Geopolitics

In Peru, Fearing The Next 'Mountain Tsunami'

Andean towns like Pariacaca, in Peru's Cordillera Blanca, are keeping a cautious eye on rapidly melting glaciers, from which giant blocks of ice can break off into lakes, creating huge and potentially deadly waves.

In Huaraz, Peru
In Huaraz, Peru
Laurence Caramel

PARIACACA — When the alarm sounds, it takes barely two minutes for the pupils of the "Lord of the Afflicted" school to empty out of their classroom. The older childen help the younger ones scale the grassy slope and rapidly move along a narrow path that leads away from the valley floor where they live, in the heart of the Peruvian Andes.

The students, all clad in their light blue and grey uniforms, make their way towards the "emergency operations center," a somewhat pompous name to refer to a tiny white canvas sheet on four wooden posts. Still, the place is synonymous with security. And everyone is where they should be, each playing his or her part to escape the "alluvium," or killer wave, loaded with ice, earth and rocks, that could emerge any moment from Lake 513.

"Everything went well," says Apolinario, a seventh grader who takes attendance. "We finished the drill in time." Flor, a young girl with an angelic face and sensibly tied-back dark hair, remarks, "I was there to help the wounded." In her hands is a red and white first aid kit containing a few cotton balls, some antiseptic and fever medication.

On this morning in Pariacaca, a modest village of the Cordillera Blanca (white range), nearly 200 grade-schoolers have once again practiced what to do in the face of the potential disaster that has been threatening their young lives since April 11, 2010. That day, a 300,000-square-meter block of ice broke off from Mount Wallqan and fell into Lake 513 below, unleashing a 20-meter-high wave that some describe as a "mountain tsunami."

Mountain lake near Pariacaca — Photo: delashinin via Instagram

"Luckily it was on a Sunday," Sally, 14, recalls. "We weren't in class. I was at home. I heard a huge noise. Mom was washing clothes at the river." The wave caused significant material damage but didn't take any lives. Had it ocurred on a weekday, the consequences no doubt would have been far worse.

Rapid retreat

Here in the Andes, children are acutely aware of the dangers associated with climate change, an issue that is coincidentally being discussed right now across the ocean, in Sendai, Japan, where experts are gathered for the third global conference on prevention of natural disasters.

Lake 513, which is located at an altitude of 4,400 meters, began to take shape about 30 years ago. Until 2010, the glacial lake's emerald waters had never worried anyone. It was even said to be one of the safest in the region thanks to several canals that were dug into its flanks to regulate the water level and prevent overflowing. But that sense of security proved to be frighteningly misguided.

The Cordillera Blanca, whose summits are a paradise for mountain climbers, is also one of the most spectacular examples of the effect climate change is having on tropical glaciers. Satellite images, weather stations, and field laboratories run by renowned glaciologists all tell the same story: The area's once-abundant glaciers are vanishing. What's not clear is what the outcome of this rapid environmental shift will be.

The Cordillera Blanca is just a sad example of a reality that concerns the entire Andean mountain range. Research published in November 2014 by Peru's National Water Authority of Peru showed that the total surface area of these ice caps decreased by 40% in 40 years. An unprecedentedly rapid regression. As a result, more than 1,000 lakes have appeared, raising concerns about other possible disasters.

Living in fear

In the village of Pariacaca, head teacher Juan Dextre lays out a map of the risk areas. "Pariacaca is the populated zone closest to the lake, and the school built near the river is the first building under threat," he says. "Even if we practice, not everyone will be able to leave on time. The youngest are 6 years old. We live in fear. There's no telephone network or doctor here. The wave can hit at any moment."

Dextre remembers another disaster, a terrible earthquake that struck in 1970 and killed tens of thousands of people. "I was 11," he says. "I remember the dead, the wounded. I don't want to go through that again.”

This risk mapping was conducted by Swiss scientists at the University of Zurich to set up a first alert system. Valley residents need to be able to evacuate the area in eight to 12 minutes, the time the wave would take to travel the nine kilometers separating the lake from the village.

