Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
As Andean Glaciers Retreat, So Does Regional Security

Via the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat, a look at the impact retreating glaciers is having upon water – and overall – security in South America:

Last month, Bolivia filed a counterclaim against Chile in the International Court of Justice—the latest salvo in their battle over rights to the waters of the Silala River. The court will decide whether Silala is “an international watercourse”—thus granting water rights to Chilean mining operations—or simply an artificial diversion of Bolivian spring water by Chile. This legal case marks the latest chapter in Bolivia and Chile’s historically delicate relationship, which dates back to the War of the Pacific in the late 19th century.

Underpinning this bilateral conflict is the Andean region’s intensifying water stress, which is driven by rising temperatures, rapid glacier retreat, and growing demand. The parched conditions force economic and political interests in both nations to compete for water, exacerbating the generations-old geopolitical conflict between Chile and Bolivia. It is easy to see why UN Environment named the Silala “one of the most hydropolitically vulnerable basins in the world.”  

As climate change worsens, the conditions that spurred this conflict are becoming more common across the Andes. Over a decade ago, researchers associated with the World Bank and the American Geophysical Union, UNESCO, and others predicted that glacier retreat would have serious economic and political implications for the region. Simultaneously, the connection between global water stress, local conflicts, and regional security is becoming increasingly well documented

In the last few years, some of these predictions have come true—from boom-and-bustglacial-fed farming towns in rural Peru, to Chile’s economic losses from a recent mega-drought, to a serious reduction of hydroelectric generation across the region. 

These rapid changes pose monumental threats

Chile, Bolivia and Peru are particularly vulnerable as they rely on glacial-fed surface water for agricultural irrigation, energy security, urban and rural potable water, mining, and industrial production. The Andes’ glaciers are a key water storage mechanism that provides consistent fresh water to downstream communities during droughts or when rainfall is low. However, higher temperatures and reduced snowfall from climate change are causing these glaciers to melt at an alarming rate of 1.5 times faster in this century than the last.

While these rapid changes pose monumental threats, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru could use this challenge as an opportunity to foster transboundary initiatives and develop shared adaptation and mitigation practices. Cross-border cooperation could mitigate water shortages for millions of families, build more peaceful multilateral relations, and jumpstart progress towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These three nations could work together to expand existing research programs, and develop new multilateral initiatives that consider local cultural dynamics and center on meeting the needs of vulnerable populations.

Interdisciplinary and Transboundary Research

To enhance regional water security, we should support and expand existing national and regional scientific research initiatives with the goal of developing an integrated, transboundary research effort between Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. Some potential components and models:

  • Chile’s Center for Climate and Resilience Research, (CR)2, is a leading interdisciplinary and society-centered scientific research network. Its work can serve as a model for future transdisciplinary research that incorporates monitoring, data analysis, and water resource management.
  • At the regional level, trAndes is an international research network and postgraduate program focusing on social inequality and sustainable development. A joint initiative between the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and the Freie Universität Berlin, this team of students and professors seek to expand local research and professional networks.
  • The UNESCO International Hydrological Programme is piloting a variety of water resource monitoring and risk management efforts, including a regional Drought Atlas and Flood and Drought Monitor, the Chilean Agroclimatic Observatory, and national flood early warning systems in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Honduras, and Uruguay. Another UNESCO IHP program on the impact of glacier retreat provides an excellent framework for regional studies.

Towards Multilateral Cooperation

“The ecosystems that regulate water are located in high mountain areas”

Multilateral efforts to respond to glacier retreat and manage water resources are more important in today’s political climate than ever, when the rise of nationalismthreatens to undermine transboundary cooperation. Considering water systems as separate, national entities diminishes our understanding of their complex dynamics. Building lasting water security in glacier-fed basins requires sustained regional and international cooperation—and this cooperation must be mindful of local needs.   

“The ecosystems that regulate water are located in high mountain areas…and these are used by herders,” wrote Jorge Recharte Bullard, Andes Program Director at The Mountain Institute, in an email interview. “Telling them ‘stop using your land; we need it for water security of our cities’ can be either not realistic or a source of conflict.” Effective adaptation to glacier retreat in the Andes requires close consideration of political and societal dynamics, carried out in a participatory way that includes the highland and indigenous communities who depend on—and have served as caretakers of—the local water systems for centuries.

Glacier retreat presents Chile, Peru, and Bolivia with a unique opportunity to collaborate on transboundary initiatives with tangible outcomes for regional peacebuilding, sustainable development, and climate resilience. A long-term initiative to monitor and model glacier retreat and share best practices for effective adaptation could be housed within the United Nations system, or—better yet—could be organized multilaterally with shared buy-in. Efforts could start with information sharing on key strategies: increasing efficiency in water distribution and treatment, updating irrigation technology in arid and semi-arid areas, and implementing more robust decision-making for water management. Through regional cooperation, we can cultivate stronger social, economic, and political stability—and prevent the next conflict over water, even as the climate changes.



This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 12th, 2018 at 7:25 pm and is filed under Bolivia, Peru.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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