/ 27 November 2010

A climate journey

Last month I went on an extraordinary, epic journey through the Andes mountains of Peru and Ecuador. The aim was to record the stories of the largely hidden people on the frontline of climate change, and see how communities and governments are trying to adapt.

I began at 16 000ft on the snows of Mount Cayambe in Ecuador where the glaciers are in full retreat, and ended in the oilfields of the Amazon. In between, I came across water conflicts, deserts growing, rivers shrinking, extreme temperatures and diseases spreading, individuals who have seen the snows disappear in their lifetimes and are fearful for their future, and governments seriously worried that they will soon be unable to feed or provide water and power for their populations.

Climate change has fallen off the political agenda in rich countries since the shambles of the Copenhagen summit last year, and the headlines have been dominated by global recession. But while politicians fail to act, the phenomenon continues unabated. In the past week, the three major institutes that calculate global warming have said 2010 will at least tie for the hottest year yet recorded, and it is widely expected that global carbon dioxide emissions will hit record levels.

This year summer temperatures in Russia and central Asia were 7,8°C above average for a whole month, the Pakistan floods affected more than 20-million people, and temperature records were set in 17 countries from Finland to Iraq, Burma and Colombia. Again, there was a near-record melting of Arctic sea ice and the UN has recorded more than 700 extreme-weather related disasters.

Yet most of the world has never heard the phrase “climate change” and does not understand the science behind man-induced climate change. Hundreds of millions of people are having to adapt without help to the major changes in the climate which they can see are taking place, for which they are not responsible.

Next week 193 governments meet in Cancún, Mexico, to thrash out a new climate deal. There is no prospect of a legally binding agreement for several years. Instead, there is a massive gap between the pledges made so far by the rich and the actions that science says are needed to avoid the worst of climate change. Latin America, home to 500-million people, will lead the world in demanding more ambition and urgency. This is my account of what I saw there.

4 698m, Mount Cayambe, Ecuador
We are dead on the equator but the wind whips snow from the glaciers and icefields on Ecuador’s third highest mountain. The 5 897m peak is shrouded in cloud but the ice, which used to stretch many kilometres down the mountain, has retreated 600m up the mountain in 30 years. “Ecuador has nearly lost one third of its ice,” says the glaciologist Bolivar Caceres, the head of the government’s glacier and meteorology unit. “The speed has been incredible. It started in the 1980s and is still accelerating. The glaciers have all retreated miles. Cayambe has lost 40% of its ice mass, possibly 10% in just the last decade.”

His predictions, however, are based on a 1°C rise in temperatures in the next 80 years, which other glaciologists say could be too conservative.

4 100m, Pampa Corral, near Cusco, Peru
The farmer Julio Hanneco grows 215 varieties of potatoes in his highland village. “I live close to two glaciers. They used to give us light in the night and water. I would only have to walk a few metres and I could touch one. Now they have gone. It takes a whole day to get close to one. There have been so many changes in the climate and I don’t understand what is happening. The seasons used to be certain and we would know when to plant crops. I feel disoriented. I fear soon we will have no water. If that happens it would be the end of the world for us.”

4 058m, La Paz, Bolivia
New peer-reviewed, US-government funded research suggests that Bolivia and Peru face catastrophic food and water shortages if temperatures rise as predicted. Researchers at the Florida Institute of Technology, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), found that Lake Titicaca had twice shrunk 85% following temperature rises only 2-3°C higher than now. “The implications would be profound for over two million people,” says NSF’s Paul Filmer. In a separate analysis, the cost of climate change to Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, could be over 7% of its GDP by 2025 — almost as much as the country’s combined spending on health and education.

3 900m, The Paramo, Ecuador
Highland communities here are having to adapt fast to the changes. “There is much less rain than before and the land has been overused in the past by big cattle ranches. We need to conserve everything. We have banned cattle and restored 100km of old waterways. It has been a huge community effort but we have increased the amount of water available by 10%,” says Humberto Cholango, from the village of More on the flanks of Mount Cayambe. The retreat of the glaciers also affects the electricity supplies of major cities such as La Paz and El Alto in Bolivia which depend on hydro power, says Bolivar Caceres. In Ecuador, where only 3% of the water supplies come directly from glaciers, 15% of the water is held in the boggy pasturelands called the Paramo. If this is allowed to dry up, he says, then cities will have less.

