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OU researchers to collaborate across countries, study impact of climate change in Peru

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Dr. Díaz de la Rubia

OU Vice President for Research and Partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia talks about projects taking place in Peru on Feb. 28.

For the indigenous communities of Peru’s Arequipa region, the impact of climate change permeates every aspect of life.

The region, which spans from Peru’s second-largest city of Arequipa to the remote Andes Mountains, is seeing rises in food and water contamination, poor air quality, extreme weather and health issues.

OU’s Vice President for Research and Partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia said OU is collaborating with the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín in Arequipa to find solutions to help the indigenous communities of the region combat the effects of climate change.

Before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Díaz de la Rubia and ten other researchers planned to travel to the university to present project ideas for solutions to the region’s climate problems. Peru is currently on lockdown until April 12, so Díaz de la Rubia said the meeting will happen over Zoom after the lockdown is lifted.

“(Through the project,) we’re providing technical assistance for them to become experts in what we know about so … they will be able to carry on the research themselves, so that they can have a local impact on their communities themselves,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “We’re creating the capacity for them to do that.”

Climate change in indigenous communities

Díaz de la Rubia said some of the major effects of climate change in the Arequipa region manifest in basic areas of need: food, water and health. 

“In that part of the world, they rely very heavily (on) the water (from) glaciers that melt during the summer and provide water for the communities for the rest of the year,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “In the winter (the water) freezes back, and this has been going on for hundreds of years.”

Díaz de la Rubia said the Arequipa region has seen a 50 percent reduction in the amount of ice freezing back into glaciers. He said in two or three decades, the region’s source of water may be significantly depleted or completely gone.

At Díaz de la Rubia’s previous position at Purdue University, he worked with the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín to find solutions to contaminated food and water caused by the illegal mining industry. At OU, Díaz de la Rubia said the university’s expertise on atmospheric and health sciences should provide an avenue to help the Arequipa community while promoting learning on both sides.

Díaz de la Rubia said when local farmers irrigate their crops, they have to use “highly contaminated” water from rivers flowing down from the Andes Mountains. When farmers try to export their food, it’s rejected by the FDA due to high levels of metal contaminants.

“And who eats that food?” asked Díaz de la Rubia. “(The indigenous communities) do. What happens is that children have all kinds of developmental problems.”

Díaz de la Rubia said if indigenous people can’t use river water due to contamination, they are forced to rely on glacier water for farming. If they cannot rely on the availability of glacier water, indigenous farmers are left without resources to sustain their land.

“That (glacial) water is disappearing,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “And we’re going to focus on that problem of how we quantify the impact of climate change so that we can predict and adapt to the change that is coming and is already there.”

The impact of a depleted ozone layer is also affecting the people of Arequipa. Díaz de la Rubia said due to the region’s proximity to the sun in the Andes Mountains, indigenous communities are seeing a rise in skin cancer.

“They have a very high incidence of things like skin cancer because this region is up at 8,000 feet, and it’s sunny 320 days a year,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “So they’re getting enormous amounts of sun, and they don’t have a protective ozone layer anymore.”

Díaz de la Rubia said the impact of climate change is so pervasive in the region, Peruvians are past the debate of whether climate change is real.

“You get on a taxi cab from the airport to downtown Lima and the first thing that the taxi driver will talk to you about is climate change,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “There's no question. It's not an ‘if.’ It's like, ‘What are we going to do about it?’”

Peruvian partnership

On a date to be decided once the COVID-19 outbreak subsides, 10 professors from multiple disciplines and Díaz de la Rubia will conference remotely over Zoom to pitch their ideas for climate change solutions to officials at the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín.

Díaz de la Rubia said every project approved by the university will have one principal investigator in Norman and one in Arequipa. The principal investigator is the key faculty member responsible for all students and faculty working on a project.

“There will be a lot of exchanges of faculty and students going back and forth,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “This is a big opportunity for our students to grow and have experiences in Latin America and Peru, doing research on the ground (and) getting to know people. It’s just a really fantastic opportunity for everybody.”

