Six Things I’ve Learned About Water Funds

By Leah Bremer | November 1, 2015

NatCap’s Leah Bremer travels high above Lima to see the source of the city’s water in the puna grasslands, and to meet the people who make waterfunds work. She is working with partners to measure water changes and to track shifts in the well-being of the communities who depend upon it.

As the sun rises over Lima, the tiny van I’m riding in careens around a corner revealing steep mountain slopes. With frequent stops to wait for goats to get out of the road, five hours later, we finally arrive in Huamantanga. In the town center is a small plaza with a beautiful, old church on one side and the Huamantanga municipality building on the other. As I start to feel the onset of an altitude headache, our guides, community leaders Don Ferrer and Don Roberto, seem more energized than in Lima. A desert city of ten million, Lima is experiencing severe water shortages, especially during the long dry season. It is here in these highlands that Lima’s water originates.

This is my third time to this area to study how water funds work. In 2010, a waterfund called AquaFondo was set up to secure clean water for people in Lima and in rural agricultural areas, through watershed restoration and protection activities. AquaFondo is one of the five water funds within the Latin American Water Funds Partnership that The Natural Capital Project is working with to develop programs to evaluate water fund impacts on ecosystem services and human well-being. AquaFondo offered NatCap a unique opportunity to work with them and a group of partners including CONDESAN, Forest Trends, a local NGO Alternativa, and The Nature Conservancy to assess the links between people and nature through hydrologic and socio-economic monitoring. During my first visit, I studied the hydrology. During the second, I met the people that make water funds work. This time I am here to help conduct a social impact assessment workshop with the community in Huamantanga in the Chillón watershed, one of three watersheds that feeds into Lima. It turns out that how water funds work in practice can have a lot to do with ancient water storage technologies, wild cards like escaped rodeo cows, and the most important ingredient: trust. Here are six things I learned about water funds by visiting one.

1. Water funds might be a new approach to watershed conservation, but they can rely on ancient water management technologies.

The town water manager Don Pedro invites me to go and see where they ‘seed water.’ I’m in for a treat and about to see one of AquaFondo’s most intriguing water conservation projects. Indigenous communities preceeding the Incas created an ingenious system of channels (now called mamanteo – from the Spanish suckling. The mamanteo allow rainfall during the wet season to be captured and percolate underground. Community members report that the water trickles underground and feeds springs and natural reservoirs during the long dry season. Water availability during the dry season is a big concern for Huamantanguinos (as they call themselves) and the city of Lima – the mamanteo represent just one of many approaches this water fund is taking to addressing this important issue. This system has been abandoned for hundreds of years, but the community of Huamantanga, CONDESAN, and AquaFondo are bringing them back by restoring the ancient channels. Here’s a link to CONDESAN’S short video about the project.

I slowly slog my way up the mountain for an hour when Don Pedro eagerly waves me over to a swirling channel made of volcanic rock. The community worked for two years to restore this channel in collaboration with Alternativa and AquaFondo. Don Pedro explained how the mamanteo “seeds water,” storing it from the wet season for the dry season. For the community, this is big as they see a lack of dry season flow as one of the most important problems for the grasslands that feed their agricultural livelihoods. As we walk, Don Pedro points out a field of purple lupines. This plant grows where the soils are wet, says Lucho, a CONDESAN hydrologist working on the project, and they believe the mamanteo has increased the population of these plants.

 

2. Water funds aren’t just about downstream cities and upstream rural communities, rural communities often have their up and downstream too

AquaFondo and other water funds often talk about working with ‘upstream’ communities to ensure clean and ample water for cities or other ‘downstream’ users. It turns out that small communities like Huamantanga also think about upstream and downstream for their own water supplies. A half hour up the trail from town leads to a vantage point where the town appears as a small dot on the immense Andean landscape. Right above the town we glimpse a fluorescent blue potable water catchment and the grazing and croplands in the area below. They manage their own watershed and water source. The upstream areas (covered by native puna grasslands) in the catchment are important to the community during the driest months as grazing lands, but they concentrate most important production in the ‘downstream’ lower areas. Based on a positive experience with the mamanteo, the community, on their own initiative, has proposed reducing grazing pressure in part of their highland  grasslands as the next step in protecting their water supplies.

Locals credit the blossoming wildflowers to the mamanteo bringing more water to the area.

