In the Peruvian Andes, residents sow water for the future

Water is and will be a key factor in adaptation to climate change.
La Mula
In the Peruvian Andes, residents sow water for the future

During COP25, in Madrid, the issue of adaptation to climate change was one of the most eagerly awaited. There has been some progress, but at the moment it is insufficient. The truth is that governments, international cooperation, civil society and non-governmental organisations are working on it. In that context, the following story is about how women and men living in the highlands of Peru adapt to the climate crisis.

The planting and harvesting of water has become the main activity with which the people of the high Andean areas of Peru face water shortages. Arequipa and Cusco are two of the regions that recover their pastures through the cultivation of rain and thus adapt to climate change.  

Rain does not reach people on the slopes, springs tend to disappear and rivers experience a decrease in flow. Climate change affects the water cycle considerably in high Andean areas above 4,000 meters above sea level. The rainy season has declined to three months, and the remaining nine months are a constant challenge for those who live there. Between December and March it rains, and the hills and meadows are dressed in green, the soils are moistened, and the lagoons are nourished by rainfall. Camelids have food. However, between May and August the frosts worsen during the nights and dawns with temperatures that can reach -28 °C and the grasses turn yellow and dry out. Until the end of November these become grey, and only the hardest (less nutritious) grasses resist.

In the puna (one of the eight natural regions of Peru, located between 4,000 and 4,800 meters above sea level) the vegetation is scarce. The ichu - food of auquénidos, bovine and ovine -, the cacti and the bromeliads conform the flora and between the scarce existing fauna they emphasize the camelidos. The alpacas are raised, fed and cared for with devotion, because they are the sustenance of those who live in the highlands. The majority of those who live in the highlands are small cattle ranchers.

Flor Mamani (32) and Tomás Cayllahua (40) are married and live in Chalhuanca, a town in the Yanque district, Caylloma province, department of Arequipa. At 4,300 meters above sea level they show their pastures, their camelids and the qocha (rustic dam) that has changed their lives. Both are aware that their future depends on water, so they are proud of what they have achieved with much effort of their own and with the support of their neighbors.

Tomas and Flor are young Chalhuanquinos who have dedicated their lives to improving their local environment / Credit: Alberto Niquen

The qocha is part of this traditional custom of sowing and harvesting water, which consists of building a reservoir to store rainwater, reducing runoff (water that is poured over its natural or artificial channel) that produces erosion and loss of soil fertility, and increasing infiltration (which permanently recharges groundwater, conserving wetlands and springs downstream, and which are also used directly in human and agricultural activities). In addition, it regenerates the landscape, helps to improve food security and ensures food for small animals and livestock in the dry season.

According to the National Census of 2017, 220 people live in this populated center, but there are many more, without considering those who have migrated to the capital of Arequipa and to other regions and who only return for the patron saint festivals. In Chalhuanca everyone has their own ranches, camelids and houses. It is not possible to cultivate fruits there, but some vegetables do sprout, the rest must be purchased in commercial establishments in the same town or in neighboring towns.

Fernando Ucsa (49), former vice-president of Huacapunco, a town in the Colquepata district, Paucartambo province, department of Cusco, is an enthusiastic disseminator of the importance of qochas in coping with periods of water scarcity in the Andes. He raises quality cattle and his economic livelihood is based on the sale of his animals' milk, as well as their breeding animals. At heights, he shows us one of the eight qochas that he and his neighbors have built and is moved when we notice the water emerging from the eyes of water.Huacapunco, like Chalhuanca, is also a cattle area. The houses are built at 3,328 meters above sea level (Sunni region) but their pastures reach the Puna region. It is a cold zone, with minimum temperatures of -16 °C. The fields around the town are cultivated, so its flora and fauna are varied. Official figures from the 2017 Census indicate that less than 80 people live here, but Ucsa claims that there are more than 300 people, regardless of who migrates.

Fernando Ucsa is one of the most experience in building and maintaining the Qochas / Credit: Alberto Niquen

Ancestral water management in the Andes

In 2018, Peru enacted the Framework Law on Climate Change with the aim of implementing measures to mitigate and adapt to global warming, while putting into practice its commitments in the Paris Agreement. Article 3 highlights mitigation and adaptation based on traditional knowledge. In this way, it "recovers, values and uses the traditional knowledge of indigenous or original peoples and their vision of development in harmony with nature, in the design of measures for mitigation and adaptation to climate change. It also proposes mitigation and adaptation based on hydrographic basins. It protects, restores and sustainably manages the hydrological cycle and the existing water systems in the Pacific, Atlantic and Titicaca river basins, through management and land use planning that anticipates their vulnerability to the effects of climate change and guarantees the right to water".

