The Real Price of Water: The Future’s Rare Resource

Can someone really understand climate change if it has no impact on his/her daily life? Our routines are all similar; head to the bathroom, brush our teeth, flush the toilet, take a shower, turn on our computers. We’ll head to the fridge and even keep the thing open for a good 5 minutes while we decide what we’ll have for breakfast. Those of us blessed to have a green patch of earth will water our lawns or watch the pool man do his job while we read the paper, all the while ignoring the really important articles on page 6. The stories that tell us that one day we’ll wake up, head to the bathroom and they’ll be no water for us to brush our teeth, no water to flush our excrement or to clean ourselves. Our computers lay idle because the hydro electric plant that produces our energy does not receive enough water to power its turbines. Of our picture perfect neighborhoods becoming dusty wastelands as desertification creeps in, claiming a generation of ignorance and leaving our children stranded in a mess we created.

Huari, Peru

Too dramatic for you? Don’t want to think about it perhaps? Or maybe it hasn’t hit you yet, hasn’t shaken you from your comfort zone. It hit me in 2005, as I was travelling through the Andes of Peru with family and friends. I remember the bright sunny day as our small van made it’s way up to Lake Llaganuco in Huaraz, Peru. We had stopped to admire the glistening lake, a spectacular beauty resting amongst two giant glaciers, as if creating a peace between them. The larger glacier of which was Huascarán, immeasurable in scope and as my mother would say a shadow of it’s former glory. Throughout the trip through the Andes my mother would constantly point out how the glaciers were receding, how in her childhood they were “dressed in the whitest snow you had ever seen”. Later I would see photographs of the mountains that surrounded me, some were only half covered in snow, and that’s only what you can see.  When we finally reached my mothers home town of Huari on the eastern side of the Cordillera Blanca (White Mountains) there were no more glaciers to be seen. “When I was a little girl you could see the glaciers from town, I would hike up to the hill and stare at the beautiful mountains, now they are gone.” my mother expressed sadly. What a sight it must have been to see what my ancestors only described as the Gods looking down on us.

Lake Llaganuco, Peru

It doesn’t have to take a trip to the Andes for a wake up call. In the modern era of information I’d like to think that the majority of us are well informed about the subject of climate change. Our problem is more our short attention span, sure we care about the environment but there is a sale at Best Buy.. oh wait hold on someone is texting me… what did you say? All I am trying to say is the best thing you can do is keep informed and support those informing you so you can inform others.

A couple weeks ago, after checking out Black Friday deals at Best Buy, I came home to an email from a friend who is the editorial assistant to OnEarth Magazine. OnEarth is published by the Natural Resources Defense Council which is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing.  In the email she had sent me a report titled “Life and Death in a Dry Land” written by the magazines articles editor, George Black. In the report Mr. Black speaks with many specialists as well as everyday people who are battling climate change in Peru at this very second.

Mr. Black opens his article by informing everyone that the problem of climate change in Peru is not just Peru’s problem but of the entire human race. Why? Because “The Andes contain 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers (which sounds at first like an oxymoron, but altitude is everything). Peru alone accounts for almost three-quarters of them. These glaciers are not only an indispensable water source, storing and releasing the precious liquid on a seasonal cycle, nourishing depleted rivers during the long dry season; they are also an invaluable data bank on climate change.” These glaciers are disappearing at incredible speeds.

Lima, the capital city of Peru, is at the front lines of climate change. The river Rimac, which cuts through the city and provides the water for two thirds of it’s 9 million residents, has its source high up in the Andes. “According to the latest government estimates, between 1970 and 2006 fully one-third of the ice cover disappeared, and the rate of loss has increased. Within 10 years, all the ice below 5,000 meters (16,400 feet)—which drying of the west includes virtually all of the glaciers that feed the Río Rímac and Lima—is likely to be gone. This pattern of accelerating retreat is occurring in every glaciated area in the world, from Antarctica to the Tibetan Plateau, from the European Alps to the North American Rockies.” explains Mr. Black. Having lived in Lima the past 4 years I can give you first hand account that the water shortages have already begun. Living in Central Lima, only 10 minutes away from the presidential palace, I would wake up and head to the bathroom to shower only to find that there was no water. Whether these were shortages or interruptions in service does not matter at that point. Sometimes you just want to take a shower or be able to flush your toilet and brush your teeth. Not to mention that water for everyday cooking is essential, especially for that warm cup of coffee or tea in the morning.

