[ HimalAndes Focused Conversation] Case 4 by J.Recharte: High Mountain Glacier Watershed Program in Peru: sharing lessons on local adaptation plans to climate change

High Mountain Glacier Watershed Program in Peru: sharing lessons on local adaptation plans to climate change


Jorge Recharte

The Mountain Institute Peru


This paper presents the High Mountain Glacier Watershed Program (HMGWP) activities implemented by The Mountain Institute (TMI) in Peru and a short reference to parallel activities conducted in Nepal. The aim of this note is to assess the potential to share lessons across mountain ranges.  The HMGWP in fact evolved as a knowledge exchange network focusing on the potential of south-south learning concerning the implications of rapid recession of glaciers and the growing threats of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) in the Andes and Himalayan regions. I will briefly present the process that originated the HMGWP as a knowledge exchange network, then move on to describe risk of GLOF adaptation strategies pursued in the Cordillera Blanca range, Peru, and then conclude with lessons and issues regarding the potential for the exchange of knowledge across mountain ranges.


Background of the HMGWP

The conference “Adapting to a world without glaciers: Realities, challenges, and actions” (July 7-15, 2009), convened by TMI in partnership with USAID, the National Science Foundation (NSF), Ministry of Environment (MINAM) and the National Council for Science and Technology (CONCYTEC) of Peru illustrates the initiative to promote dialogue between science, policy makers and practitioners that underlies the HMGWP.[1] This meeting was also called with the explicit aim of fostering dialogue around emerging problems linked to the recession of glaciers in the Andes and Hindu-Kush Himalayan regions. The conference constructed and inter-disciplinary perspective on priority research topics on climate change, glacier recession, water supply, agriculture and biodiversity, identifying specific areas for cooperation between Andes and Himalayas. This conference was followed in September 3-28 of 2011 by the “Andean-Asian Mountains Global Knowledge Exchange”, which centered on glaciers, glacial lakes and hazard management problems (Byers 2012). This training and exchange meeting highlighted the potential to tap on Peruvian expertise gained over the last 40 years on engineering work to reduce risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF)[2]. This south-south exchange resulted into valuable technical cooperation of Peruvian engineers, experts in glacial lake works to reduce the impact of GLOF that were able to influence designs for Imja Lake (Byers 2012). Equally important was that the exchange lead to the constitution of the High Mountain Glacial Watershed Program (HMGWP) to foster applied research and action in the Andes and Himalayas. This program is currently implemented with financial and technical support of USAID’s Climate Change Resilient Development (CCRD) Program.[3]


HMGWP is implemented by TMI and University of Texas at Austin (UT) in (i) the Khumbu Valley of Nepal, Sagarmatha National Park trekking and climbing circuit, and (ii) the Quillcay Valley of Cordillera Blanca, Peru, also one of the most popular high-mountain tourism destinations of the world. In both sites the objective was to develop strategies to respond to the growing risk of GLOF: Imja Lake in the Khumbu valley of Nepal and Palcacocha lake in the Quillcay valley of Peru. In both cases the objective was to design climate change adaptation strategies through consultation with communities.


Nepal and Peru, two high mountain countries have significantly different political, economic and social contexts, yet face similar challenges associated with risk of GLOFs. For instance, in both cases, glacier experts had limited experience connecting scientific research to local communities, decision makers, the public, and to local development goals. Similarly on both sites, there were other similar issues linking glacier recession, risk of GLOF, the economy of the trekking and climbing tourist industry, the overall impacts on water supply, and the need to rapidly find adaptations to these threats. Thus, the ultimate purpose of running parallel actions in Nepal and Peru was to add value to research and action through the exchange of learning between these two locations and beyond through the construction of a Community of Practice concerning these challenges. Following a year of field work, a third gathering in Huaraz “Glacial Flooding and Disaster Risk Management:  Knowledge Exchange and Field Training” (July 11-24, 2013) provided the opportunity to share the experience gained by HMGW program on the ground in Nepal and Peru with other Andean and Hindu-Kush Himalayan locations.


