Peru warned on growing water conflicts

The former head of Peru's National Water Authority (ANA) and current water consultant to the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB), Abelardo de la Torre, warned March 19 that Peru faces at least 70 social conflicts related to control of water, and that these are likely to worsen if urgent action is not taken to address them. He said ANA's Hydraulic Resources Management Modernization program, launched under his leadership, was aimed at eliminating inefficiencies in the national irrigation networks, and pointed to the environmental impacts of informal mining as contributing to the degradation of watersheds. (Reports did not indicate that he mentioned the impacts of formal mining.)

As ANA director, de la Torre attempted to mediate solutions to various inter-regional conflicts over water, including that between Cuzco and Arequipa regions over the Angostura project on the Río Colca, and that between Cajamarca and Lambayeque over the Olmos project on the Río Tabaconas. (La Republica, March 20; Gestión, July 27, 2009)

The Olmos mega-irrigation project is moving ahead despite criticisms that it will benefit large corporations at the expense of small and medium-sized producers. The second tranche of an auction of state lands receiving water under the project in Lambayeque is set to begin next month. In the first tranche, 15,600 of the 18,700 available hectares were purchased by the Grupo Gloria, by far Peru's largest landholder. Two Gloria subsidiaries will use the land to grow sugar cane and pasture for dairy cows. The software used to administer the auction was designed to favor large purchasers; Gloria paid about $4,460 per hectare, compared with Angloamerican’s payment of $12,500 per hectare for a smaller plot of land. (Peru This Week, March 26)

This favoring of large interests at the expense of small producers seems to also be causing tensions within Lambayeque, the coastal region that will be receiving waters diverted from Cajamarca, in the sierra. Genaro Vera, president of the Chancay-Lambayeque Valley irrigation district (Junta de Usarios), told the Lima daily La Republica that a move to unseat him because of supposed electoral irregularities was motivated by "political ends"—a presumed reference to his opposition to the Olmos project as currently constituted. On March 17, Vera spoke before the Northern Macro-Regional Assembly, a gathering of social leaders from Peru's northern regions held in Cajamarca, where he pledged solidarity with sierra campesinos opposed to the project. (La Republica, March 21; World War 4 Report on the scene in Cajamarca)

Growing conflicts over shrinking water resources in the sierra and coastal regions have been concomitant with a growing frequency of devastating floods. The National Institute of Civil Defense (INDECI) is struggling to provide emergency aid after flooding this month left some 50,000 displaced, 200,000 impacted and at least 30 dead in the regions of Lima, Áncash, Ica, Ayacucho, Lambayeque, Huancavelica, Puno, Madre de Dios and Arequipa. (RPP, March 20; La Republica, March 6)

The seemingly contrary trends both appear related to climate change and environmental degradation, with the natural system that releases water gradually from glaciers becoming imbalanced. The water supplied by the glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca, vital to a vast area of Peru's northern coast and sierras, is decreasing 20 years sooner than expected, a study found late last year.

Water flows from the region's melting glaciers into the Río Santa have already peaked and are in decline, according to study lead author Michel Baraer, a glaciologist at Canada's McGill University. "Our study reveals that the glaciers feeding the Río Santa watershed are now too small to maintain past water flows," he said. "There will be less water, as much as 30 percent less during the dry season."

The study "Glacier Recession and Water Resources in Peru's Cordillera Blanca," was published Dec. 22 in the Journal of Glaciology. When glaciers begin to shrink in size, they generate "a transitory increase in runoff as they lose mass," the study notes. (IPS, Dec. 27)

See our last posts on Peru and the regional struggles for control of water.

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