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As Peru’s glaciers melt, water crisis awaits

In Peru’s desert, ripe blueberries are blooming in the sand. Its mountain communities, however, are living under a ticking time bomb as the threat of glacial lake flooding looms from uphill. With the climate spinning out of control, the impact of the melting ice is palpable across the country. But what will happen when most of these finite glacial resources have disappeared?

The predictions of a new report by the UNESCO are deeply alarming. Lower-altitude glaciers of the tropical Andes could lose up to 97% of their volume by the end of the century, concludes the analysis that was just presented at the COP24 in Poland. Yet millions of people in the region depend on melt water for their water supply. Peru, the Latin American country that has the largest number of tropical glaciers on the continent, is particularly affected.

The city of Huaraz lies at the foot of the majestic Cordillera Blanca, Peru’s largest glacier system that extends for 200 km in the central northern region. Tourists from all over the world flock to what travel blogs call an “epicentre for adrenaline fueled activities” for hiking and mountain climbing – or for some tropical residents, for their first ever encounter with snow.  

Yet a cynic observer could remark that the city’s 120.000 inhabitants have to live with far more adrenaline than one would ask for. “One hour and twelve minutes: A massive destruction of the city”. The frightening simulation of a flood catastrophe too quick for a mass evacuation is not part of a dystopian movie plot. It is a research project of the University of Texas, USAID and Peru’s Ministry of Environment to prepare against a potential disaster – like the devastating flood in 1942 that destroyed much of the former city. Unfortunately, thanks to the meltwater of the Cordillera’s iconic glaciers, the water level of the lake is now higher than it was then, and 50,000 people are living in the anticipated path of a potential flood wave.

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