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Alternative Climate Summit, Machu Picchu, and El Niño: Destroyer of Civilizations

As an alternative climate summit gets underway in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, many in the Andean region are wondering how they will cope with El Niño, a cyclical meteorological phenomenon in which Pacific surface temperatures rise and have repercussions on weather around the world. El Niño takes place irregularly about every two to seven years and lasts from twelve to eighteen months.

In Peru, El Niño may trigger rainfall along the northern coast as well as intense rains over short periods in the country’s southern mountains. This year, torrential El Niño rains killed dozens while destroying thousands of homes. The worst precipitation occurred in the south around Cusco, where a month’s worth of rain fell in a matter of three days.

“The rains came at night and caught us unprepared. Suddenly we were awakened by shouts and whistles. When I stood up, my feet were already in water. The first thing I did was grab my children. We didn’t have time for anything else,” remarked one witness in the province of Cusco. In recent years, Cusco has seen major urban sprawl and people have constructed homes in high-risk areas. The problem has been compounded by a lack of urban planning and disaster mitigation work.

El Niño and the Climate Connection

Could global warming have something to do with the recent natural disaster? El Niño is a natural phenomenon, but some are worried that climate change could now be altering the cycle in fundamental ways. Despite technological advances, some experts still say it’s difficult to forecast the relative severity of future El Niños because the existing climate models don’t simulate the dramatic weather phenomenon very well.

Other scientists however warn that we are playing with fire. Recently, an international team including some of the world’s most prestigious scientific organizations warned that El Niño will become more intense and imperil sensitive ecosystems like the Amazon. The experts have become so alarmed that they have called for an early warning system to monitor such fragile ecosystems.

Meanwhile there’s been growing scientific agreement about the increasing frequency of El Niños. The organization that sets the bar for scientific research on climate change is the U.N. Environment Program’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC. But some scientists, such as Dr. Philip Fearnside of Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon, say that the group has been very conservative in the way that it ratifies reports.

Fearnside, himself an IPCC collaborator, says that the organization’s second report in 1995 didn’t address increasing frequency of El Niño events that had become statistically significant. The IPCC, however, finally came around: In a report in 2007 the group concluded that “El Niño-like conditions,” meaning warm water in the Pacific, will become more frequent with continued global warming.

El Niño: Destroyer of Civilizations

“If El Niño can be compared to a giant gun firing off climatic chaos,” a reporter for the Los Angeles Times has remarked, “Peru has the geographic misfortune of being at point-blank range.” When Peruvians hear that El Niño might become increasingly volatile and destructive in the future it strikes fear in their midst.

Indeed, as I point out in new book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Affects the Entire Planet, now hot off the press with Palgrave-Macmillan, throughout human history the phenomenon has exacted a heavy toll on cultures within the region. For thousands of years, El Niño has brought both prosperity and destruction to Peru. Archaeologists in fact are now uncovering evidence suggesting that pre-Incan civilizations contended with harsh and severe El Niño swings.

Thousands of years ago along the Peruvian coast, pre-Hispanic ancient peoples carved out a living by hunting, fishing, and collecting mussels and clams. The strategy worked well until around 3000 B.C., when the environment began to change and the weather got bad and unpredictable.

Archaeologists believe that a shift in the coupling of the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean made El Niño more frequent. The change in temperatures killed off the local clams and mussels, making life so hard that people were forced to move inland to moon-like desert valleys.

For the hunters and gatherers who abandoned coastal life, subsistence a scant ten miles away was hard. The settlers had to learn how to cultivate crops and irrigate them from the precious few nearby rivers and streams. El Niño storms would bring them water but also terrifying destruction.

El Niño continued to exert a profound impact on local cultures. Take, for example, the case of the Nazca civilization, which thrived in the Ica and Rio Grande de Nazca river valleys between the birth of Christ and approximately 500 AD. Best known for their drawing of massive lines, geometric shapes and animals on the ground, the Nazca inhabited southern Peru and disappeared fairly rapidly between 500 and 600 AD.

