The Struggle for Water in the Andes

A version of this post originally appeared in the University Post, University of Copenhagen, on May 17, 2018.

It is four o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday. The 25-year-old Peruvian man, whom we will call Jhonatan, closes the door to his small cabin, in which his parents also are beginning their daily chores. The cabin is located at 3,700 meters altitude in the Andes Mountains. Jhonatan begins his journey up the mountainside in front of him with a pickaxe on his back.

After a four hour hike in the chilly mountain air, he arrives at his final destination– the place where the canal splits in two. Jhonatan begins shoveling mud and stones from one of the two water passages into the other. Soon, the water changes its course, and Jhonatan’s work is done.

During the next eight hours, the water will find its way to Jhonatan’s fields. Then a new villager will have reached the canal to take his turn on shoveling mud and stones to the benefit of other fields in the local community. The water users in the community will keep taking turns every eight hours until it once again is Jhonatan’s turn to climb the mountain.

”They are poor but well-organized,” the young assistant professor Mattias Borg Rasmussen says. He continues, ”The amount of work they every day put into getting water to their fields and out of their taps is amazing.”

The Abandonment by the State

Rasmussen has followed two Peruvian village societies in the Andes Mountains in order to understand how they value water and claim authority over it. The love for Peru is clearly visible in his office, with Latin American maps and colorful tapestry on the wall. The enthusiasm began during a visit in 2001 and developed during his year as an exchange student in Peru in 2003 to 2004. It made him come back to do his M.A., Ph.D. and postdoc. Over the years, great changes have happened.

“In the 2000s, Peru experienced an enormous economic development. You could see how Lima changed as a city in the 10 years. More and more shopping malls and great restaurants appeared,” Rasmussen says.

Lake Palcacocha above the main city of Huaraz is drained using siphons to avoid Glacier Lake Outburst Floods. In 1941, a GLOF levelled Huaraz to the ground (Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen).

Not everybody in Peru enjoys the benefits of the economic growth. In the small societies in the mountains, Rasmussen witnessed a growing inequality. Still more than half of the children were chronically undernourished, and the villagers were on their own when it comes to the increasing difficulties to access and distribute water. Difficulties were exacerbated by the acceleration of melting glaciers in the Andes Mountains due to climate change. At first, the glaciers will create larger amounts of water streaming down the mountainside, but after a certain amount has melted, smaller amounts of water will be flowing downhill. The small mountain villages Rasmussen worked in have less water compared to before.

”They do not experience an equal and fair access to water… There is a lot more attention to meet other parts of the Peruvian society’s needs,” Rasmussen says. “There are great state-sponsored irrigation systems at the coast, which they know exist and they know how much money is spent on them. So they ask: why do we not get a share of this?”

The Peruvians in the villages said they were “abandoned by the state.” This abandonment combined with a “troublesome geography” makes Peru “one of the most vulnerable countries in the context of climate-change,” according to Rasmussen.

Adding Anthropology into a Scientific Calculation

As an anthropologist, Rasmussen belongs to a minority at the faculty of science at the University of Copenhagen. At the Department of Food and Resource Economics, he is part of an interdisciplinary group working on development issues in the global South. Here different worlds of academia intertwine and support each other. When talking about the effects of melting glaciers in Peru, Rasmussen cannot make complex calculations of glaciers, but still his knowledge is valuable in order to understand how people manage the water available. The management has great influence on the actual consequences of the melting ice. This sort of contribution is shown in an article he made with glaciologists.

”I think and hope that when we keep trying to explain and understand other peoples’ reality, we may be able to include them when we undertake new measures,” Rasmussen elaborates.

In the mountain villages, the small communities manage their water through systems of committees and commissions. Jhonatan participates in one of the area’s local committees in which he and other users of the canals collaborate to improve existing canals by, for example, cementing the ground of the canals to improve the water flow. The committees also organize the construction of new canals and collaborate on maintenance of existing ones.

A community member inspects the construction of a new irrigation canal (Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen).

“Every once in a while the users of the canal would meet up with bucket, shovel and donkey– ready to clean up the canal,” Rasmussen says. On top of the committees, Jhonatan is also part of the local commission in which 20 committees collaborate to get the largest amounts of water possible to the area. The immense collaboration emerges from cultural ideas.

”They have a very strong cultural understanding that water is a common good… They see water as life,” he says.

This is one of the reasons why the villagers feared the state would put prices on the water, as seen in Chile, for example. Knowledge on local ideas and thoughts is crucial in order not to let one perception of life (for example, a western idea of water as a resource with a price) rank above another.

“You start to erase other peoples’ lifeworld. You establish a hierarchy where our valuation of something is more important and valid than theirs,” Rasmussen says.

The Whole Family on a Field Trip

During his research in the Peruvian mountains, Rasmussen faced some challenges. “It is a hard place to work. It is not the easiest people to get on close terms with, it takes a lot of patience and attention,” he explains.

His toughest challenge, though, emerged far from the Andes Mountains. Rasmussen recalls the sacrifices on the home front during his three-month fieldwork in his postdoc when his oldest son was one year old. “There is no doubt that is my biggest challenge,” he says, referring to balancing life at home with long-term fieldwork.

But, it seems that he may have found a way to kill two birds with one stone. In 2017, Rasmussen took the family with him on his field trip to Argentina. The family had grown a member, and the eldest turned four during their stay. Apart from not being separated from the family, the family trip had another surprising bonus.

”I had my big boy with me in the field most of the days, where I was out talking with people. Because I had him with me, it was easier to talk with people because they could see what sort of character I was,” Rasmussen says. He continues, “If you come as a stranger to an unfamiliar place, people want to measure you to know what sort of person has arrived. To have my boy with me meant I already was shaped in a sort of familiar picture.”

In the future, Rasmussen might repeat the family-fieldwork success in Patagonia in Argentina, where his next project takes place. The subject is natural resources, and this time he and colleague Marieve Pouliot will focus on the resource conflicts with the local citizens on one side and national parks trying to control the resources on the other.

”It is a very good place to understand what kind of mechanisms– it can be legal, institutional or cultural– open up a region to extraction of natural resources,” Rasmussen explains. He says about his future hopes for his research on frontier dynamics, something which he has already written about with Christian Lund, “I want to do something larger on how Patagonia is made into a place favorable for extracting natural resources.”

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One Response to “The Struggle for Water in the Andes”

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    Robert J. Schumacher

    A very interest article. I have an acquaintance who is planning to tap into the commercial side of water production. Reading this will allow him to gain insight into the human side of water production and its significance to some people, and not just western cattlemen in the U.S.

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