From a tropical glacier to the Pacific: the fate of a river, glaciers and their lakes
A shepherd appeared out of nowhere at 14,767 feet above sea level. "The whole area is called Uco," he said to the founder of Proyecto Rímac and the other two in the group searching in the area between two tropical glaciers for the source of the river that provides drinking water to almost 10 million people in Lima.
- Wednesday, 16 August 2017
To come up with the idea of descending for 90 miles along the river to where it meets the Pacific was a few years ago Jorge Luis Baca de las Casas, a plastic artist, photographer, journalist: by blogging and posting photos and drawings, their expedition could help save a river that becomes a mass of turbid and polluted water by the time it gets to the ocean in Lima.
Their journey began on the Andes at the tropical glaciers, of which 99% is in South America and 70% in Peru between the Tropic of Cancer and that of Capricorn.
There are four important reasons for revisiting now Proyecto Rímac, a few years later: the condition of the river has not improved, but worsened; the tropical glaciers are melting like never before; the lakes they create are becoming ever more dangerous; and the Niño’s torrential rains are causing ever more damage and victims.
"A snow covered horizon welcomed us: A white desert, cold, awesome," writes Baca, after starting off at an altitude of 14,763 feet above sea level (FASL) with Guillermo Palacios and Alejandro Jaime, both artists as well.
On the second day they camp at the foot of the Rajuntay glacier — a "Nevado" in Peru — at 15,367 FASL. Climbing further up to 17,755 FASL, a continuous melt runoff has a stronger flow than that from Nevado Uco. "From where we were, we could see the snow-covered Uco mass lying in its valley — a horizontal ice profile. It is exciting to finally find what we were looking for. Where it all begins, the mother drop, and finally some sun."
Hiking further up, on the back side of the two glaciers, a huge colorful valley opened up in front of them, surprising them “with its beauty especially in contrast to the lunar landscape we had crossed until then." The photos on the blog show stretches of rock give way to valleys covered by a minimal green vegetation, and then ice walls and ice plains.
Along the first part of the descent, the river breaks in waterfalls of crystal clear water. A cave shelters them from a severe "thunder, hail and snow storm that morphs a green landscape into a fully white-gray picture, like a giant real-size charcoal drawing." They have to wait out two more snow falls before being able to resume their journey.
At that altitude glacier water tends to create lakes before flowing further. In that area they count six small lakes. “The first one feeds the others and gets the melt runoff from Nevado Uco."
The water in Lima comes all from these heights. The natural melting cycle produces streams that feed the lakes lying lower. In the Peruvian Andes, however, the tropical glaciers have lost thousands of square miles of their surface area. In a first inventory in 1970 some stretched over 12,741 square miles, but cover now as little as 1.9 square miles. The Nevado El Barroso disappeared altogether, and over the last forty years the surface areas of La Raya, Volcánica, Chila, Huanzo and Chonta decreased between 72% and 96.2%.
It took only a 33.35°F increase of the average world temperature over 100 years. According to Nelson Santillán of Peru's Water Conservation and Planning Department, in 2012 the reduction of the surface of tropical glaciers due to global had been of 40%, whereas in the last four years the loss has risen to 57%. Many tropical glaciers might disappear altogether in the next 20-40 years.
Even before providing water to Peru’s capital, such an accelerated melting could cause another kind of disaster that could have unimaginable consequences for the population. The much larger flows glacier runoffs are filling up the high plateau lakes found between 13,123 and 16,404 FASL.
In 1941, a massive ice block fell in one of these lakes causing a water flood that morphed in a mud flood 50 yards high and 200 wide. It killed 7500 people in and around the city of Huaraz. An earthquake, a landslide or rains could easily cause such a disaster all over.
"The communities in the higher areas of the Andes are the most dependent on the water that flows from the glaciers for animal farming, but if it does not rain, the glaciers interrupt their cycle. We need to act before they disappear. In the Cordillera Blanca they already decreased by 38%," says César Portocarrero, an expert in glacier surface.
Arriving at Marcapomacocha, at 14,484 FASL, Baca and his group enjoy thermal waters, get to use an internet connection (the blog has had more than 4000 hits!), and to meet a very angry Mayor. Lima should pay for the water they send from up there, is José Rondón’s complaint. "I seem to recall an old book on pre-Columbian cultures," Baca writes, "mentioning how the Yauyos, the inhabitants of the high-Andean Huarochirí area, succeeded in defeating the people leaving at that time around the Lima just by blocking the flow of water on the river. Lima depends on the Rímac today as always ".
One evening in a “frozen spot” they get to observe an eagle eating "a beautiful baby sheep. The Eagle is huge, impressive, superbly beautiful, brown with black, white, brown and orange stripes along its wings. It then flew over us as if its shadow despised us," writes Jaime.
The following eleven days of the Proyecto Rímac's authors are full of surprises — mostly negative ones. A first mining operation and the first dam. "It's a calm and crystalline mass of water, but we know its supply is not enough to meet Lima’s demand." They pass other two mines, and the river begins to show some first signs of contamination. Because of the rubbish the residents — along the entire route and even in Lima — simply dispose of into the Rímac, its water is now turbid and dirty.
The river seems, however, to try and defend itself, the group writes, especially after a confluence with other rivers carrying cleaner water. The Rímac is again clear. Woods of eucalyptus and pine alternate along the banks. "Walking along the shore among butterfly swarms is magical". At Tamboraque, the mine seems more responsible as to its waste. "We swim in a deep, clear-water pool. It'll likely be our last bath." A man approaches them and says to have been living there for thirty years. They even have a thermal spring. Trout appeared in the river, but were not capable of reproducing because of the polluters the mine releases into the water killing the fish.
Walking along the river shore becomes more difficult because of the many non-trespassing signs of private properties. The sky begins to show a white shade, which announces the proximity of the coastal region. The group meets a man who digs septic wells for Cocachacra residents: "As of now sewage goes into the river."
There will be no more beautiful landscapes with flowers, small forests and butterflies. The landscape becomes all gray, and no more chances for the river to be spared. Where rubbish collection is inefficient, residents throw their trash into the river. Factory sewage dyes the water red. A dead monkey lies on the shore. There is no way to see the river bed again because of its turbidity.
Pollution increased by 10 times in recent years, according to Yolanda Cárdenas of SEDAPAL, the Lima Water Agency — by 42% due to waste water and civil waste and by 24% due to factories and mines pollution.
El Niño has been multiplying the effects of pollution. The severe rainfalls along the coastal areas with water levels that the terrain and canyons cannot not contain spread river pollution across all surrounding areas — in the early 2017 floods killed 75 People, damaged thousands of homes, 159 bridges and 1,180.6 km of roads.
Eventually the Rímac meets the Pacific. "The rivers flows into the ocean discretely, like someone looking to get lost in a crowd to become anonymous after enduring so much," Jaime writes, and “despite the color it brings with its waters, testifying about what it experienced, it is as if the ocean in 2025 were saying ‘welcome brother, you're not dead yet’. They ask me if I feel sad, but no, I do not think everything is lost. "
Years after Proyecto Rímac’s first call, a plan was finally approved to save it before Lima's main water source becomes an environment problem in 2025. However, restore more is more costly than maintaining, and the funds for the $ 1 billion plan still need to be found. If implemented, the Rímac would provide drinking water for the next forty years and become an environmental and tourism area stretching over 83 miles. The project could begin in 2019, and maybe trout and butterflies will return.
Stopping the tropical glaciers from melting, on the other hand, is not just a question of funds. It is up to the whole world, literally.