What caused the sudden demise of this culture? According to scientists, the Nazca may have sowed the seeds of their own destruction — literally. Within the lower Ica valley, the Nazca seem to have chopped down a local tree called the huarango which can live up to a thousand years. The tree played an important ecological role as its deep root system held the soil together and protected it against water and erosion.

The huarango also ensured local defense against floods. When the people cleared the huarango for agriculture, they were exposing themselves to great risk. When a severe El Niño struck, bringing with it strong flooding, the indigenous peoples were doomed as they had no forest to protect themselves.

El Niño continued to batter Peru, wiping out the Moche and Lambayeque pre-Hispanic civilizations a thousand years ago. The weather phenomenon may have also struck fear into the hearts of the Chimú people who inhabited the ancient adobe city of Chan Chan in northern Peru.

During its zenith about six hundred years ago, Chan Chan was the largest city in the Americas. Recently, archaeologists excavating at the site uncovered the skeletal remains of a woman dating from the mid-fifteenth century. Experts believe she was buried alive, possibly as a sacrificial offering to ward off El Niño.

El Niño and Machu Picchu

Hundreds of years later, ancient archaeological sites continue to be ravaged by the weather. During the Chimú reign, most of the damage to Chan Chan was caused by El Niño storms but they only occurred every 25 to 50 years. Now, however, the storms occur more frequently.

Chan Chan, which has been declared a World Heritage Site, has suffered from frequent erosion as torrential rains gradually wash away the remains of the nine-square-mile city. In 2007, Unesco issued a report describing the erosion of Chan Chan as “rapid and seemingly unstoppable” and concluded that global warming was likely “to lead to greater extremes of drying and heavy rainfall.”

Could Peru witness damage to other cherished archaeological sites? The most cherished Inca site, Machu Picchu, is now endangered as a result of climate change. Standing at 2,430 meters above sea level in the middle of a tropical mountain forest, Machu Picchu lies in an extraordinarily beautiful setting. Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, a fifteenth century Inca ruler, constructed Machu Picchu with the help of his descendants. At its zenith, the site was probably the most astounding urban creation of the Inca Empire.

The Inca who followed on the heels of the Chimú were clearly aware of El Niño: They constructed their cities on the tops of hills and kept stores of food in the mountains. If the Inca did build on the coast, it was not near rivers. As a result, many of their dwellings are still standing today.

Machu Picchu has been declared a World Heritage Site and one of the Modern Wonders of the World. Since its discovery in the early twentieth century, Machu Picchu has been inundated with tourists. In 1992 Machu Picchu received 9,000 tourists, but by 2006 the figure had jumped to 4,000 on a single day.

Like Chan Chan, Machu Picchu has been pummeled by El Niño. While researching my book, I caught up with Cesar Moran Cahusac of Amazon Conservation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group. While he was in Machu Picchu during in 1998, Cahusac witnessed a natural calamity as the nearby Salkantay glacier collapsed and a huge landslide buried a hydroelectric power station.

Water gushed through the valley below Machu Picchu and flooded the area. Fleeing inhabitants, with nowhere else to go, climbed up on the slope of a mountain while others perished. Rescuers from Machu Picchu, using antiquated Russian helicopters, helped to gather up the traumatized local Quechua Indians and campesino peasants. The survivors had lost everything including their homes and possessions.

Below the rescue site the whole area had become flooded, creating a gigantic lake. Relief workers helped to evacuate the survivors to Aguas Calientes, a nearby town. The hydroelectric power station was shuttered for a year and reconstruction cost the government $400 million.

While small landslides were routine in the area, what happened in 1998 was different. What witnesses saw in and around Machu Picchu is known in Peru as an aluvión, a glacial flood burst, and people have grown to fear such events. Experts point out that 1998 marked the appearance of an El Niño, and that rising temperatures helped to melt the ice on the peaks surrounding the hydroelectric station.

Machu Picchu will be right in the crosshairs of delicate climate change for the foreseeable future. Every summer in Peru (the opposite of U.S. winter) the country experiences a rainy season in the south. The Andean nation is hit by a series of aluviones, resulting in mudslides that destroy houses and block highways. Aluviones occur periodically when water is released abruptly from a previously ice-dammed lake alongside, within, or above a glacier.