Does the norm consider original societies? Yes, but the knowledge to reserve water for those who live in the highlands comes from pre-Hispanic times. Then there was no climate crisis, but the locals still had to face the challenges of living in a place with water shortages. The pre-Inca and Inca societies had excellent management of the variety of existing ecological floors and there are vestiges of their hydraulic engineering that benefited their agriculture and their camelids. They used qochas or small reservoirs that allowed them to store water from springs to use it more efficiently for irrigation.

The Inca's hydraulic engineering is famed for its skill and high-level understanding of water systems / Infographic: Ronald Ancajima

Precisely, at present, among the different activities of adaptation to climate change -some encouraged by the Peruvian State and others learned by the native communities intimately linked to nature- stands out the planting and harvesting of water. This ancestral activity -which is carried out in Chalhuanca and Huacapunco- also increases agricultural water security in these areas, and contributes to the productivity and economic improvement of small farmers and cattle ranchers; besides being at the forefront of the fight against the effects of climate change, by maintaining the ecosystem of the high Andean basins. "We have not invented gunpowder. It is ancestral knowledge. Our ancestors did it, but I think for a long time it was abandoned, probably because they didn't have water problems like now," says Fernando Ucsa while making sure his qocha is in optimum condition.

Tomás and Flor smile in the cold of the puna. They look at their qocha again and say that the landscape surrounding their estancia is different, after having been a simple pampa. They emphasize their alpacas and the birds that rest in their waters and claim that they attest that the ecosystem is in good condition. 

In the Andean cosmovision, water, land and other components of nature are considered 'people' who have life (kawsaqmi). In some communities, they call, store and move water through ceremonial songs.

Water sowing and harvesting is a colloquial term, only first used in the 1990s. Therefore, when the high-Andeans were told of the need to carry out this activity, their first reaction was one of surprise: "How are we going to harvest water? Sow it? It didn't sound logical when the technicians told us. When I understood, I asked myself how to convince my neighbours. How can I explain to them that although we have water upstream, through filtration, a part of the water ends up downstream, far from our land and other people benefit in this way? You had to teach well. Now everyone is enthusiastic, because we all want water," says Tomás.

That also happens in Huacapunco, says Wilber Castillo, a member of the Huacapunco board of directors: "We are enthusiastic about making more dams, because with water we do everything: our pastures, the planting of our products. Without water we don't exist. He assures that "the neighbors have realized how many qochas serve us. Before we didn't have this water, now this area would have been dry.

For his part, Fernando Ucsa points out that thanks to the qochas, the water has increased between 10% and 15%. "Without the qocha, the flow of the spring would be lost and we would run out of water. Now we are much more animated and eager to work harder," he adds. 

In some regions, there are infiltration ditches (channels on hillside land), grassland closures (fencing of grassland areas in watershed headwaters), natural pasture management (rotational grazing, roost rotation, etc.), forestry and reforestation, and amunas (collecting rainwater and then infiltrating it into fractured rocks above the springs).

"What we do is build rustic dikes in the outlet of dry natural depressions or on existing temporary lagoons, which allow raising the level of the water mirror increasing the storage capacity and volume," says Joel Cayllahua, from Chalhuanca. "It is a simple and economic practice. For its construction, rustic materials available in the area are used, such as stones, earthen clods with grass (champas) and compacted earth. Large, medium and small stones are used to build the dam; clay soils, manure. With spade and straight shovel, wheelbarrow, barreta, huincha, cordel, chakitaclla, plaster," adds Wilber Castillo.

The benefits of this Andean activity are evident in the short term (there have been cases of six months) and medium term (a year or a little more), and over time many of these temporary qochas become permanent, although some also break down. "Our lands turn green thanks to the water, we wish it was like this all year round. With better pastures, our animals become strong, they don't get sick, they don't die and thanks to them we have resources. But we want this to be sustainable, we want the state to help us so that our children have opportunities that we have not had and can be professionals," says Fernando Ucsa.

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Engineering with ancestral wisdom 

In both regions, non-governmental civil society organizations have approached communities to add synergies and assess how water availability can be successfully addressed in times of drought. The ancestral knowledge of water management in the Andes, hand in hand with contemporary engineering. Desco Sur, in Chalhuanca, and Helvetas Peru, through the Climate Change Adaptation Program (PACC Peru), an initiative promoted by the Swiss Cooperation SDC, in Huacapunco, have participated in training for the construction and management of rustic micro-dams.

"United Nations recognizes the value of ancestral values and promotes the approach to this type of knowledge and examines the level they currently have to, on that basis, support efforts. In spite of the cultural deterioration, there are still people who preserve these actions and it is necessary to know how to articulate them to the current knowledge, without thinking that these are sufficient; they also have to be clarified with the knowledge of science. It is essential to learn from farmers and ranchers, and at the same time train them to promote sustainable rural development," says Lenkiza Angulo, a specialist in climate change and natural resources at Helvetas.