Water is everything, it’s a precious resource we consistently take advantage of. Don’t believe me? Go one  day without using any water, that’s right, try going a day using your toilet without flushing… yes it’s gross. Try not showering or brushing as well and turn your refrigerator off, all your food will spoil. Try watering your lawn with no water or taking a swim in your empty pool, you’ll look the damn fool.

Lonnie Thompson inspects Ohio State’s huge collection of tropical ice cores.

Mr. Black’s article documents the work scientists are doing to understand the changes our planet is going through. He travels high up into the Andes to talk with colleagues who drill for ice cores, studying the climate by looking into the planet’s past. These ice cores are a database of information, similar to tree rings, they detail atmospheric conditions dating back 19,000 years. Mr. Black explains that researchers have even found similarities between the rise and fall of pre-Columbian civilizations in Peru and the changing climate. “In the context of this climate history, the most notable of the desert civilizations may have been the Moche, who controlled a coastal strip more than 300 miles long from the ocean to the western face of the Andes and dominated a string of river valleys. The largest of these rivers was the glacier-fed Río Santa. The Moche diverted the waters into a complex of irrigation canals to cultivate fields of maize, peanuts, lima beans, sweet potatoes, peppers, quinoa, and squash. They were present in this area from about AD 100, dominated it for about 500 years, and then began to fall apart after a string of catastrophic climate events. By 750, the Moche civilization was literally dead and buried.”

As much as the world can be educated in our environment by studying its past, it still lacks one thing; action. Action by governments, and by people like you and me will go a long way in not necessarily eliminating climate change, but adapting to it. Our environment is changing and no one person can halt the damage that has been done, but together we can adapt, we must adapt and see that nothing so severe happens again due to our abuse of the planet. We must heal the wound that has been inflicted on the Earth before the infection spreads, we must become its white blood cells, it’s medicine, not poison it through our ignorance.

Once a week, water trucks make their rounds of the Lima shantytown of Virgen de Chapi, one of scores that lack running water.

Mr.Black ends his article on a positive note, saying that through creativity anything is possible. This is his conclusion after visiting a young neighborhood on the outskirts of Lima. Bellavista del Paraiso (A Beautiful view of Paradise) is anything but that, or yet, in all fairness. ‘The water truck, owned by a private company, comes once a week, Magally explained, and one of those blue barrels holds 200 liters, about 52 gallons. People have no option but to pay the prices set by the truck operators. “A family of four in the city pays 20 soles a month for running water,” she said—about seven dollars. “Here we pay three times as much. They say it’s drinking water, but it often comes from contaminated wells so you have to filter and boil it first.”’ However slow, change is in the foggy air, as fog catchers were recently installed by a German organization to produce an alternative method of collecting water. Mr. Black goes on to tell of the children who damage the fog catchers, stealing metals from the devices to sell in the city, as well as the current state of one of the wells, “We peered down into one of the cement tanks. Except for a dead dog, it was empty.”

The dry wasteland of a future that I described earlier is becoming a reality. Cities on coastal deserts are most at risk today, however the big picture paints an entire planet in disharmony. Sea levels rising, storms intensifying, widespread desertification. I hate to sound alarmist, but in Peru the war for water has already begun and is intensifying. Are you still waiting for your wake up call? for some it may already be too late.

For the big picture please read “Life and Death in a Dry Land” by George Black

Explore the latest issue of OnEarth Magazine

Julio C. Tello

Founder of Karikuy, an organization in Peru that brings travelers to visit and explore the country. Julio also runs the Karikuy Volunteer program and is the editor of this blog. Julio likes to write about his adventures in Peru as well as Peruvian folklore, mysteries and secluded locations.

One thought on “The Real Price of Water: The Future’s Rare Resource

  • December 21, 2010 at 7:06 am

    It is so easy to forget about water shortage when you live in Quebec,

    Canada. If I am more frugal with water consumption up here, how could that help Peru and other nations? I am ready to reduce our family's water consumption but would like to know how my actions can serve other communities nearby or far away. Would love to help by sharing.


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