Trickling down: Latin America's glacier problem

A new study shows glaciers in the tropical Andes have shrunk 30-50 percent in the past four decades, affecting water sources in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Argentina.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

I'm fairly certain there are no glaciers in Brazil, but that doesn't mean South America's largest country doesn't have a melting glacier problem on its hands.

A new study shows glaciers in the tropical Andes have shrunk 30-50 percent in the last four decades. Glaciers provide a vital water source to parts of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. In fact, the Amazon starts with glacier water in Peru, though by the time it gets to Brazil the Amazon has plenty of other water sources to keep it going. Additionally, Brazil is investing in hydropower in Peru and that power source is likely to be impacted significantly by reduced glaciers. That means higher electricity costs for Peru and less chance that Peru will be able to export energy to Brazil.

The bigger problems for Brazil will be political. For Peru and Bolivia in particular, the loss of glaciers is likely to dry up drinking water supplies and harm agricultural output, which can affect political stability. For a Brazilian hegemon hoping to lead the continent, that sort of systemic political risk becomes their problem rather quickly. A crisis in either country will impact Brazil's trade, transportation lanes, migration and border security.

It's not as if Brazil doesn't have its own environmental challenges, but part of its leadership role means it needs to start planning for these sorts of challenges in other countries that will affect all of South America. That means that a country known best for its tropical forests and beaches and without a mountain over 10,000 feet must add melting glaciers to the list of problems it faces.

– James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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