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Peruvians Fight for Their Right to Water

A Peruvian man sits in front a lake fed by melt from the Andean glaciers, seen in the background. (Source: Wikimedia, September 2008)

Last week, on September 17, one man was killed and 18 others injured when police attempted to break up demonstrators protesting an irrigation project recently approved by the Peruvian government.  The clash occurred 400 miles south of the country’s capital in a town called Espinar, which is facing a greatly diminished water supply as a result of the Majes-Siguas II irrigation project.

Essentially, the Majes-Siguas II project will create a new dam and water system, reallocating the water currently supplying the town of Espinar to irrigate 95,000 acres of farmland in the nearby region of Arequipa. Although the Peruvian government has guaranteed Espinar’s water supply, residents felt that the concession awarded by the state investment agency to a private consortium was granted without any consideration of the community’s vocalized concerns regarding their water security.

Water has long been a highly valued natural resource in Peru due to the population concentration in the western, extremely arid half of the country; the capital city of Lima, which has a population upwards of 8 million, lies in a desert and receives almost no rainfall, depending entirely on annual melt from the Andean glaciers. In fact, most of the country’s Pacific coast, where a vast majority of citizens reside, would be desert if not for water from the Andes.

Additionally, in recent years over 80% of the country’s power has come from hyrdo-electricity. With the Andean glaciers disappearing at an alarming pace, however, Peru is becoming one of many countries where conflict over access to and allocation of water is increasingly frequent due to climate change.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of Peru’s water issues is the degree to which they are exacerbated by national economic policy.  Peru, a perennially developing nation, has experienced significant economic growth in recent years.  Sadly, however, some of the most booming economic sectors –namely, agricultural exports and copper mining– are extremely water intensive. Sadder still is that the economic benefits generated in these sectors do not seem to be reaching the general public; instead, inasmuch as agricultural and mining industries monopolize natural resources upon which many citizens depend for income and sustenance, they may actually leave the Peruvian people worse-off.

It seems, then, that Peru represents yet another round in the long-perceived fight between economic growth and environmental sustainability.  To date, the nation’s greatest economic progress has relied upon extractive, ecologically degrading activities: Peru has become one of the leading copper exporting nations in recent years. Now, the government is beginning to promote the petroleum industry and, as evidenced by the Majes-Siguas project, export-oriented agriculture.

While “sustainability” is a catchphrase that can easily get mired in controversy and ambiguity, in the case of Peru (and other nations pursuing similar development trajectories), it is a term that must be used. Economic growth generated by activities, such as the new irrigation project in Espinar, that rely on limited and/or disappearing natural resources cannot be sustained in the long term.

The wester half of Peru, where most of the country's population resides, is extremely arid. (Source: Piotr Wojtkowski, March 2010)

Instead, the leaders of developing countries like Peru must create policies that reflect economic and ecological needs and realities while also safeguarding and augmenting the wellbeing of its citizens. The Peruvian government, which continues to eschew the concerns of Espinar residents by highlighting the 150,000 jobs that will be generated by the Majes-Siguas project, is not providing that.  A good first step towards a “healthier” (or at least more reasonable) form of economic growth might be for government officials to acknowledge that new jobs won’t mean a whole lot to the people of Espinar if they don’t have sufficient and reliable access to clean water.

While the recent violence over the Majes-Siguas project highlights the destructive tension between equitable natural resource allocation and economic growth, it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise to the Peruvian government, whose economic stance is increasingly predicated upon a utilitarian view of natural resources.  In 2009, violence erupted between police and indigenous tribes of the Amazon, where the Peruvian government wanted to begin oil exploration.

If the Peruvian government continues to follow the same approach towards natural resource exploitation – in particular, water allocation – they must be prepared for the communities who depend upon such resources to protect their livelihood. One possible solution to this disconnect is a more inclusive approach to natural resource management, whereby all actors are brought to the table to participate in decision-making processes.  Local communities not only have a vested interest in managing water supplies to garner the greatest economic benefit but also, often know best how to conserve and preserve them. Including people with such knowledge and commitment can only produce better-informed policies in the long run and in this way, may help achieve lasting growth.

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Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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