Peruvians clash over water supplies

One villager dead as government decides if the Apur?mac river can sustain water intensive development projects.

    New irrigation and energy projects have communities fighting over who will have access to water [GALLO/GETTY]

    With one death and several injured to show for it, two regions in southern Peru remain tangled in conflict over water from one of the country's main rivers. A project would divert some of the river's flow from the Cuzco region to neighbouring Arequipa.

    Apurímac is a 700-kilometre river whose name in the Quechua language means "great speaker". This corner of the Amazon basin has pitted officials and residents from one region against their neighbours, while development proponents and environmentalists differ on the pros and cons of the plan.

    The dispute, further complicated by the lawsuits filed by the two regions, could be resolved by a detailed hydraulic record of the river. The regional and municipal authorities caught up in the conflict demand that the national government conduct an independent water study.

    The origin of the clash lies in Arequipa's Majes Siguas II irrigation and energy project, southwest of Cuzco, which depends on water diverted from the Apurímac.

    On Thursday, October 21, the government of Alan García, Peru's president, will hold a meeting with officials and leaders from the province of Espinar, located in the Cuzco region, with the promise to assess whether that part of the country has enough water that it can be diverted to the project in Arequipa.

    Independent studies

    A water inventory study would allow a detailed analysis of availability of water from the Apurímac River, from its source on the Andean mountain Nevado Mismi to its confluence with the Salado River.

    Jorge Villasante, minister of production and head of the government's high- level commission, "has pledged to carry out the study and we demand that he keep his word," said Eloy Chancayauri, mayor of Espinar, the province situated in the far southeast of Cuzco region.

    The provincial mayor said that an additional demand is that "an independent institution conduct the study and with total transparency". Espinar's residents staged protests against the project in September, in which one person was killed and at least a dozen were wounded. With the existing plan, Espinar would be the province most affected by the water diversion.

    Villasante met with Espinar officials on October 14 and visited part of the Apurímac watershed. Two days earlier he had promised that the project would come about only if "there are guarantees of availability of the resources needed".

    The project involves diverting water from up in the mountains through tunnels and canals to the Majes and Siguas plains in Arequipa, a region with an extensive coastline on the Pacific Ocean.

    It would cost $404m dollars and includes the construction of the Angostura dam, which Arequipa authorities say would have a storage capacity of one billion cubic metres of water.

    Espinar province (in the Cuzco region) has reason to be alarmed about the project. Residents already face water problems and fear being left without any by the Majes Siguas II project, in the adjacent province of Caylloma, in the Arequipa region.

    Dams and diversions

    According to the mayor, the flow of the Apurímac River -- which supplies the municipalities in Espinar -- historically has been 3.8 cubic metres per second, and the dam would reduce it to 1.14 cubic metres per second. "That is not enough to meet our needs," he said.

    Arequipa and Cuzco have turned to the courts. Espinar filed an injunction with a provincial court that issued a resolution, in 2008, in which it demands an environmental impact study and water inventory study before allowing the Majes Siguas II project to go forward.

    In September, Cuzco officials were able to convince two courts to order a suspension of the project's concession process and prevent the signing of the project's contract.

    From the other side, the regional government of Arequipa filed a claim with the department's Superior Court to allow the signing of the contract with the recipient of the concession, the privately held Angostura-Siguas Consortium. The petition has already been accepted.

    In the view of the government's National Water Authority (ANA), there is enough water for both regions.

    A comparison study of supply and demand, conducted by the consultancy Agua y Agro at the behest of the ANA, states that the flow of water from the upper basin of the Apurímac during the rainy season is one billion cubic metres per year, from the source to the confluence with the Salado River.

    The report assures that if the natural discharges of the watershed are taken into account, from the upper river to the inlet of Canchipuquio, which captures part of its water, the annual water supply is around 500 million cubic metres.

    Agricultural demand

    ANA representatives assured that Espinar's water demand is 5 million cubic metres for agricultural and household use, for a surplus of 495 million cubic metres of water resources per year, which now end up flowing eastward through the Amazon to the Atlantic.

    But Cuzco authorities and some experts argue that a comparison study is not the same as the water inventory, through which "over the course of a year, we can determine in a detailed way the availability of water in periods of rain or drought."

    "Furthermore, that study does not take into account our observations," said Chancayauri.

    "A supply-demand comparison is an initial study because it provides general information, but not specifics. It can be useful for small projects," said agricultural engineer Francisco Soto, executive director of IPROGRA, a non- governmental organisation active in water management issues.

    ANA technicians said that for the comparison study they worked with a water history of the area dating from 1962 to 2006. "From that, we took an average flow to determine the variation. A detailed report was elaborated, the only difference from the inventory is the name," said one.

    In an interview, representatives from Agua y Agro, speaking for themselves and anonymously, said that due to the conflict, they had to look for additional water sources -- in other words, new dams -- to meet the request of the Cuzco consumers.

    So far, ANA has identified three structures for storing water with a capacity of 90 million cubic metres.

    The government agency recognises that the rural areas of Espinar get their water from the Apurímac River, whose flow would be diverted to the project, but assures that it is not the case for the urban areas, which have other sources of water.

    IPROGA's Soto stressed that Peru's water resources law establishes that "priority for use should be the human consumer. The authorities must not forget that".

    Luis Calle, coordinator of the Arequipa regional technical committee, said that the Majes Siguas II project would generate development for the entire Peruvian south.

    "Those from Cuzco are just guessing; their fear is baseless," said Calle, and said that in the area of 38,000 hectares that will be irrigated with project water there will be a city of 250,000 inhabitants, and included in the area: Cuzco farmers.

    A version of this article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.



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