More In This Article
ICA, Peru - Two decades ago, the strip of sand between the Pacific Ocean and the Andean foothills was empty except for the occasional fig or carob tree. But the northern end of perhaps the world's driest desert – a harsh and unforgiving clime – is now the center of Peru's export agriculture industry.
Rising demand for irrigation and drinking water is draining the aquifer faster than it can recharge, and a scheme to channel more water from the Andean highlands, which receive seasonal rainfall, is pitting big agribusinesses on the coast against Quechua-speaking llama herders in the mountains.
Experts say the conflict is just one sign of rising tensions over water use as supplies of the vital resource dwindle and shift with changes in climate.
"Water belongs to the people who need it most, and we need it most," says Gino Gotuzzo, of the Farmers Association of Ica, who grows asparagus and some other crops on about 60 acres of desert. Up the mountain, however, Quechua-speaking farmers say plans to channel runoff to coastal farms will dry up the spongy high-mountain wetlands where they pasture llamas and alpacas, ruining their livelihood.
Peruvian officials brush aside the specter of "water refugees." As supplies dwindle, they say, they can channel water from the highlands, where rain falls between October and April, or divert rivers that flow east to Amazonia, which receives more precipitation than its sparse population uses.
Nevertheless, droughts associated with El Niño events in the 1980s and 1990s spurred increased migration from rural areas to cities in Peru, and the exodus from Brazil's chronically drought-stricken northeast is one factor in that country's Amazonian deforestation.
With cities growing and agriculture expanding throughout South America, experts predict that climate change will exacerbate water scarcity, increasing conflicts between competing users, pitting city dwellers against rural residents, people in dry lands against those in areas with abundant rainfall, Andean mining companies against neighboring farm communities, and eucalyptus plantation operators on the Argentinean and Uruguayan plains against farmers who say the trees are sucking the water table dry.
In Peru, officials say the problem is not water scarcity, but Nature's poor distribution. More than two-thirds of the country's 29 million people live on the dry western side of the Andes, where less than 2 percent of the country's water flows, while only one-fourth live in Amazonia, which can get more than 80 inches of rain a year.
But plans to redistribute water by rerouting rivers or drilling through the Andes raise questions for which neither politicians nor scientists have easy answers. How much water can be piped from reservoirs in the Andean highlands or Amazonian cloud forest without damaging those ecosystems? Who has priority: thirsty cities or food producers? Subsistence farmers or export agribusinesses? Poor rural communities or revenue-generating mines? Agriculture or hydroelectricity?