Peru is home to 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers, but 40% of their surface area has disappeared since the 1970s. The glaciers are a crucial water source in Peru, so people must adapt as they disappear.
In a place like Peru, climate change adaptation begins in the mountains. And alpine communities are scrambling to find ways of adjusting to a new reality.
According to Peru’s Natural Institute of Natural Resources all of the country’s 200 glaciers are under threat. It is feared that by 2025, all of them will be gone.
When the poisoned rivers ran red with heavy metals, people from nearby communities didn’t believe at first that climate change was to blame. In this small village nestled in the Cordillera Blanca, a majestic mountain range that contains several of the highest peaks in South America, the glaciers melted and metal-rich rocks were exposed to the air for the first time in thousands of years.
The glacial meltwater washing over the exposed rocks carried metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and iron into area waterways, turning rivers like the Rio Negro a rust red. This contaminated both soil and water and posed a significant health risk.
Over time, people, wildlife and livestock who drank the water became sick, and crop productivity plummeted. As headlines of global climate change become more alarming, it’s easy to forget that climate change is also an intensely local problem.
In the remote mountain villages around the Rio Negro, that adaptation effort took a curious and innovative form. To restore the poisoned river water and contaminated landscape around it, villagers collaborated with scientists from the Mountain Institute and with academic specialists. With training, they built a water purification system that collects the acidic river water in small ponds.
Then, using local traditional knowledge, they planted native plant species that could absorb metals from the water.