The Quillcay valley in Cordillera Blanca, Ancash Region, Peru

Located above the city of Huaraz (over 120,000 inhabitants), the territory of the watershed (250 km2) comprises 14 rural settlements in the valley. Quillcay is (i) the main and only source of potable water for the city; (ii) trekking destination for international tourists and therefore key part of the economy of Huaraz city; (iii) supplier of food for the city, and (iv) provider of construction labor and other service work. The valley is not only a provider of valuable services for the city but also harbinger of potential massive destruction. In fact, Palcacocha, a glacial lake located in this valley, flooded in 1941 releasing between 10 to 23 million cubic meters of materials into the city as a result of which around 5,000 people (mostly city inhabitants) were killed and infrastructures in the city and valley destroyed. The volume of Palcacocha lake has grown approximately 38 times since the last time that GLOF defenses were completed in the 1970s. The response of Huaraz city residents to the threat of A GLOF is to demand the construction of infrastructures to lower the level of the lake and thus reduce the chances of an avalanche. As we will see below, the perspective of rural communities is different, demonstrating the importance to frame GLOF reduction strategies within the broader framework of climate resilient development objectives.


The rural economy of the population in the valley is affected by increased variability in climate and displacement of seasonal rainfall patterns resulting in growing uncertainty in agricultural production. In response to climate stress, men are migrating more often to search for jobs in the city of Huaraz as well as other nearby cities, while women tend to stay assuming larger roles in farming and animal care. Production systems are also adapting: the cropping area has been reduced while production of garden products like medicinal plants is expanding. Another major response of rural families to these climate tensions is to develop projects to improve the supply of water for irrigation and human consumption. Houses in the upper valley are located mostly outside the path of a potential flood. The result of a field survey of rural (n= xxx) and Huraz city (n=xx) areas as well as numerous focal groups and interviews with key informants demonstrated showd us the existence of contrasting perspectives between city and rural villages concerning glacial lake control to reduce risk of GLOF. While the perspective of people living in the city was based on perceptions of high mountains as threats that had to be controlled by the state through engineering works to reduce the lake, the perspective of residents in the upland sections of the valley was that the priority was to secure water for their crops and their development objectives.


Adaptation strategies to glacier recession in the Quillcay watershed

As a result of this exploratory consultation with stakeholders in rural and urban areas, TMI designed a broader adaptation process to link risk of GLOF to local development goals. This process included the following components:


  • Aligning the adaptation process with government agencies and normative frameworks. In order to promote sustainability of adaptation strategies, TMI built a partnership with key local governments (see Municipal Commonwealth below) and the Ministry of Environment of Peru (MINAM). This was very important because it provided our field program with a partner who guided us to understand how to ground our actions in the framework of government agencies and actually agreed to support technically and financially the actions in Quillcay in order to build a pilot case, a site to test tools and instruments potentially relevant for other glacier mountain ranges in the country.
  • Implement a public awareness program (focusing on risk of GLOFs but going beyond to include understanding of the Quillcay watershed environment and development and social goals of its rural residents. This program was based on a partnership with the public school system and the Ministry of Education. This component responded to the fact that in spite of being part of the watershed, living under threat of GLOFs and benefiting from environmental services of the Quillcay valley, knowledge of the nearby geography and needs of rural communities was extremely poor (residents and policy makers). The program is currently implemented with schools located in the main area of impact of GLOF in the city and has 40 teachers participating in the program.
  • Support development of a Municipal Commonwealth to lead management of the Quillcay watershed. TMI worked with mayors and councils of the two municipalities in the city (Independencia and Huaraz districts) to create awareness for the need to intervene in the watershed in a coordinated manner. As a result of this process both municipalities agreed to establish a municipal commonwealth (called “Waraq” in native Quechua, “Dawn”) to invest together in GLOF risk reduction and rural development so as to attend to the goals of both rural and urban demographics).  
  • Develop Local Adaptation Plans for Action. Inspired by the implementation of the LAPA methodology in Nepal, TMI Peru implemented a similar process in the Quillcay watershed. These local plans were adjusted to be in conformity with the regulations of the National Disaster Risk Management System (SINGERD), the National Civil Defense Institute (INDECI), with local governments (as noted above), and other relevant state agencies like the Local Water Authority (ALA). Community consultation is a demanding process itself, that pieces together the multiple, complex interests and needs of men and women on 14 different communities in the Quillcay watershed.  City perspective on climate change was narrowly focused on risk of GLOF and provision of water to the city. By contrast, the perspective of rural communities include glacier recession; variability of climate and thus displacement of seasons from traditional planting calendars; more extreme high and low temperatures, and thus more frequent incidence of frosts; stronger winds and more extreme rain events, followed by longer dry spells. These climate tensions were combined in different ways depending on what resource was at stake. The resources impacted by climate were those that sustain their development priorities: water (quantity and quality); agriculture (subsistence and markets); domestic animals (livestock, ovines, horses and donkeys); and native open range grasslands.