3. The roots of environmental problems can surprise you

When we arrived at Huamantanga, I assumed that the major threat to their puna grasslands was community cattle grazing, or over-grazing. We learn though, that the real problem is a rapidly multiplying population of wild cows, which were formerly used as rodeo cows, but were let loose and are no longer owned by anyone. Contrary to our first assumptions, grazing by these “ganado bravo” is a far more serious problem in terms of overgrazing than grazing by community-owned cattle.

4. Wild cows and cow genetics have a lot to do with water, job opportunities, and emigration

Our Huamantanga representatives identify water availability in the dry season as critically important for agricultural production, including milk and cheese, the primary products of the community. A lack of opportunity to produce these products due to shrinking water supplies is seen as the most important factor in the accelerating migration of young people from the community leaving to seek work elsewhere. The community wants to create opportunities so their children can stay and raise families locally. The solution, the community suggests, is to get rid of the wild cows and improve the genetic quality of the cows in the lower area to increase milk production without having to increase the number of cattle stomping through the grasslands.

5. Hydrological monitoring has major social and equity implications

Huamantanga has two main ‘neighborhoods:’ Anduy and Shigual, who get their water from different microwatersheds. It turns out Anduy is more interested in testing out the idea that removing wild cows might improve water supplies, so AquaFondo and CONDESAN decided to set up a paired watershed design where one microwatershed would be conserved (e.g. wild cows removed) and one microwatershed that would remain grazed. However, after working with the community on this plan, the hydrologists realized that it could cause a social conflict to only promote conservation in one microwatershed which provides irrigation water to Anduy without supporting conservation in Shigual. While all of Shigual are not yet supportive of conservation, the mayor of the town thought it critical to allow them to change their mind if monitoring results indicate improvements in flow during the dry season. So, we adapted the hydrologic monitoring design to allow the people of Shigual to course of action and also conserve their watershed in a few years if they so choose. We often do not think about these social equity dimensions of biophysical monitoring, but it is clearly one of the most important components.

6. A lot of the real work of water funds is building trust, and that takes a lot of time

As a monitoring enthusiast, I can hardly contain my excitement as I see the structure of the hydrologic weir being put into place at the mouth of the watershed. Lucho describes the purpose of monitoring and the links between highland grass vegetation, soils and water. Like so many biophysical scientists in the Andes, he has a deep ability to connect with rural communities and talks about how much he has learned from the community through this project. He explains to the community that conserving the highland grasslands could complement the water management system they have with the mamanteo. I realize watching him that installing a hydrologic monitoring weir takes much more time and effort than purchasing the parts and planning the physical installation. The real work in monitoring is forming relationships and trust with communities, a process that can take years, and extremely skilled and caring people who are invested in the well-being of communities in which they work.

When we first arrived in Huamantanga, the community members greeted us with enthusiasm and two besos. I have never before experienced such openness right from the beginning from a rural community in the Andes. During our stay, a group of young community members dressed in traditional bright colored dress, begins dancing a traditional dance for us, accompanied by a cello and Andean flute player. We are asked to dance with them. I feel a bit like a tourist at a lu’au, but realize this was a lu’au before lu’au’s became commodified and touristy. I awkwardly try to follow the steps, feeling uncoordinated yet simultaneously blessed to have this experience. An elderly woman I talked with during the baile says she loves me from the bottom of her heart.

Our group realizes how lucky we were to be working with such a welcoming community. With the success of the mamanteo project having increased their confidence in the potential of working with outside groups, we had arrived at a time when the community was open to NGOs given their positive experience with AquaFondo, CONDESAN, and Alternativa. For both monitoring and implementing water fund activities, I learned this is the real work.

Photo credit: Leah Bremer, NatCap

Don Pedro, water manager for Huamantanga, overlooks a restored mamanteo. These ancient channels increase water availability during the dry season.

Photo credit: Leah Bremer, NatCap

The community turned out en force at a late night meeting to develop a shared vision for water management.

Photo credit: Johnny Quiroga, Aquafondo

Parents hope water conservation will improve grassland quality and agricultural prospects, so their kids will stay in town and be able to support their own families one day.

Photo credit: Johnny Quiroga, Aquafondo.

Children perform a traditional dance, accompanied by flute and harp.

Leah Bremer

Leah Bremer

ECOLOGIST, THE NATURAL CAPITAL PROJECT

Bremer designs monitoring programs to evaluate how sustainable watershed management investments impact ecosystem services and human well-being.  She also works with University of Hawai’i, Manoa, to develop ecosystem services tradeoff models suited to the unique biophysical, socio-cultural, and economic contexts of Hawai’i.