disappeared, causing dry pastures and other problems. So I did not have to ask specifically for the glaciers for people to tell me about them. Their visibility and their importance for water provision (at least in some of the villages) made their disappearance into a matter of concern for farmers.

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Central Chile’s Valleys Irrigated by Glacial Waters

Glaciers are an important factor for the success of agriculture in valleys in Chile. According to a recent study in the International Journal of Water Resources Management, the presence of glaciers at high elevation is one of the distinguishing factors that led to different degrees of agricultural development through irrigation among four valleys in Chile.  More glaciers were present in the higher peaks of the Andes, which are located to the east of the valleys they studied.

The study region in central Chile, with the Andes to the east and the Pacific to the west. Credit: Google Earth .

Author Peter Frederiksen documented the expansion of irrigation and changing land-use patterns in the valleys through in-person and archival research between 2000 and 2014. The study looked at the Petorca, La Ligua, Putaendo, and Aconcagua valleys of Central Chile, which is a major fruit-growing region. The southernmost valley, the Aconcagua Valley, had the greatest water resources, measured in streamflow, while the northern valleys had less. The difference was correlated with altitude, which allows for the presence of glaciers, and a larger catchment area, Frederiksen writes.

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The Aconcagua valley, with a snow-tipped Andean peak in the background. The river at the valley floor is the source of irrigation. Credit: Robert Cutts/Flickr

More water meant greater development of new fruit orchards, since irrigation was aided by the availability of surface water. While irrigation and fruit plantations expanded in all four valleys during the 14 years, there were differences in the amount of irrigation and the patterns of water use and allocation, with Aconcagua Valley having the most expansion of agriculture.

In addition to studying changes in patterns of natural resource availability and agricultural development, Frederiksen shows that who controls water and land resources has changed with globalization. He found, through interviews with local residents and stakeholders, that large companies and wealthy individuals are the main developers of new irrigation. The pressure of new irrigation increases the demand on water resources, and Frederiksen documents how development plans for fruit export led by wealthy and powerful influences outmatched water management groups that had self-organized.

Looking to the future, Frederiksen identified two trends that will impact irrigation development: climate change and the continued expansion of water resource development. Increased heat in the Andes will melt glaciers, which have already been retreating over the 20th Century. While snowpack is the main contributor to streamflow, glaciers become more important to water supply during dry years, such as La Nina years, when precipitation is usually low. Glacier meltwater thereby reduces the year-to-year fluctuations in water supply.

The government plans to meet the growing needs of fruit irrigation with future dams, improvements in irrigation including canals and use of drip irrigation, and harvesting of groundwater. But if glaciers melt and precipitation decreases, these steps might not be enough. Frederiksen writes, “The two opposite tendencies – the policy and plans for continued irrigation development, and climate change – define uncertain futures.”

Plum orchards in a region to the south of the study area. Credit: Fuitnet.com/Flickr.

Frederiksen’s study is motivated by the need for “wise, intelligent, and informed strategies” for bringing together water institutions and agents with the goal of protecting water resources, in the face of challenges including climate change, globalization, and development of water resources in more parts of the world. The study puts forward a model for understanding water resource development that is useful, Frederiksen writes, in overcoming confusion and barriers to implementation in water resource management.

 

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