3 816m, Yauri, Espinar province, Peru
The city is cut off and deserted apart from police as we arrive, with a general strike called the next day to protest at government water plans. Water is only available for between 30 minutes and two hours a day and the situation is worsening, say Nestor Cuti, the president of the Espinar strike committee. Now, the federal government plans a reservoir to divert water from a river 320km away to big farmers who are growing vegetables for export to the US. It will leave Espinar even more short of water and everyone has stopped work.

“We don’t trust the rains any more. Year after year there is less rain. Climate change projections indicate that in years to come we will have next to nothing. We are being condemned to a slow death. This is a climate change strike. The water wars have started here,” says Cuti. The next day the Espinar water strike spreads to communities near Machu Picchu. One man is killed in clashes with the police.

3 700m, Huayhuasi, Peru
Llama and alpaca farmers have been badly hit by recurring water shortages. “The rains used to be from October to April. Now it rains for two to three months if we are lucky. This year we had deep frosts where the temperature dropped to -17°C. Many people died in the province,” says Elias Pacco. “Before, one person could keep several hundred animals. Now there is enough pasture for 10-30 only. With Oxfam’s help, we are water harvesting, building dams and small reservoirs. We are insulating our houses against the frosts and using drip irrigation. We have set up early warning systems for frosts and shelters for animals. It can save us, but it costs each family $1 000 and it takes 20 days of work. Adapting to climate change is expensive.”

3 600m, Panta Leon, near Cusco, Peru
“In the old days there was snow on all the mountains, but for 10 years now there has been none. We do not know when to plant,” says the farmer Julio Hermandez. “People are leaving to go to the cities because they can no longer grow crops or keep animals. Perhaps this is a punishment. In the past we used to honour Mother Earth more. It was a happier place then. The mountains looked like they has a white scarf around their necks. We are older now; we saw the snow-capped mountains. What will our children see?”

3 395m, Cusco, Peru
The environment ministry climate official Victor Bustinza says climate change is already generating conflict. “We know of around 1 000 small conflicts over water in this province alone. Nearly 50 are big and could become serious. There are 40% fewer springs in nine years in just one region. In 1985 we had 23 359 hectares of glacier in the province. By 2006 it was 9 631 ha — a decrease of nearly 60%. The melting glaciers hide the diminution of the rains. When the glaciers have melted then it will be dramatic. Already the declining rainfall is producing serious problems for hydroelectricity. In 30 years’ time we can expect much less water. The impact will be seen in food security. Climate change is directly affecting food security. We don’t want to alarm people but we want them to be prepared.”

2 820m, Quito, Ecuador
“The sick Pachamama [Mother Nature] is losing her vital liquid — water,” says Marlon Santi, the president of the Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), the 10-million strong group of indigenous peoples. “Our brothers and sisters used to know when to sow and harvest. We have unusual droughts and floods and frosts and strange illnesses. We have pests, frosts, worms and new plagues.”

The environment minister Fernanda Espinosa says an oil-producing country such as Ecuador must change its economics. “Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is now the main threat to human security in the Andes. We must change our development model to exclude oil. In an ideal world we would only use renewable energy in Ecuador. That is our long-term plan.”

300m, Kichwa Anongo community, eastern Ecuador
We have dropped down the mountains into the Amazonian oilfields. More than four billion barrels of oil have been extracted in 50 years in Ecuador, but 960m more barrels have now been found below Yasuní national park, a “mega-diverse”, UN-protected reserve. There are more kinds of frogs and toads in Yasuní than are native to the United States and Canada combined; more insect species on one tree than in all the US; more birds than in all Europe as well as two uncontacted tribes. “Oil has brought illness,” says the community leader Jiovanni Rivapeneira. “When the oil companies came many people worked for them. Now we have skin diseases, cancers, intestinal diseases, genetic problems. They flare gas, take the rainwater and contaminate the streams. There have been hundreds of spills in this area. We have responded by banning the companies from our territory. None of our people will work for them again. All we ever got was manual labour and illness. None of us will go back. We have learned from the legionnaire ants that we see in the forest. There are millions of them. They share their food and work as a group. They protect their young. That’s how we have now organised our community. I think that is how all the world must respond.” – guardian.co.uk