Life and death at Lake Palcacocha: Environmental uncertainty in the Peruvian Andes // Part II

Text by Noah Walker-Crawdford;

Image by Alexander Luna;


In February 2017, national and local authorities gathered to discuss
strategies for handling flood risk at Palcacocha and implementing the
definitive project. Admiral Zimmerman, a representative of the Peruvian
Prime Minister, had flown in to push the stalling efforts forward.
Zimmerman was a former Navy commander who had been tasked with
overseeing disaster risk management in the entire country. In a fierce
military manner, he argued at the meeting that action must be taken
immediately; people’s lives were at stake! In the discussion that
followed, a local official argued that the definitive project at
Palcacocha should not only address flood hazard, but also consider the
water flowing from Palcacocha as a resource. Rather than draining the
lake, authorities should build a water reservoir downstream to ensure a
sufficient supply for urban use and irrigation. This was particularly
important in times of climate change when water became increasingly
scarce, he argued. Zimmerman disagreed. He interjected angrily that
first we must address the lake in terms of the risk it poses, and only
later consider other issues. The officials clashed over their
conceptualisations of Palcacocha due to varying political priorities.

Authorities’ discussions of water use in Huaraz take place in a context
of neoliberal water management practices in Peru. These arise out of
discourses which conceptualise water as a natural resource that must be
managed rationally to achieve the greatest possible economic benefit
(citation (Rasmussen, 2015). According to this approach, water is an
increasingly scarce resource in times of climate change. Authorities in
Huaraz that are concerned about water availability thus take a
techno-political approach to handling water sources in the high Andes.
For them, Palcacocha is a water reservoir – its volume can be regulated
to find an appropriate balance between risk and water availability

For farmers who live below Palcacocha, water is more than a natural
resource subject to rational management: it is the source of life.
Without water, they cannot grow food to feed their families. As weather
patterns change in the context of climate change, rain becomes ever less
reliable for irrigation. This makes farmers more dependent on water from
Palcacocha that flows through irrigation canals onto their fields. The
water makes crops grow and gives life to the countryside. For many
farmers, securing Palcacocha’s waters for irrigation is a greater
concern than the potential risk of flooding. This is not only because
farmers primarily live on higher ground that would not face the direct
impact of a flood wave. In the long term, livelihoods and life itself
will disappear in the rural Cordillera Blanca if there is no more water.

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