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Hijacking A River: Peru’s Water Tensions Boil Over Into Climate Change Strikes

Courtesy of The Guardian, a report on an unfolding in the Peruvian region of Espinar, where people are outraged about a proposed irrigation scheme that will deprive them of water.  As the article notes:

“…The plan was to go from the Four Lakes district in Peru’s Cusco province up to the communities in the Espinar region, another three hours and 600m up the Andes mountainsides into the high pastures. These villages are more than 4,300m high (14,000ft), some of the remotest and highest inhabited in the world.

But we nearly didn’t get there because the city of Yauri, where we were to stay, was in lockdown over water. The following day, we were told, there would be a total strike. No one would be able to get in or out.

We pass road blocks set up by the strikers and reach the city late at night. The next morning we meet the strike leader Nestor Cuti. This is no ordinary dispute over water, he says. The people of Espinar know well that climate change is already drying up their rivers and is likely to lead to desertification of the whole region. As it is, Yauri only gets around two hours of water a day. In 20 years time, if trends go on, there will be nothing.

The whole region is outraged that the river Apurimac (“Our river”), which is a relative trickle right now but a considerable force in the rainy season, is about to be be hijacked. The government has signed a memorandum of understanding with the neighbouring province of Arequipa, to build a giant reservoir from where the water would be used to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation. Sounds good? Not for the people of Espinar, who stand to actually lose the little water they have. The benefit will be exported to rich farmers growing food for export on the Pacific coast.

This, says Cuti, is a climate change strike. “They are condemning us to a slow death”, he said. “In the future we know we will have less water. We cannot trust the rainy season any more. Every year the water levels are diminishing. Climate change and global warming indicate in the next years we will have even less. You don’t need to be clever to see climate change is affecting everything here.”

We leave the deserted city of closed shops and armed police and head into the hills outside Espinar. Here the villagers say they are ready to come down and show solidarity with their townsfolk.

“Here we had snow and ice on all the hills. We don’t any more,” says Elias Paccop, president of Huayhuasi. “All these lands had water but no more. Our grandparents lived very differently to us. It used to rain from October to April, and May, June and July were frosty. We used to use the snow melt water. Now we have nothing. Before we could have 300 to 400 sheep and llamas; now we have 20 to 30 and no more.”

But there is clearly hope. Oxfam and its local partner, the NGO Asociacion Proyeccion, have started a climate adaptation demonstration project with one farmer of what can be done with the diminishing water that falls. All around Huayhuasi, the land has been burned yellow by the semi-permanent drought. The farmer’s is green. A simple reservoir, fed from the hills several miles away, is enough to provide pasture for his animals, a small fish farm, and better quality water.

Down in the city, hundreds of police have dispersed the demonstrations and the protest has moved to a nearby copper mine, which is accused of polluting the rivers. Stones are thrown, shots are fired and several people are arrested.

The man from the environment ministry tells us that there are around 1,000 ongoing conflicts over water in this one region alone. More than 40 of them are potentially serious, he says.

Given his comments, it is perhaps no surprise to hear that the train services to Machu Picchu have been suspended because of the protests.

Is this the future everywhere? Have the climate wars begun?”

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 21st, 2010 at 3:22 pm and is filed under Peru.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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