Communal work is used to build a Qocha / Credit: Flavio Valer 

For her part, Environment Minister Fabiola Muñoz* points out that "the ancestral interventions and infrastructures for planting and harvesting water contribute to the efficiency and sustainability of water resource management, the proactive and planned adaptation of water resources to the impacts of climate change and are synergistically complemented by Western technological knowledge of water resources that assertively incorporate ancestral Andean knowledge into state systems for the management of water resources for agricultural use. [*Statement registered when I was Minister of Agriculture.]

The storage of rainwater is done with deep respect to the deities of the place where the qocha is going to be built. The sowing of water allows it to infiltrate through the soil and subsoil, and feed the aquifers that give rise to manantes ('water eyes' or puquios), and the bofedales or puna wetlands.

Sacred Qocha

The type of qocha that is built depends on the type of soil. For sowing is better porous soil and cracked rocks, so the water will infiltrate faster. For harvesting is better clay soil, which retains water longer. "In order to build qochas it is necessary to look for lands in the headwaters of basins with natural depressions in the form of batea and without much slope. The tributary area, located above the micro-dam, is where rainwater is collected. The area of influence, located below the qocha, is where the benefits of recharging are evident. Both should be proportional to the size of the qocha. Qocha should never be made in landslides or in ravines, due to the danger they can represent in the rainy season," explains Flavio Valer, a zootechnical engineer, apurimeño and expert in sowing and harvesting water, who as a consultant to PACC Peru has helped to build hundreds of qocha in different regions of the country and knows perfectly the reality of Huacapunco.

The specialist points out that you can have 7,000 m3 of water in a qocha, but underground, depending on the type of soil, there can be 10 or 50 times more. "A qocha of 3,000 m2 can infiltrate 5,000 m3 of water in the rainy season. With an infiltration rate of 0.01 m/day," he stresses.

An area that was once a dry pampa is now full of water and life / Credit: Alberto Niquen

In some cases, it can take four to six months for the water that infiltrates into the mountain to re-emerge through the springs at more than 500 metres. However, as in Huacapunco, the results in springs and bofedales (high Andean wetlands characterized by their cushion-like vegetation and by their structure, which could be compared to that of a sponge, since they are water collectors) are not always immediate, but are appreciated after a time that can be a year or more. Valer remembers that when they began to use the technique they were not so well received: "In the first qochas we made the water dried after about three or four months. Then people thought they had wasted time, questioning its usefulness. In the short term, they preferred to retain the water in the qocha to use it as a trough, for example, but the purpose of the qochas is another: to collect water to feed the springs at the bottom.

Once successful, dams become fundamental to family life. "This dam is good enough for us to accumulate our water. We use it as a water store when there is drought, this supports not only us, but also several neighbors, around nine families," says Tomás Cayllahua. His wife, Flor Mamani, a strong woman who treats nature with respect and docility, loves her alpacas and treasures the water. She takes care of the home, of her little son, but she looks after her qocha. 

"The qochas help us a lot. Before our pastures were dry, now they are with water, with humidity, with beautiful bofedales and our alpacas are safe. We benefit a lot, we want more water. We want to store more water like this," emphasizes Juana de Dios Hinojosa, inhabitant of Chalhuanca and in addition to participating in alpaca grazing and maintenance of the springs is dedicated to weaving for income.

Women and men work together to construct the Qochas / Credit: Flavio Valer

Juan Carlos Lizárraga, an engineer specializing in natural infrastructure in Desco Sur, an NGO that has been advising Chalhuanca (and other southern Andean areas) for more than 20 years, notes that the stored water allows irrigation of certain sectors of natural pastures from September to December, with an irrigation frequency of every 20 days that provides anticipated humidity to natural pastures that when complemented with rainfall manages to increase forage production by more than 125%. 

He accompanies Tomás and Flor, and comments: "They open the valves of their qocha in September, October, November, December, to improve the pastures and be able to reach the next rainy season. Where the water flows is a canal that will transport the water to the lowest part, where the family has begun to do their activities, mainly maintenance and management of natural pastures. Here they wait almost a year to be able to shear the alpacas and sell the fiber, and they are maintained with the sale of meat, which they benefit from animals every two months, to be able to have sustenance of the family, in the subject of the nourishment and dress for their children. This is thanks to the harvesting of the water.

But what do these Peruvians receive from the mountains in exchange for taking care of the water? Peru is one of the Latin American countries where the care of water sources is a public policy. In 2014, the government enacted the Ley de Mecanismos de Retribución por Servicios Ecosistemicos (Merese), which has allowed the Superintendencia Nacional de Servicios de Saneamiento (Sunass) to promote, between 2013 and 2018, that 34 companies providing sanitation services implement this mechanism to conserve their water sources. The regulator's role is to promote and incorporate in the tariffs of sanitation services a percentage destined to the conservation of water sources, while the citizen has the opportunity to collaborate and protect the environment through monthly payment in their water bills.  

