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Icy Disaster in the Andes, Climate Lesson for the World

Mark Carey is an assistant professor of environmental history at Washington and Lee University and is the author of In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society. The book illustrates in vivid detail how people in the Andes have grappled with the effects of climate change and ensuing natural disasters for more than half a century. In the original post below Carey looks how a recent natural disaster can teach us a climate lesson.

Although some US senators may resist discussion of the new climate and energy bill this week, people around the world continue to live with incessant dangers that disrupt their daily lives and threaten their existence. A recent glacier avalanche in Peru, for example, unleashed a powerful outburst flood that caused significant destruction. It was the same kind of flood that increasingly endangers people living near melting glaciers worldwide, from Switzerland and Norway to Canada and New Zealand, China and Nepal.

Beyond underscoring the need to move forward quickly with a new climate bill, the recent outburst flood also reveals that climate change discussions too often focus solely on the causes of climate change. While critical, this emphasis on what drives climate change and who (or what) is to blame, can derail dialogue about climate impacts that are already occurring worldwide, sometimes with deadly consequences.

The April 11th flood from Peru’s Lake 513 on the slope of Mount Hualcán inundated areas near the town of Carhuaz, destroying dozens of homes and washing away roads. Tens of thousands of residents also lost access to potable water when floodwaters damaged a water treatment facility. Nonetheless, the flood could have been much worse. Luckily, engineers had already partially drained Lake 513 — along with dozens of other glacial lakes in the region.

For seven decades, Peruvian engineers have worked to contain the danger posed by glacial lakes. Nearly 6,000 residents have died from glacial lake outburst floods since 1941, propelling the Peruvian government to drain or dam a total of 34 glacial lakes. Their expertise is now crucial in helping specialists in Asia, North America, and Europe to minimize glacial lake hazards.

The recent flood reveals the promise, as well as the pitfalls, of the Peruvians’ technological fixes. Lake 513 was purportedly one of the glacial lakes that engineers had in fact “fixed.” It originally formed at the foot of a shrinking glacier in the early 1980s, and by 1985 was a significant threat to thousands of Carhuaz residents. Although engineers responded by pumping out millions of gallons of water, the lake kept growing. Finally, in 1991 the dam burst and caused an outburst flood — just as it did earlier this month. Engineers then installed a complex tunnel system to drain even more water out of the lake. Their damage control worked . . . until two weeks ago.

Peru’s experience reminds us that disaster vulnerability is not just about environmental processes. Avalanches and floods only become disasters when they affect people.

In Carhuaz in the 1970s, residents defied zoning laws that prohibited construction in potential avalanche and flood paths below Mount Hualcán. The laws came into being after glacial avalanches on neighboring Mount Huascarán killed 4,000 people in 1962 and 15,000 in 1970. At that point government officials and UNESCO experts determined that Mount Hualcán glaciers were also unstable, and insisted that the population relocate outside the floodplain. Nonetheless, locals resisted, perceiving this as yet another bureaucratic imposition. They also believed that government engineering projects (technology) could protect them from the unstable alpine landscape.

Peruvians are hardly alone: around the world — from Florida to Fiji — people live in hazard zones exposed to hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, and volcanic eruptions. They depend on early warning systems and technological fixes, like levees or building codes, which can sometimes fail or fail to be enforced.

These technological fixes can certainly protect people, as engineering efforts did at Lake 513. But they also breed local dependence on government good will. If funding wanes, governments change, or people simply ignore zoning laws and building codes, then disaster prevention technologies and climate change adaptation programs can falter.

The recent flood from Lake 513 exposes both the potential and perils of technological fixes. Engineering projects prevented a more catastrophic flood. But damage from the flood might not have occurred at all if additional resources to monitor, maintain, and contain dangerous lakes had been available to the under-staffed and poorly funded government glaciology office. Technological solutions to climate change and natural disasters require continuous funding to guarantee people’s safety. Developing nations rarely have such resources. And political change can eliminate such funding anywhere. What’s more, engineering solutions might not always work, as with the levees in New Orleans.

Peru’s situation conveys another – yet broader – message about climate change. While most global warming discussions and international agreements focus on global temperatures and greenhouse gasses, real people in real places (like Peru and Nepal) struggle to survive near shrinking glaciers. For them, the more urgent issue is about how to resolve threats that already exist. Climate change discussions need to move beyond the atmosphere to the ground-level, where people live under the impact of the climate every day.

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