Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

PERU: Water Isn’t for Everyone

LIMA, Apr 18 2009 (IPS) - The melting of glaciers resulting from climate change and the lack of adequate water management policies seem to be the main causes behind the water shortages that are fuelling conflicts in Peru.

Marco Zapata on the shrinking Pastoruri Glacier in the Blanca range in the Andes. Credit: Courtesy of Marco Zapata

Marco Zapata on the shrinking Pastoruri Glacier in the Blanca range in the Andes. Credit: Courtesy of Marco Zapata

This warning is being sounded from a variety of sectors.

Nearly 50 percent of the 218 social conflicts recorded by the national ombudsman’s office as of February 2009 were triggered by socio-environmental problems, many of them related to water management issues, states the report “Water Faces New Challenges: Actors and Initiatives in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia”, published by the international anti-poverty organisation Oxfam on Mar. 20.

Two southern departments, Moquegua and Arequipa, are at loggerheads over water. And rural communities in the Andean highlands region along the Yauca River have experienced violent clashes that have even claimed lives.

The Chavimochic and Chinecas irrigation projects in the northwest have given rise to ongoing disputes over water resources. Chavimochic irrigates some 155,000 hectares, 66,000 in what is otherwise desert, and encompasses Trujillo, the principal city in the region of La Libertad.

Chinecas, in the Ancash region, has expanded irrigation on 24,000 hectares and pushed the agriculture frontier 10,000 hectares into previously unfarmed areas.

The regions of Piura and Lambayeque in the north are fighting over the use of the Huancabamba River, which originates in the former, but is used for irrigation in the latter.

Water is not only in short supply in Peru, but it is also poorly distributed in relation to the population. Seventy percent of the people live in the arid strip along the Pacific Ocean, where just 1.8 percent of the country’s freshwater supply is found.

Lima, on the coast, is home to eight million people, or 30 percent of the total population. It is the world’s second largest city located in a desert, after Cairo in Egypt. It is estimated that between one million and two million people in the city do not have potable water.

Carmen Felipe-Morales, an engineering expert with the Institute of Water Promotion and Management, underscores the fact that Lima does not have a large enough water supply for its inhabitants.

At one point in his first term (1985-1990), President Alan García proposed moving the enormous population of Lima to another site, but that idea has not been mentioned again during his current term.

Instead, he turned his campaign promise of “water for all” into a strategic programme of his administration, which proposes hefty investment in 185 piped water and sanitation projects.

The stated objective is to expand potable water services from 76 to 88 percent of households; sanitation from 57 to 77 percent; and sewage treatment from 22 to 100 percent by 2015.

This would achieve one of the targets set under the Millennium Development Goals, adopted by the international community in 2000: Halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, by 2015 on 1990 levels.

But the question remains about the limited supplies of water that are available.

“If we don’t put the brakes on the growth in the population of the capital, the problem will get worse, not only due to the demand, but because of a very serious aspect: water pollution,” said Felipe-Morales in an interview for this article.

According to the Oxfam report, more than half of Peru’s rivers with highest demand for use are severely polluted: the Chira, Piura, Llaunaco, Santa and Huallaga rivers in the north; the Chillón, Yauli and Mantaro in the central region; and the Chili River in the south.

In Felipe-Morales’s view, water management seems to be missing from the government’s policy agenda.

“Appropriate management is especially about prevention and education, and compliance with standards, because in Peru we have many, many laws and rules about the environment, but they are unevenly enforced,” she said.

The Law on Water Resources, enacted on Mar. 30, has been challenged by citizens and politicians alike, because “very clearly it opens the doors to the privatisation of water administration,” said Nationalist Party lawmaker Yaneth Cajahuanca.

Meanwhile, a crucial source of freshwater is melting before the very eyes of Peruvians. The massive glaciers in the Andes Mountains are disappearing as a result of global climate change, warn experts.

Of the world’s glaciers found in tropical latitudes, 71 percent are in Peru, 22 percent are in Bolivia, four percent in Ecuador, and three percent in Colombia.

Peru’s total glacier-covered area has shrunk from 2,042 square kilometres to 1,596 square kilometres in the last 30 years, says engineer Marco Zapata, head of the Glaciology and Water Resources Unit of the National Water Authority, in the northwest province of Huaraz.

That is 446 square km fewer glaciers, which represents an estimated seven billion cubic meters of water – the equivalent of 10 years of water consumption in Lima.

In the Cordillera Blanca, the highest and most extensive mountain range of its type, situated in Ancash, glacier coverage shrank 187 square km between 1970 and 2003 – a 26 percent decline in 33 years. But 10.5 percent occurred just in the last six years, between 1997 and 2003, noted Zapata, who has been studying the phenomenon for more than three decades.

“In 1989 the first national inventory of glaciers was published, based on aerial photos from the years 1970 and 1974, encompassing 18 snowy ranges or large glacier areas. The volcanic range of Arequipa was not inventoried because the photographs had many clouds, nor was the Barroso de Tacna (both in the south), because its glaciers had already disappeared,” he said.

In 2007 “we started working on a new inventory of glaciers and high Andean lakes or proglacial lakes, beginning with the Cordillera Blanca,” said Zapata.

This latest inventory was based on satellite images from 2003. While in 1970, the Cordillera Blanca glaciers covered 723 square kilometres, the results from 2003 showed just 535 square kilometres.

That range holds a quarter of the world’s tropical glaciers, says the study “Alpine Lakes and Glaciers in Peru: Managing Sources of Water and Destruction”, published by Edward Spang in 2006.

The rivers of the Peruvian coast originate in the mountains and are fed by the glaciers, yearly winter snowmelt and other precipitation at higher altitudes. “When the glaciers disappear, we will only have the water from rainfall,” warned the expert.

Peru has some 12,200 lakes and “those will have to be used, as will the valleys that have the conditions to store water during the rainy season,” he said.

Crops will have to be determined based on the availability of water, according to Zapata, adding that irrigation systems must be improved and leaks in the channels must be reduced, because that loss is 70 percent of the water from the sierra.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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