Part One

Disappearing Act

Peru's glaciers are melting at an incredible rate.

What happens when your main source of water disappears?

At the first light of dawn, on a green hillside above the clouds, Pablo Tadeo Cilio gets ready to pray. Sitting on a wide rock beside where his crops grow, he digs a shallow hole in the rich, brown earth. He drops a small packet of coca leaves into the divot and clasps his rough brown hands together.

The air is clear and fresh from last night's coolness. Around him floats the singing of birds. Their chorus mingles with a roar from the river at the edge of his property — swift and full with melted water from the snow on the mountain peak above.

"I am a firm believer that nature, the hills, are alive," he explains after calling on the elements — air, sun, the Mother Earth (Pachamama), and the Father Mountain (Papa Huascaran). He believes they are alive, but not thriving. And he worries a recent shift in the environment threatens his family and his way of life.

His home village of Vicos sits at an elevation of more than 3,962.4 metres, at the base of the tallest peak in Peru. Mount Huascarán is located in the Cordillera Blanca, the world's highest tropical mountain range with 27 snow-capped peaks.

With 71 per cent of the world's tropical glaciers, the Cordillera Blanca has the most dense concentration of glaciers in the tropics. Their run-off supplies water not only to villages like Vicos, but also to the majority of Peru's population, which lives in the arid region to the west.

Recent research shows these glaciers in the Andes mountains have been melting more and more quickly since the 1970s. They have shrunk by 25 per cent in the past four decades — a pace that's unprecedented in 300 years. Because there hasn't been a significant change in rainfall patterns during that time, scientists blame rising global temperatures.

It means farmers here have to go higher and higher to find mountain springs for drinking water and irrigation. It means more severe droughts and wetter planting seasons. And it means uncertainty to the people whose lives are so closely tied to the land.

Here, making tea means Cilio's wife walks outside the door of their kitchen shelter, picks a dewy herbal plant, and pours hot water over it. Here, the glow of candles or the occasional bulb in a window are the brightest lights to compete with the moon and the heavy dark night. Here, dinner for Cilio, his wife and his three little girls is often whatever they can grow in their fields.

Cilio's life is rooted in the rhythm of this landscape, and those roots run deep. His family has worked this land for generations. But he wonders how much longer he can go on.

A quiet place

The Vicos people are an indigenous group known for fiercely protecting their land against sale or mining projects. They speak Quechua, a traditional language.

'We feel like crying'

When Cilio was a child, he helped his family by grazing their animals: cows, pigs and donkeys. After he walked them to the fields to eat, he would scout for adventure. That often meant climbing higher up the mountain with other kids.

"When the ice would fall, we would grab it and eat it with sugar," he says. Sometimes they would break the ice with machetes. Sometimes they would dive into a glacier lake and float for a few seconds — the fun of swimming cancelling out the cold.

Cilio remembers the awe he felt when he looked at that icy mountain cap, which inspired the distinctive design for the traditional Vicosino hat — white and pointed, to mimic the snowy peak.

"I would wake up and see the white tips, during the days and nights. It was very beautiful. At night with the moon and at sunrise," he says.

"But now, as we see, the tips are black."

Today, most of the traditional Vicosino hats worn in his village are brown. "We see that there is less water. That is a concern for us, for the well-being of our children," Cilio says.

"In those moments, we feel like crying. Because when I compare my childhood to now, it is very different," he says. "Back then, the land was healthier, we could see white thick snow when it snowed in the mountains. And now all we see is black rocks."

A town threatened by water

"I feel worried, very worried," says Selddyn Valverde, an environmental engineer with Peru's national parks system who lives in the town of Huaraz.

Ironically, Huaraz's roughly 100,000 residents who live in the shadow of the Cordillera Blanca are threatened, not only by the prospect of disappearing glaciers, but also by floods from growing melt run-off.

One of the greatest dangers is Lake Palcacocha: the watery tongue of the Pastoruri Glacier, perched high above the valley. Valverde and other scientists believe a cascade of ice and snow from an avalanche or cracked bedrock from an earthquake could cause the lake to break its banks — and wipe out communities below.

