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Peru's Glaciers Give Life, but Can Also Cause Devastation
Barbara J. Fraser
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Sunday, February 21, 2010
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The snowy peaks of the Cordillera Blanca are seen in a view from Lake Paron in central Peru in 2009.
CRUZ DE MAYO, Peru (CNS)—Cruz de Mayo and Caraz are located in the Santa River Valley in central Peru, downstream from the regional capital, Huaraz.

The valley nestles between two mountain ranges, the Cordillera Blanca, or "white range," with its postcard-perfect snow-capped peaks, and the Cordillera Negra, or "black range," rocky hills where water is scarce.

But the glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca are more than a tourist attraction—they are a water bank. During the dry season, from May through October, rivulets from the ice provide drinking water for people and livestock in highland farming communities and the towns below.

For generations, farmers in communities like Cruz de Mayo have diverted runoff from streams and glacial lakes like Lake Paron through irrigation canals to water fields of vegetables, grains and fruit trees.

But the life-giving glaciers can also cause devastation. In 1941, an avalanche of melting snow and mud killed 5,000 people in Huaraz. An avalanche farther down the valley killed 4,000 people in 1962 and, in 1970, an earthquake triggered a landslide that buried the town of Yungay under mud so deep that only the top of the church steeple and the tips of four palm trees remained visible. Some 15,000 people died.

The tragedies convinced officials of the need to take action, said Mark Carey, assistant professor of history at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. Carey has spent the past decade studying disasters in the region.

The glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca, one of the largest expanses of ice in the Andes, have been shrinking by about 10 percent a decade since the 1970s, forming lakes dammed by natural dikes of rock and dirt.

Officials reinforced some of those dams and built others to control runoff. While the reservoirs offer a measure of safety, they pose a threat to communities downhill if the dams burst. Heavy rains often bring Lake Paron dangerously close to overflowing, officials said.

Along with the dikes, authorities built a series of access trails that helped spur a boom in tourism, but local farming communities were often left out of development plans, Carey said.
That neglect spurs resentment when conflicts over water arise.

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