    In the same way that municipalities understood the need to cooperate, communities in rural areas too start to discuss the value of coordination and the need to build their capacity to organize for collective action. The potential social conflict between city and rural stakeholder groups that live in the same watershed, yet had different perspectives about risk, starts to shift through this planning process into the possibility for dialogue about the trade-offs of action and the potential for cooperation. Local adaptation plans become part of the management plans of the Waraq Municipal Commonwealth and start to link risk reduction to development goals.


  • Build a science-based information platform. Parallel to the process above, the University of Texas (UT) developed field techniques to speed up understanding of GLOF risk (e.g through the use of ground penetrating radar or new bathymetry methods); produced models of (i) GLOF originating on Palcacocha;  (ii) the hydrology of the Quillcay watershed to understand the long-term trade-offs in potential changes associated with the construction of new irrigation channels, or new cropping systems evolving in the valley; and (iii) extreme precipitation events. UT also developed an internet-based GIS database open to public access with information relevant to the implementation of local adaptation plans described above. A small-grants program directed to young scientists also produced other complementary key information (e.g. on the relationship between glacier recession and water quality in the valley which affects users both in rural and urban areas).


Although the process is still on-going, the main result of community consultation and embedding actions in both indigenous and government institutions has been to shift a GLOF reduction intervention—a threat potentially associated with social conflict between city and rural hinterland—into a broader action linked to the local development process in a way that opens options for effective climate change adaptation.




  1. South-south exchanges around technical cooperation issues aimed at reducing risk of GLOF have functioned effectively between Andes and Himalayan regions: staff exchange to oversee lake control designs, production of a handbook to capture and transfer knowledge, among others).
  2. Context in Nepal and Peru are both similar in certain ways and quite different in others. Both Southern Andes and Himalayas have comparable farming systems, cultural ecologies, and climate change impacts. Yet, differences are also great in terms of the geography of glacial peaks and lakes relationship to human settlements (being far closer in the case of the Andes); there are quite distinct drivers of change in terms of economics (e.g. accelerated and large scale mining expansion in Peru), or politics (e.g. far stronger ethnic portioning tendencies in Nepal), among others. Nonetheless, to the extent we are cognizant of the differences, there are unique opportunities for knowledge exchange because solutions in both cases must be decentralized, built on local institutions, probably in most cases integrated on watershed units, and require articulation of citizens to state institutions located far from the epicenter of mountain needs.
  3. Responding to risk of GLOF is clearly far more complex than identifying technical, engineering solutions. Given the scale of the threat and the importance that people place on any action that affects the regulation of water, the process must also involve multiple other social, environmental, economic and institutional dimensions. To respond to GLOF (or other water related phenomena) it is necessary to embrace complexity.
  4. There is an interesting opportunity to exchange knowledge about the design of Local Adaptation Plans for Action (LAPA) approaches between Peru and Nepal. In Peru, official planning scales and methodologies have been validated for national and regional scales. While the latter may provide some general policy guidance, actual adaptation to climate change and water management must take place at the local scale. In both Andes and Himalayas, mountain communities face the similar challenge of accessing “remote” government agencies (geographical, political and cultural remoteness), therefore lessons to achie this objective could be exchanged; mountain communities have been aptly described as “islands in the sky” to refer to the geographic and cultural segmentation produced by deep valley and topography, yet climate change adaptation requires strong forms of inter-village cooperation, particularly for the management of natural resources, and organizational skill involving relationships with the central state that is far more developed in Nepal than in Peru.  Finally, the results of LAPA will likely produce concrete technical adaptation innovations that could be exchanged between Andes and Himalayas.

[3] USAID CCRD Program is implemented through Engility. More information on the HMGWP community of practice can be found at http://highmountains.org/

Views: 264


You need to be a member of Knowledge Management for Development to add comments!

Join Knowledge Management for Development

Donate !

We all get a great deal out of our engagement in KM4Dev. Maybe you would be happy to express appreciation through a regular voluntary contribution. Crowd funding works! 

background and info



note if the donate link above does not work for you, click here on donate! and at the bottom of that page click on the donate logo



© 2024       Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service