The Huaraz Telegraph interviewed César Augusto Portocarrero Rodríguez who shared his thoughts on the importance of water in the 21st century, the possible threat of Laguna Palcacocha and his great friendship with the American paleoclimatologist and distinguished university professor at the School of Earth Sciences, Ohio State University, Dr Lonnie G. Thompson.
Before we get to that, first a small summery of Portocarrero’s lengthy career and some of the awards he was won. Engineer Portocarrero Rodríguez was born in 1947, in the old Inca neighbourhood of T’ococachi, today known as San Blas in the city of Cusco. He studied at Salesiano School and the Gran Unidad Escolar Inca Garcilaso de la Vega in Cusco and would later graduate in civil engineering at the National University of San Antonio Abad in Cusco in 1971. Additionally, he has studied glaciology, geomorphology, water resources, and the El Niño phenomenon at the IRI (Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory) in New York in 1981 and 1995-1996.
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Portocarrero Rodríguez started his professional career working on the Itahuanía-Manu road in Madre de Dios, the Sanitation Corporation of Arequipa, the Reconstruction and Development Corporation of Cusco, the Commission for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of the Ancash area, which was affected by the earthquake of 1970, especially in the provinces of Pomabamba, Mariscal Lujzuriaga, Sihuas, Corongo and Huaylas. In addition, he directed water and sewage sanitation projects in Caraz and Marcará after the earthquake. Later on, Portocarrero worked in the Glaciology and Water Resources Unit of Electroperú, developing security projects related to dangerous lakes of glacial origin in the Cordilleras Blanca and Huaytapallana. He has also participated in the fieldwork and paleoclimatic research cabinet, a project led by Dr Thompson of the Polar Byrd and Climate Research Center of the University of Ohio between 1978 and 2007. Portocarrero was the first-ever Manager of Natural Resources of the Ancash Region in 2003 and 2004.
Portocarrero Rodríguez has received a number of awards, including being declared a mountain hero by the Mountain Institute at the National Geographic Auditorium in Washington, in 2011. His work has been recognised by the National Water Authority of Peru and College of Engineers in Huaraz. In December 2016, Portocarrero received the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal, which is the world’s most prestigious award for mountain advocacy, created to recognise people who have completed a remarkable service in the conservation of culture and nature in mountainous regions. Portocarrero currently serves as an independent consultant in disaster risk management and water resources management. We met César Augusto Portocarrero Rodríguez at his home in Huaraz and asked him about his friendship with Dr Thompson, who we interviewed last year.
Mr Portocarrero, we understand that you share a long friendship with the American paleoclimatologist and distinguished university professor Dr Thompson. Do you think his work in Peru is appreciated and valued by Peruvians?
Dr Thompson and I met in 1978 when he started to drill at the Quelccaya ice cap in southern Peru. At the time, many people, including many geologists, didn’t want to work with him because they had to spend three months over 5,000 metres for research reasons. I volunteered to join him, even though I had never touched snow before. I remember that in Lima people told me to bring my equipment; however, I had no idea what this meant. I brought sweaters, pants and many shirts, but no mountaineering equipment. Our friendship began on my first day with him. I have since accompanied Lonny on most of his expeditions in Peru from 1978 until 2007. I believe that in September this year he wants to go again, although I won´t be able to join him because of ill health. What I would like to share about Dr Thompson is that his initial project to drill in the Quelccaya ice cap was originally rejected. Most important glaciologists were European, and, although Dr Thompson wanted to go to Peru, the project was cancelled because it was believed that drilling over 5,000 metres was impossible. Luckily for Dr Thompson, while drilling on Antarctica in 1973, he was offered U$ 7,000, and he left for Peru in the summer of the following year. Dr Thompson was very dedicated and capable researcher, and did what he could at the time.
The first drilling didn’t prove to be very successful because the pilots of the helicopter that took the drill didn’t want to land, but Dr Thompson would not give up easily. At the same time, a student from Nebraska offered to produce a much lighter drill that would work on solar energy. I believe that in 1983 he managed to accomplish the first ever drilling at an altitude of above 5,000 metres. This is how his great career started. In 2003, I joined him on an expedition; however, I suffered an accident and almost died. During some explosions, a projectile hit me in my chest just below the shoulder.
What is interesting is that Dr Thompson has now drilled in more than 18 countries around the world, and maybe the most remarkable country on that list is China. At the time, China would not let foreigners in, but they offered Lonny a visa on the condition that it would be him alone. Off he went. He told me that he didn’t like the food very much, and that he was only allowed to walk at night because the Chinese didn’t want a foreigner to see the area during the day. This shows his great strength and work spirit. Now times have changed, and he is an honoured member of the Chinese Glaciology Unit. Many years ago, in Cusco, Dr Thompson gave many interesting lectures and speeches; however, people weren’t very interested. In Lima, his work has been recognised, but not officially; he hasn’t been offered the rewards he deserves for his work in Peru. Although now in Cusco, he has received the recognition he absolutely deserves.
We share a great friendship, and I have even lived in his house for a while when I was in the United States. I know his wife and his daughter, who would always laugh when I tried to pronounce the word chicken in English. During the era of terrorism in Huaraz, I received many treats, and Lonny managed to get me a US visa, but I couldn’t leave my family. Luckily, things calmed down, but I will never forget his generosity.
So how does a civil engineer get involved in glaciology and what are you working on at the moment?