The potential of compensation mechanisms for ecosystem services is enormous, but our interviewees do not yet see this reciprocity. They don't want money for their pockets, but to make more qochas.

"Here we live and care for water. Below, the city of Arequipa does not know where the water they consume comes from. This reaches the Chalhuanca dam and from there to the Cerro Verde mine and also to the power generation plant. The beneficiary companies should reward us. They grow and we remain poor even though we take care of the water. The retribution must be for new projects, to plant new water mirrors, to maintain and protect our alpacas," says Joel Cayllahua, former president of irrigators of Chalhuanca.

In Cusco, they also ask for this attention. "We want an incentive or support from the regional government or the government of President Martín Vizcarra. I hope he will attend to us. We expect retribution in any form, that they value our work with water because it is not only a benefit for us but also for many people who live outside of our lands," says Wilber Castillo.  

Regarding the sources of financing for investing in water security, Isabel Calle, director of the Environmental Policy and Governance Program of the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA), emphasizes that the mechanisms of compensation for ecosystem services can be an important starting point for them to be exploited at the basin level, benefiting all users, from agriculture, livestock, population users and different productive activities.

The Peruvian state takes action

The success of this ancestral practice has generated the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation (Minagri), which since 2017 has been developing this strategy through the Executive Unit of the Sierra Azul Fund (UEFSA) and building qochas, infiltration ditches, forestation campaigns, meadows and amunas in coordination with regional and local governments, as well as with organized communities.

Last July it announced an investment of 34 million soles (US$10.3 million) to build 360 qochas during 2019, which would provide a reservoir volume of 5 million cubic meters of water to maintain irrigated 22,023 hectares of crops that would benefit approximately 5,000 families of small farmers. The first phase began with the construction of 160 qochas in the Ancash, Apurímac, Ayacucho, Cusco and Huancavelica regions. By 2021, 1,250 qochas are projected.

"The water from the qochas, in addition to feeding the aquifers, can be used for the specific irrigation of some crops according to what the producers decide. That's family farming," says Muñoz.

What's more, this year the government enacted a law that declares of national interest and public necessity the implementation of water sowing and harvesting, as well as the dissemination of ancestral water sowing and harvesting techniques among the population. For Valer, this norm will contribute to productivity, economic improvement and the ecosystem. "Finally, local, regional and national governments must take into account the importance of implementing this activity for the recharge of aquifers; hopefully they will consider in the planning the adequate budget for this activity.

Water harvesting," stresses Minagri, "is framed within the state guidelines and policies it promotes at its different levels of government (Water Resources Law). In addition, the national water resources policy and strategy on water quantity management as part of a water supply conservation strategy considers promoting mechanisms for protection, conservation and restoration of ecosystems linked to the regulation of water supply by basins.

"With the 160 qochas, Minagri seeks to honor the Government's promise to provide water to the high Andean communities, ensure their crops, prepare pastures to feed their animals, develop productive chains and market products that will improve their living conditions," says Max Saenz Carrillo, executive director of Sierra Azul.

By 2020 it is planned to officially execute another 360 qochas (although there may be more), with similar investment to this year. In such a way that in the period 2019-2020 21,627,442 million cubic meters would be stored to improve irrigation conditions in an area of 62,677 hectares, benefiting 21,252 families. 


'Thanks to your water we live'

For the next few years, the scenarios in the high Andes will be complicated, very critical. According to recent global scientific reports, the planet's temperature will increase and rainfall will decrease, so water will be scarce in these regions. In Arequipa and Cusco, our interviewees trust that the construction of qochas for sowing and harvesting water will mitigate the effects of a future with drought, but they do not want to be alone, they demand the presence and participation of the State and of all those who do not live in the highlands but benefit from the water they store.

The successes achieved in Chalhuanca and Huacapunco have spread to other populated centers, in Arequipa, Cusco and other regions, which request to be trained to build their qochas. This need and desire of the high-Andeans must go hand in hand with the National Program for Planting and Harvesting Water that the Minagri promotes, and in which must participate the civil organizations that have cooperated technically with the communities.

With water come better pastures, and with them alpacs have access to food / Credit: Alberto Niquen

The planting of water satisfies the expectations of agricultural producers in areas of extreme poverty and seasonal scarcity and covers infrastructure gaps that contribute to improving water supply. It also ensures the sustainability of water resources and helps boost the local economy.

We said goodbye to our interviewees and stayed with Fernando Ucsa's reflection. He and his neighbors hope to arrive safely next November, the most critical month for the high Andes. "My ancestors have always said that: 'November is when the animals have died, when the offspring are not saved because there is no water and no green grass'. But with our work we are confident that we will get there well and not lose animals. We have learned and we can teach our compatriots.

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