Since August 2014, Pariacaca and the entire Rio Chucchun valley, down to the town of Carhuaz, where the 2010 alluvium came to an end, have been testing the system, the first of its kind in the Andes. Every site has its roadmap. The project cost about $330,000 and was funded by Switzerland.

With his colleagues from the national glaciology unit in the town of Huaraz, about 30 kilometers away, scientist Christian Huggel has modeled several disaster scenarios. In the worst case, the block that breaks away from the unstable walls of the Wallqan could be 10 times bigger than the one in 2010.

Watching and waiting

In Carhuaz's small town hall, which opens on a vast square surrounded by buildings of colonial architecture, Luis Mesa bears the heavy responsibility of managing the lake's surveillance system. "Everything is calm today," the young architect observes.

On the computer screen, in a cramped room that is also used for archives, there are two videos of the lake running continuously. The images appear as two green spots that are troubled only by a mild drizzle, typical in this rainy season. Next to the screen, curves reproduce the data recorded by four sound sensors set up at more than 4,700 meters altitude to observe the sounds produced by the glacier in case it disintegrates.

"They would be the first to sound the alarm," says Mesa, who admits he doesn't "sleep easily" now that the lives of the 11,460 people living along the Rio Chucchun depend so much on his vigilance. "We were given the technology, but we lack everything else. For this system to save lives, the local authorities need to get involved to be able to carry out the evacuation of the population."

In the streets of Carhuaz, large arrows painted in green on the white walls of the houses are a constant reminder of the road to take to escape the muddy wave.

Even with all the new precautions being taken, the children are anxious. "The disappearance of their glaciers, an ever-present risk, worries them," says Christian Rodriguez, the regional head of education who introduced lessons on the environment in school programs so pupils understand the issues of climate change.

"We've organized field trips to the lake so they could see where the danger comes from," he adds. "Talking about this makes me sad. I grew up here, in the middle of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. I'm 38. I have two children. Aand I wonder if they'll be able to live in this world that is changing completely."

Water worries

In this rural region, the melting of glaciers also means water shortages. "During the dry season, from June to September, downstream from a 6,000-meter-high snowcapped summit, we paradoxically lack water," says Cesar Gonzales Alfaro, an agronomist who leads the adaptation to global warming program of an NGO called CARE. To help farmers handle the increasing irregularity of rain, temperature fluctuations and heavy frosts, CARE, which worked on the first alert system with the University of Zurich, suggests diversifying seeds and learning how to save water.

The Pastoruri glacier — Photo: Taco Witte

"Here, tensions are rising between the poor inhabitants living in the mountains and the downstream regions where thousands of hectares of agricultural projects designed for export are being developed," explains Thomas Condom, a hydrologist of the Institute of research for development (IRD) and specialist of the region.

The inhabitants of the Cordillera Blanca will have to learn to live with this new reality. "In its initial phase, deglaciation provides additional water to the populations. But that stage is behind us," says Alejo Cochachin, coordinator of the Peruvian glaciology and hydraulic resources unit. "The glaciers have melted too much. They produce less and less water during the dry season."

Cochachin heads a team of a dozen scientists who have followed the evolution of 13 pilot glaciers that were chosen among the 2,679 that were recently counted in Peru. "The small glaciers located under 5,000 meters will have a lot of trouble surviving, even if we can't tell when exactly they will disappear," he says.

In Pariacaca, head teacher Dextre is not making plans for the future. "In 10 or 20 years maybe we won't have any water anymore, and we'll have to leave. Some have already started buying land far away from here," he says.

Twenty years ago, as soon as they got off the bus, the local children who went on field trips on the nearby Pastoruri glacier had snowball fights. Now, the ice is several kilometers away. The Pastoruri has become a tourist site along "the climate change road."

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$57,789

A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


📣 VERBATIM

"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."


— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.

🕌 🔍 IN OTHER NEWS

Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com info@worldcrunch.com!

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