Such terrifying flood bursts typically arrive with little or no warning, carrying liquid mud, large rock boulders, and blocks of ice. Towns lying near glacial outwash streams are particularly vulnerable to such catastrophic flooding. When it’s a peak El Niño year, like 1998, the number of aluviones goes up and the resulting disruption for people and infrastructure is correspondingly greater. Concerned about the threat, authorities have improved urban planning and zoning so as to prepare for aluviones. And yet, Machu Picchu remains woefully unprepared for another disaster.

When traveling to Machu Picchu by train one stops off in Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu town, which is known for its springs and natural thermal waters. From there tourists proceed to the archaeological site of Machu Picchu by bus. The town itself is constructed near a creek that feeds into a tributary of the Vilcanota River.

In a peak year Aguas Calientes could be inundated by an aluvión, and yet local residents stubbornly refuse to move. Despite warnings from local and national officials as well as the World Bank, townspeople are reluctant to give up their livelihoods. Hotel and restaurant owners are aware of the risk of an aluvíon. But, in the short term they figure they’re making a lot of money as a result of the tourist boom at Machu Picchu.

Ultimately, people may regret that type of risk taking: over the past few months Machu Picchu has again been hit by El Niño. The Urubamba River, which runs past the archaeological site, swelled to an unprecedented 39,000 cubic feet per second. Flooding brought disaster in its wake, with at least 26 people killed. Meanwhile, the homes and livelihood of some 20,000 people were destroyed.

The weather devastated the local economy, with the Urubamba River undermining various stretches of the railway line that leads to Machu Picchu. Indeed, the situation became so bad that the authorities at one point had to borrow helicopters from as far away as Brazil to airlift almost 4,000 tourists stranded in Aguas Calientes. The authorities estimate that thousands of people were thrown out of work in the tourist industry as a result of the weather.

Desperate to recoup the lost income, tour operators are trying to encourage visitors to visit the Nazca lines, Colca canyon, Cusco and Lima. Unfortunately, none of these attractions offer the same allure of Machu Picchu.

Looking to the Future and Cochabamba

Judging from the recent El Niño in Peru, authorities will be overwhelmed with the task of confronting extreme weather events. Indeed, municipalities suffer from a lack of funding or training. One provincial governor has called for a special fund for disaster prevention and emergencies. “We can’t confront a global problem like climate change all alone,” he remarked. “Something must be done, and there should be a permanent institution focused on the problem.”

Recognizing that the Global North has not owned up to its obligations, Andean nations are taking matters into their own hands. This week, Bolivian President Evo Morales is hosting an alternative climate summit in the city of Cochabamba. Designed to counteract the recent climate conference in Copenhagen, which was viewed by many as a failure, Cochabamba will bring together government officials, indigenous movements, non-governmental organizations or NGOs, as well as intellectuals and activists from across the world to preserve “the rights of Mother Earth.”

Since Bolivia has little voice on the world stage, how might one evaluate “success” at Cochabamba? Idealistically, Bolivia wants to create a charter of rights for the planet, organize a world people’s referendum on global warming, draft an action plan to spur the creation of an international climate justice tribunal, and agree upon new commitments to be negotiated within the framework of the United Nations.

As if that were not enough, summit organizers have drawn up an ambitious agenda including climate debt, climate change migrants and refugees, greenhouse gas emission cuts, adaptation, technology transfer, financing, forests and climate change, shared visions and indigenous peoples.

For millennia, the weather has played a key and pivotal role in the rise and fall of civilizations in the Andes. Simply put, people had no other choice but to learn how to co-exist with ferocious phenomena such as El Niño. Yet now in a warming world many are bewildered and don’t know what will come next. Unprepared to confront severe meteorological challenges, they are looking to the Global North to do its part. Hopefully, citizens of the more affluent world will sit up and take notice of Cochabamba and pressure their governments to undertake meaningful change at long last.

Note: a condensed version of this article was just released by Latin Dispatch.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Affects the Entire Planet, now hot off the press with Palgrave-Macmillan. Visit his website,

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