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Conflict over Water in Peru Has Lessons for Climate Change

This is the story of a small community in the Andes and its fight with a major energy company over access to water. No one knows how the conflict will end. But, as Washington and Lee University history professor Mark Carey observes, the battle offers lessons for other communities threatened by the early effects of climate change.

Carey, who specializes in environmental history, has been following the unfolding events as part of his ongoing research into the social history of climate change and glacier retreat.

As a corollary, the story also illustrates the value of student-faculty research collaboration. In this case, Carey is working with Elliott O’Brien, a W&L senior with a major in politics, and Adam French, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Their research is funded by the National Science Foundation. O’Brien spent several weeks on site in Peru collecting information for his senior thesis on the development of social movements in defense of water access. “This is a great example of student-professor collaboration,” said Carey.

Back to the Andes: Carey sees the unfolding events there as the perfect illustration of how climate change solutions sometimes have less to do with science and technology and more to do with the social relations and power dynamics of the groups involved. “We aren’t saying who is right and wrong, who is victim and aggressor- we are still trying to figure that out,” he said.

Lake Parón is a glacial lake in the Peruvian Andes, supporting a community of 15,000 people.

• View a slide show from Lake Paron

The people in the area live with the looming danger that, as the glacier above the lake continues to melt, the lake will overflow its banks, flooding the area and possibly killing many in the community. Such glacier flooding has happened in the past in other areas-between 1941 and 1970, retreating glaciers in the Andes caused three floods and two avalanches that killed 25,000 people.

To forestall such a flood, the Peruvian government partially drained Lake Parón 25 years ago by digging a tunnel into it. In 1991 they installed floodgates on the drainage tunnel to control the water level and increase production of hydroelectricity.

As the story goes, things started to go wrong for the local people in 1996, when the Cañón del Pato hydroelectric station was privatized and Duke Energy (a U.S. company) acquired the rights to control Lake Parón that provides water for hydroelectricity generation.

The waters of the lake fluctuate according to whether it is the dry or rainy season, and the state had already established a level of water above which the lake should not rise during the rainy season, due to the risk of flooding. Some have since specified a water level below which the lake should not be allowed to go during the dry season.

Unfortunately, Duke Energy released large quantities of water during the dry season, periodically reducing the lake level to below this minimum. Locals described the lake as ugly and “nothing more than a puddle,” which undermined its appeal as a tourist attraction.

The community decided to reclaim control of the lake, and in 2008 it did just that.

“The local people showed up and kicked out Duke and all the authorities and took control of their lake,” said Carey.

Carey’s team is trying to get hold of records of lake water use in recent history to understand more precisely how much water Duke Energy took out. “This would help us better understand whether or not the company was acting within its legal rights to water or whether the locals do, in fact, have a point that Duke Energy mismanaged the water,” he said.

After taking over the lake, the local people decided to return the water to its correct level by not allowing any more water out.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple.

Although the citizens retain physical control of the lake today, they don’t have access to the tunnel to control the water flow because the energy company has put four padlocks on the tunnel’s door.

“The community has control of the area but they can’t physically get inside the tunnel and change the water flow,” said O’Brien.

As a result, at the end of the rainy season the water level briefly breached the upper limit defined by hazard assessments of the lake. This increased the likelihood of a catastrophic flood with the potential to wipe out the town below.

“It’s a big lake,” said Carey. “It has five times more water than the flood of 1941 that killed 5,000 people in a neighboring area. With the rainy season coming around again in March, we are once more approaching a critical time.”

Carey’s team is among the first in the Andes to look at this conflict as social scientists, considering the perspectives of all the groups involved in Lake Parón, not just those of the scientists or government. “There are several groups involved, including Duke Energy, water users, local farmers and residents, state policy makers and environmental scientists,” said Carey. “By looking at the way these groups interact, and the different views they bring to the problem, we can get a better understanding of why people make the decisions they make.”

During O’Brien’s time with the local people he gained a good understanding of the issue from their perspective and understands why they took such radical action.

“These are rural people living in the highlands who historically have been alienated from the national government,” he said. “Many people in the Andes feel that the state’s concern about their communities’ vulnerability to glacier disasters is just another way for them to expand the state’s control over their lives and exploit their resources.

“So there’s a lot of tension between the locals and the National Water Authority that supposedly regulates water users in Peru. They don’t have any faith in them. They are also frustrated because their representatives in the national government have only paid lip service in support of the community’s fight.”

O’Brien said he found that the beauty of the lake is a major concern to the local people-geologists in the 1950s compared its beauty to that of the Yosemite Valley. “The lake also has a huge influence in local traditions and songs, and is prominently featured on the town seal. It is a big part of the town’s culture and to lose it would be to lose part of the soul of the town,” he said.

The locals also had issues with the way the water had been managed in the past for irrigation, which caused large floods of water down the river. “Their irrigation system consists of logs and stones, so when a big volume of water comes down it washes it all away and they have to rebuild it,” O’Brien explained.

There were also problems because the high water flows carried increased sediment, which clogged the drinking water treatment facility.

O’Brien summed up the situation as having several different components – spiritual, cultural, economic and survival.

It all illustrates Carey’s view that bringing in scientific modelers to predict what’s going to happen with climate change is important but inadequate by itself. “This is about social factors,” he said. “The work we are doing here in this important case of water management and social conflict has many lessons for other communities dealing with climate change and water management legislation.”

Carey said the lessons from Lake Parón will be relevant not just in Peru and Ecuador, but also in Bolivia which he said is really going to suffer. “There are tens of millions of people in south Asia who are in the same predicament with the disappearing Himalayan glaciers, where the local people rely on water from the glacial lakes.”

Carey used the Lake Parón situation as a case study at a climate-glaciers workshop in Peru that he and O’Brien attended in July. He was also the chosen delegate to present researchers’ recommendations on how to handle climate change issues to the Peruvian Minister of Environment.

“We need to understand the human responses to climate change and natural disasters,” added Carey, “because it shows what we will face in the future.”

For more information about glacier-climate issues and another project Carey has been working on with his undergraduate students, visit: http://glaciers.wlu.edu