Well, this is thanks to Dr Thompson, and the fact that I asked too so many questions! I have always participated in congresses abroad, and I remember that when I was still a very young and unexperienced engineer, a group of geologists from Lima were going to the hydropower tunnel of Machu Picchu. I went to the secretary and asked her to put my name on the list of people that were going the day after. Logically, I was never going to be invited; however, I wanted to go because I thought that this was an interesting opportunity. Maybe 15 minutes later, I got a call from the manager who asked why my name was on that list. I told him that I thought I had to, because shutting down the hydropower tunnel of Machu Picchu didn’t happen that often. The manager applauded my initiative and said that I was the only volunteer that had taken that initiative and that I could go. This initiative has brought me to Italy and Austria; however, it started with Dr Thompson. Now, I work independently on high mountain risk management projects, although I have also worked as a civil engineer when the glaciology unit was shut down in 1996. I have created dams and supervised waterworks all over Peru.
Being a waterworks expert, do you consider that Palcacocha is a threat for Huaraz or is this just a fairy tale?
Palcacocha forms a latent danger for our city, and two things should be realised. Firstly, the water volume should be lowered, being Palcacocha is a glacial lake, this should be realised with complementary hydraulic works. Secondly, an early warning system is required. Because of climate change, this system is necessary and should be installed according to international standards. Palcachocha doesn’t currently have such a system because of the lack of political willingness. The main political authorities, apparently, do not see the importance.
Many people in Huaraz say Palcacocha, Cuchillacocha and Tulparaju form no danger at all.
These people have no idea what they are talking about. Let me give you an example. When I hear people saying this, I remember that in January 1962 the town of Ranrahirca was destroyed by an aluvión. After this aluvión, a couple of experts from Lima came to the area and ascended the Huascaran. On their way down, they noticed a huge crack, with rocks and ice on top of it. The experts warned the authorities and population and predicted an aluvión three times as devastating to the previous one. This was published in September that same year in Lima´s newspaper Diario Expreso. When the article came out, locals were told that this was all a lie. I believe they even threatened to put the authors behind bars. Eight years later, we all know what happened. So, people saying that there is no problem with Palcacocha, this is because of a lack of knowledge. To be or not to be, that is the question. I believe that there is absolutely a danger and the reasons are well explained.
From ice it´s a small step to water, how do you see the future of mankind in relation to glaciers and water accessibility?
The United Nations have declared that the water crisis will commence in 2030. Why? Because the demand for water has increased about 30-40%, and the current production of water isn’t enough. Speaking in terms of civilization, the impacts of climate change may cause the collapse of world´s civilization in 2040. Investigative journalist Dr Nafeez Ahmed predicted this. He ran an investigation from a social-political point of view, and came to the conclusion that the world´s civilization could collapse in 2040 due to catastrophic food shortages and environmental disaster. Ahmed indicates four main reasons for this: climate change, water shortage, globalization process and the increase of political instability around the world. At the moment, in Lima, they´re having an interesting congress called Yaku 2017 (Perú: Encuentro Nacional por el Agua: Yaku 2017). Yesterday I was listening to one of the exponents who was saying that, on a national level, Peru´s government isn’t addressing the water problems. You should realise that the demand for fresh water has increased over the past twenty years. It´s still increasing because the quality of life in Peru has increased. Until maybe 50 years ago, people would take a shower once a week; however, nowadays, people can shower quickly, and a couple of times a day. It´s said that when a population doubles its size, the fresh water use is tripled or quadrupled. More people means more water use. If this problem isn’t managed the way it should be, the world will face serious problems. I don’t have to mention the fresh water crisis that Africa is suffering, but this will probably spread worldwide. The Amazon is the most important water source in the world, but eventually we will have to carry water from the jungle to the coast. I remember that engineer Guido Muñoz from Cajamarca in Peru once presented a project to the government to bring water from the Marañón River to the coast. However, our penultimate government cancelled the project. I believe it was a great project. Bolivian hydrologist Carlos Fernandez-Jauregui once said that water should not be a reason for division; it should be a motive for solidarity. It´s key that we start working on the efficient use of fresh water.
Last year you received a medal in Nepal, how did this happen?
I worked on a project concerning Imja Tsho (or Imja Lake) in Nepal. This glacial lake was created after meltwater began collecting at the foot of the Imja and it is one of the fastest-growing meltwater lakes in the Himalayas. It´s considered as the second most dangerous lake in the Himalaya. Because of my contribution to this project, members of the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Foundation asked for my personal details and I was awarded the medal later that year. I remember having read on many occasions the stories of Sir Edmund Percival ¨Ed¨ Hillary and his Everest adventures. When I was a child, I could only have dreamt of visiting Nepal, but I have been there now many times. I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to work in Nepal.
Returning to the topic of water, which country is best prepared to face the water crises you mentioned earlier?
There are a couple of countries that are better prepared, for instance some European countries and the United States, but Israel is the country that is farthest ahead. Israel converts seawater in to fresh water, a great example of efficient water use. Something interesting I read published by Dr David James Molden of International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), said that to create successful water management, we should first analyse how the water is used in agriculture. Particularly in Peru, agriculture uses 89% of all the water that´s available. Of this 89%, 60% is used incorrectly, and is wasted. This is something we should address. Agriculturists should be helped by the state because if not, Peru will face serious problems in the near future. Ten years ago, in Lima, no one would talk about water shortage. However, the Sedapal Water Company now announces almost daily that the water pressure will drop and that people should expect water cuts. These are signals and indicators that Peru is already facing water problems. A renowned Canadian water expert recently said in a study that in seven of nine sub-watersheds in the Cordillera Blanca, the water level is lowering dramatically. The lack of fresh water will also affect tourism in Huaraz in the future. Why do tourists visit our city? Because of its scenic beauty, of course. This fantastic contrast of colours will disappear when the mountains lose their snow and ice. I believe that we should start thinking about water management. I hope that my children and grandchildren will still be able to enjoy the scenic beauty of the Callejón the Huaylas.