If this happened, it wouldn't be the first time. In 1941, the same lake flooded one-third of Huaraz, killing at least 5,000 people. Since then, the lake has grown at a startling pace. Valverde estimates the lake has swelled from 400 m3 in 1972 to 17 million m3 in 2011.

The Peruvian government has been working hard to prevent flooding from a total of 40 quickly-deepening glacier lakes like this one. But with few resources, it's not easy.

"We're trying to anticipate changes that we can't definitively predict," says Valverde, who's working with colleagues on the fourth version of a master plan to adapt to climate changes. "When will the glaciers be lost? When will we not have enough water? Some believe 50 years, others 60 years. Still others 10 years."

Valverde is awake most nights. He can’t say whether it's the worry or all the work he's doing that keeps him from his bed.

"We did not realize in the beginning, but when we faced a high point of crisis, then we realized," he says. He fears the government has somehow missed a crucial point in preparing for the crisis.

"We have to be ahead. If we plan, we should plan at the right time, not when things are already happening."

The traditional peaked Vicosino hat seen here was inspired by the snow-capped mountains. A change in climate has led to a change in style.

Desperate dealmakers

Eight hours south by bus, summer is beginning in Lima, the country's capital.

Flowers bloom on the trees in an affluent neighbourhood downtown, a few blocks from the coast. A security guard stands in front of the entrance to a condo building. Nearby, there's a large house with a high, gated wall and a buzzer. Romulo Acurio, the Director of Environment for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, lives here.

He answers the door, impeccably dressed in a freshly-pressed shirt, cardigan and jeans. A flash of light from a golden chandelier reflects off a gilt mirror in the living room as his wife calls from somewhere above the long, curved staircase. They're getting ready for a family party, but he can take some time to speak with a visiting foreign journalist.

With thoughtful English and unshakeable diplomacy, he explains the prognosis for how Peru will be affected by climate change.

It's not good.

"The expectations, unfortunately, are very negative," Acurio says.

Some predictions say the glaciers at lower altitudes could disappear completely within the next 10-20 years.

"Climate change affects food security, energy and also some of the global, most valuable assets Peru has such as biodiversity," he says.

Acurio says those elements are expected to be affected so severely, the country is already treating climate change as a national security threat.

His government has given up on trying to stop or reduce the glacier melt. Instead, they're looking for ways to adapt to the changes that are coming. The new master plan, expected by the end of this year, will identify up to 80 actions that the country can take. All of which have a price tag.

It's a cost Acurio already knows his country cannot afford.

"Peru, as most developing countries, does not have the resources necessary to deal with mitigation and adaptation to climate change," he says.

His government is looking toward December 2014, when Peru will host the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. There, he and his colleagues will urge 195 nations to commit to a new, legally-binding deal on climate change in 2015.

They'll have a tough go of it.

The Climate Change Route

See just how quickly Peruvian glaciers are disappearing.

No place left untouched

When it comes to climate change remediation in developed countries, the Washington-based Center for Global Development recently ranked Canada dead last out of 27 countries.

Canada earned the dubious distinction because of its high per-capita fossil fuel consumption, rising carbon emissions and withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

Canada is the only country to pull out of Kyoto. It has cut funding for climate research and closed institutions like the Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy. And while the federal government committed to reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent — relative to 2005 levels — by 2020, Environment Canada now says we will not meet those targets.

Developing countries like Peru say they can no longer sit by and watch as the world's biggest emitters seem to brush off the issue.

"We need more and more contact between Canadian and Peruvian and South American NGOs, universities, private sector, scientists, to reinforce the awareness and the action against irresponsible industrial practices," says Acurio.

New scientific evidence suggests the need for global action grows more and more urgent. Acurio says the solution must include a new emissions deal which — unlike the Kyoto Protocol — would involve quickly-expanding economies like China and India.

"Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change," Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in a news conference after the panel released its latest round of projections in March 2014.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that report “clearly demonstrates that human influence on the climate system is now evident in most regions of the globe and it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

He urged "all countries to make every effort needed to reach a global legal climate agreement by 2015, and to take action swiftly in order to limit the effects of climate change.”