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Lima, Peru



Tim Barnett, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Glaciers are in retreat almost everywhere in the world. People use that melt water now during the summer, during the dry season, for irrigation and drinking and all sorts of things. But as the glaciers continue to melt the day will come – when there won’t be any glaciers.

Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute

We forget that the distribution of world population as it is today was shaped during the period of remarkable climate stability. A climate system that's changed very little now for not only thousands, but tens of thousands of years. We look at a country like Peru for example where the glaciers are melting at an extraordinary rate. These are the glaciers whose ice melt sustains the principal rivers in Peru. These rivers provide not only drinking water but irrigation water.

Thomas Homer-Dixon, University of Waterloo

One of the things you find is that when people move in large numbers from the countryside into urban areas, frequently the cities aren't well adapted to receive these people. There isn't the infrastructure of water systems, of electrical grids, of housing stock, of schools and hospitals and things.

Scott Burns, World Wildlife Fund

There’s a connection between what happens in the sea and what happens on land. You are dealing with poor and sometimes desperate people and if you take one source of food away they’re going to find another source someplace else.

Violence | Disease | Water

The are highlands of South America's Andes, the highest tropical mountain chain in the world. With peaks rising to over 25,000 feet, this is home to more than seven hundred glaciers. But scientists estimate that because of global warming the glaciers of South America could be completely gone by the year 2015.

Peruvian Glaciers
Peruvian Glaciers

Here in Peru the melting is occurring at an even faster rate. These glaciers, which are over 18,000 years old, are expected to disappear within one or two years. Since the time of the Incas, glacial run-off has been the only source of irrigation water for small-scale farmers and herders. But as glacial rivers dry-up, food will become more and more scarce.

In the very near future millions of Peruvians will have no other choice than to abandon their land and migrate to the coastal cities of Peru.

Local markets that are now abundant with fruits and vegetables will slowly disappear. In the very near future millions of Peruvians will have no other choice than to abandon their land and migrate to the coastal cities of Peru.

Once a small Spanish colonial port on the Pacific, Lima is a bustling overcrowded metropolis of 9 million people. Nearly all of its water is piped in from the glacial streams of the Andes. Its abundance, especially for the wealthy, makes it hard to believe that this city was built on one of the driest deserts in the world.

Pachacotec slums near Lima
Pachacotec slums near Lima

For the four million people living in the sprawling shantytowns surrounding Lima, there is no water. In Pachacotec, a squatter community made of sticks, straw matting, and salvaged bits of corrugated steel is a place without sanitation and little access to electricity. Here drinking water is stored along the side of the road in discarded oil drums.

Several times a day Maria Cortez gets water from a container marked with her family's name. Provided by a private contractor, the cost of water is equal to more than a quarter of her husband's income. But she has no choice — Maria and her family must have water to survive.

Maria Cortez gets water from her family's container.
Maria Cortez gets water from
her family's container.

It is in communities like this that the water-starved refugees of the near future will surely be forced to live. What their lives will be like, especially when the city will have to find enough food to feed hundreds of thousands fleeing from the highlands of the Andes?

In Lima, and especially in Pachacotec, the major source of inexpensive protein is seafood. But at some point soon the need to feed a new surge of migrants will quickly lead to an environmental tipping point. What is now a sustainable fishery, will likely become over-fished and depleted in a matter of years.

Compounding the problem, just a few hundred yards off these popular beaches, Lima’s semi-treated sewage pours into the Pacific. But as glacial rivers dry up and the city's population grows, increased pollution will slowly turn local waters into dead zones, devoid of any marine life. And when this happens, the people of Lima, like the millions of environmental migrants fleeing from the highlands of Peru, will lose their primary source of protein.


Read more about The State of the Planet's Oceans:
Introduction | Aveiro | Belize | Calcutta | Dry Tortugas | Greenland | Lima | New Bedford


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Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization | State of the Planet's Oceans | State of the Ocean's Animals
State of the Planet's Wildlife | The State of the Planet | Future Conditional | On the Brink | Hot Zones
Seas of Grass | Land of Plenty, Land of Want | Urban Explosion | Rivers of Destiny

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