Water is life

Water is life

The Challenge of Hydro-Governance on Peru’s Pacific Slope agua es vida—water is life! You might have seen this phrase on water towers in Lima or, if you listen carefully, you may hear it in conversation with potato farmers here in Ancash. The truism, however simple or cliché it may seem, expresses a grave concern over water availability ever more prevalent in western Peru. In stark contrast to the eastern slope of the Peruvian Andes, which is water-rich and feeds the mighty Amazon River, the western slope is part of one of the driest deserts on earth. Yet despite having less than 2% of Peru’s total freshwater, the Pacific slope supports roughly 70% of the population and much of the country’s economic activity.

Deeply globalized, the Peruvian economy has recently experienced impressive growth driven by water-intensive activities like large-scale export agriculture and mining. Yet, human pressure on hydrologic resources is mounting at the same time that critical glacier reserves are melting due to global warming. Peru contains around 70% of the world’s remaining tropical glaciers and their meltwater is vital in tempering the dusty extremes of the annual dry season and prolonged periods of drought. In the Cordillera Blanca, which is the largest remaining reservoir of tropical ice in the world, roughly a quarter of the glacial area that existed in 1970 had vanished by 2003. The decline of these natural water towers is predicted to accelerate as our global society continues to produce increasing quantities of greenhouse gases.

Under these conditions, it is not surprising that conflicts over water are on the rise in western Peru. In most instances, however, current conflicts result, not from environmentally imposed scarcity, but from choices over how water and the landscapes through which it flows are to be used. Given that water is essential to life and that most of us consider access to it a basic human right, water conflicts often raise important questions about values and justice. How should ever more scarce and precious water supplies be governed and allocated in the context of climatic and economic change? Should water serve basic human needs at a cost to society or should it be sold to the highest bidder?

These abstract moral questions take on flesh when considered in the context of Peru’s Pacific slope. An example is growing international concern over this desert region’s role as the world’s largest exporter of asparagus. Of course, cultivating asparagus (or sugar cane, cotton, etc…) in a desert requires lots of water, and critics assert that despite the substantial corporate profits and local jobs generated by this industry, it is crazy for one of the world’s most water-stressed regions to stock supermarkets shelves across the planet with little bundles of “virtual” water.

Recent conflicts closer to Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca illustrate different concerns over the global economy’s impact on local water supplies. Consider the violent social upheaval in late 2010 around the exploration of a mining concession at Lake Conococha in the head of the Santa River watershed. A diverse group of protesters—the cause unites concerned residents from Conococha to the coast—proclaimed that these iconic headwaters should not be exposed to mining contamination, no matter the international price of gold. Mining, of course, is a booming industry in Peru responsible for more than half of the country’s total export earnings. Yet this production comes with significant environmental costs and Peruvian civil society is increasingly unwilling to grant corporations access to sensitive areas like Lake Conococha.

In these tense situations where local communities and civil-society activist networks are pitted against national and transnational corporations, the Peruvian state is increasingly forced to play the role of mediator in prolonged processes of conflict resolution. In the case of asparagus, for example, the National Water Authority (ANA) along with the regional government in Ica announced a state of hydrologic emergency to curb the rapid depletion of the aquifer there. In the case of Lake Conococha, the Chief of ANA has played a critical role in directing a dialogue process to explore the appropriate conservation status for the headwaters of the Santa River.
A new national water law passed in 2009 mandates ANA as the “maximum tecno-normative authority” in these conflicts and myriad other water management processes, but the law also promotes a vision of participatory and integrated management at the scale of the watershed. Given the diverse array of actors and interests present in many of the nation’s watersheds, this participatory management presents an exceedingly complex challenge. Moreover, while the new law advocates broad participation in planning, decision-making authority still resides with the central government—a scenario that some regional authorities are loath to accept.

The Santa River, which stretches nearly 350 kilometers from its headwaters to the coast and drains more than 12,000 km2, provides an example of the difficulties of governing hydrologic resources at the watershed scale. Currently, a watershed council is being formed to balance the water needs and impacts of farmers and ranchers, urban populations, mines, and hydropower facilities in the high and middle reaches of the basin along with the growing demands of major coastal cities like Chimbote and Trujillo and massive desert irrigation projects like Chinecas and Chavimochic. Conflicting interests and imbalances in power between actors along with uncertainty about how the impacts of climate change and glacier recession will affect the Santa River’s flow in the future all complicate this evolving management process.

Can the collaborative governance the new water law proposes succeed in mitigating and resolving the complex water conflicts that are already emerging on Peru’s Pacific slope? This question is certainly one of the most critical issues facing Peruvian government and civil society today and will only become more important in the coming decades. Moreover, for the great majority of us who live in areas less prone to the negative impacts of climate change and globalization, the urgent challenge of water management in western Peru should remind us that these processes come with profound repercussions for billions of people around the world.

By: Adam French is a geographer based at the University of California, Santa Cruz, USA. His research is focused on the converging impacts of climatic and economic changes in the Central Andes of Peru. He has been working and playing in the Cordillera Blanca since 2003. He can be reached at adamkfrench@gmail.com