In Peru, a new cross-sector initiative supported by USAID and the Government of Canada is moving beyond concrete-and-steel projects to an expansive new vision of 21st-century water infrastructure that includes natural ecosystems, ancestral approaches, and people themselves.
When it comes to threats to water security from climate change, Peru is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. In the last 50 years, it has lost more than half of its glaciers, a key source of water for the country’s population. Water supplies are becoming unpredictable: In Lima, Peru’s capital and the second-largest desert city in the world (after Cairo), rivers and reservoirs go dry in one season and flood in the next. National states of emergency due to drought, fires, floods, and landslides are increasingly frequent, and have cost Peru’s government billions of dollars in damages in recent years. In 2017, unusually heavy rains led to floods and landslides that killed 162 people and left almost 70,000 homeless and nearly 124,000 acres of crops destroyed.
A number of major infrastructure projects have been proposed to address this mounting water crisis. These include new dams, reservoirs, and diversion systems to carry water from the Amazon Basin across or even through (via tunnels) the towering Andes mountains to Peruvian cities on the Pacific Coast. Construction of a desalination plant for Lima is also underway as yet another means of bolstering freshwater supply.
In addition to being astonishingly expensive, many of these projects are subject to the same threats — landslides, reduced rainfall, and depleted underground water stores — that they are designed to address.
“During the 20th century in Peru, development planners relied on engineered infrastructure. Today we are seeing the limits of that approach,” says Lawrence Rubey, USAID/Peru Mission Director. “We need to rethink what we mean by ‘infrastructure’ in addressing water security. We in USAID are increasingly using approaches that recognize the valuable role forests and wetlands play in creating stable and predictable water supplies.”
To help address the country’s pressing water infrastructure needs in an environmentally sustainable fashion, USAID and the Government of Canada announced in June 2018 that the two countries would invest $27.5 million in the Natural Infrastructure for Water Security (NIWS) project in Peru. One of the new project’s central goals is to create momentum for the Government of Peru’s recent water policy advances to fully mainstream “natural infrastructure” and ensure that the committed funds result in demonstrated improvements to water and climate risk resilience. But what is natural infrastructure exactly and why is Peru embracing it as a national priority to redress water insecurity?
Natural Infrastructure for Water Security
The search for new approaches to more effectively manage the country’s limited water supply has led many high-level officials in the Government of Peru and local water service providers to look at a very old solution — nature itself. Better management of forests and wetlands, for example, can help ensure cleaner and more reliable water supplies and provide a buffer against flooding and landslides. These types of natural infrastructure can also enhance the performance and lifespan of engineered infrastructure projects, including the kinds that Peru is currently pursuing through government entities such as the National Superintendence of Water and Sanitation Services (SUNASS), the National Water Authority (ANA), and the Ministry of Environment.
In the last decade, a series of national policy advances have elevated natural infrastructure to a remarkably central role in Peru’s water security and climate resilience strategies. Innovations enabled through a new regulation in Peru’s water sector allow water utilities to allocate a portion of their user fees to investments in watershed health and climate change adaptation. More than $30 million has already been committed to natural infrastructure through this funding mechanism, with another $86 million allocated to climate adaptation and disaster risk management in general, which could also potentially fund natural infrastructure projects.
Fernando Momiy, director of the NIWS project, says NIWS will help elevate the prominence of natural infrastructure by helping further strengthen its financial foundations. “Our goal is to facilitate new investments in natural infrastructure in Peru,” he says. “Peru is poised for a paradigm shift in thinking about designing and investing in infrastructure that could be a model for the entire world. We have an opportunity to move decision-makers in the country from planning only for engineered ‘gray’ infrastructure, to a broader approach that considers how gray infrastructure systems interact with and are supported by investments in natural infrastructure, in ancestral water management systems, and in human capital in the water sector.”
“This calls for integrated management,” adds ANA’s Chief Walter Obando. “Local, national, regional, public, and private stakeholders will have a platform to work together in order to implement more and more natural infrastructure projects. We hope that in the near future, our country will be identified as a pioneer of natural infrastructure in Latin America and even at a global level.”
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