Hank Jenkins-Smith, director of OU’s National Institute for Risk and Resilience, and Carol Silva, director of OU’s Center for Risk and Crisis Management, said in a joint email to The Daily they are working on a project to pitch to the university.

Jenkins-Smith and Silva said in the email the project will “measure how households in the Arequipa region of Peru perceive, understand and adapt to the effects of a changing climate over time,” by working with the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín to recruit a panel of households to study. These households will report annually on the ways climate change affects their perceptions, beliefs and behaviors.

This data will be compared with geolocated weather and air quality-sensing data from the areas of those households. Jenkins-Smith and Silva said the project is similar to a National Science Foundation-funded initiative called Oklahoma M-SISNet, in which similar data was collected from Oklahoma households starting in 2014.

“The analysis of the data collected through this project will provide the basis for a set of policy recommendations to enhance the resilience and sustainability of communities in the Arequipa region of Peru,” Jenkins-Smith and Silva said in the email. “Working with collaborators at UNSA, we plan to write a book that provides strategies for adaptation to a changing climate.”

In addition to Jenkins-Smith and Silva’s project, Díaz de la Rubia said other initiatives to present are in the works.

“The projects we’re talking with (officials at the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín) about are around atmospheric science and climate change, trying to help them understand air quality and how to mitigate issues that arise from (poor) air and water quality,” Díaz de la Rubia said. 

Díaz de la Rubia said OU is “one of the best (institutions) in the world” for atmospheric science. He said he plans for OU’s specialists to teach the people of Arequipa to become experts in weather and radar.

Díaz de la Rubia said OU’s Health Sciences Center will also play an integral role in the project. 

“We (plan to) bring the expertise we have in working on the social determinants of health issues, like high incidences of diabetes and cancer, that the Health Sciences Center has a lot of expertise (in),” Díaz de la Rubia said. “We’re bringing ideas to them about how we might be able to influence their communities to have better health outcomes and healthier living so that the incidence of these diseases can decline over time.”

Local challenges and global solutions

Research teams anticipate some challenges with the international project — language barriers, cultural sensitivity, lack of infrastructure and the impact of the coronavirus could affect how the teams approach the initiative. 

Díaz de la Rubia said these potential obstacles are why an array of researchers from multiple disciplines are involved.

“(Peru doesn’t) have highly developed urban management systems or political systems that are able to implement solutions in an effective, expeditious way,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “We have to provide advice to the policymakers in the region as to how they may most effectively be able to implement a solution that will help the local people. That’s part of why it’s so important to bring a diverse group of faculty.”

The project is gathering professors and researchers from atmospheric science, sociology, anthropology, international studies, engineering, geology and political science. Díaz de la Rubia said the varied disciplines represented will be integral to adapting climate change technologies in a way that respects the region’s history and culture.

“Let’s say we install a radar system to measure air quality or predict weather,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “There’s a component that has to do with how they are going to accept those technical solutions in local communities. You’ve got to bring in the social sciences and humanities.”

In addition to cultural barriers, the COVID-19 outbreak has forced the project to continue remotely. Díaz de la Rubia said they were once hopeful the meeting would take place in-person at the Universidad Nacional de San Agustín, but those plans have changed.

“All our presentations are ready,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “We just need to be patient and wait till the right time.”

The researchers behind the collaboration hope to eventually extrapolate data from Peru and analyze how it can be applied globally to mitigate the effects of climate change in other regions.

“The ability to go into another country and learn about their problems and help them create solutions to adapt to those problems is directly applicable to Oklahoma, to the United States (and) to the rest of the world,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “There’s a common theme, the environmental impacts and social impacts of climate change, which is universal. What we learn and what we do there will be applicable locally, nationally and globally.”

Beth Wallis is a senior journalism major and political science minor, and junior news reporter for The Daily. She covers university research efforts.

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