Continuing my Research – Participatory Water Citizenship in Peru

While reading about Mexico City’s water crisis, I came across a little ray of hope that I wish I found earlier. An academic paper titled “Water Citizenship: Negotiating Water Rights and Contesting Water Culture in the Peruvian Andes” by a trio of professors from the University of Gothenburg, the University of Oslo, and the University of Copenhagen, discuss the emergence of a new water law in Peru, one that aimed at implementing a new form of water citizenship, based off of “integrated water resources management”.

It has been calculated in Peru – a country with 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers – that by 2035, all glaciers below 5,500 meters above sea level are bound to disappear. This is obviously a threat to the country and its adjacent neighbors, who live in a region with irregular and seasonal precipitation and their primary source of freshwater are these depleting glaciers.

In response to this growing shortage and the consequent tension, the Peruvian government passed a “Water Law” in 2009 that tested a new institutional framework to manage the country’s water supply as well as tax the use of water for private consumption and for industrial / commercial purposes. Inspired by this idea of Integrated Water Resources Management – a phrase coined by the World Bank to “move forward with efficient, equitable and sustainable development and management of the world’s limited water resources and for coping with conflicting demands” – this law considered including citizens in the management of the country’s water system by embracing a new “water culture”.

The authors break down this water law (coined as “Ley de Recursos Hidricos” – Water Resources Law) – implemented in 2009 – and evaluate its ability to create new forms of water citizenship with local water practices and perhaps alleviate existing conditions of inequality. They do so by comparing previously implemented water legislation with this new law, contextualized in three settings in the Arequipa region, towards the southern end of the country. 

When this paper was drafted in 2016, Peru was going through crucial stages of change, which a booming economy, as well as rapid shifts in modes of production and priority of resources. Like in many other cities, rural populations have been moving to cities for progress. At the same time, global warming is claimed to threaten future water availability. With these various situations all coming to the attention of the public and authorities, the “national landscape of membership, belonging, and participation has shifted, as has the geography of water availability, demand, and distribution” (Paerregaard et al., 199). In this span of 7 years, while The Water Resources Law is still in its implementation phase, several locations have observed the creation and growth of more localized modes of valuing water and participating in water management, what they term as “vernacular forms of water citizenship” (Paerregaard et al., 199). 

It seems that the incorporation of integrated water resources management really has prompted a new  resource-influenced hierarchy, where “the state develops and ensures the integrated, participatory, multi-sector management, conservation and quality preservation of water resources” (Paerregaard et al., 202). What stood out to me the most is the encouragement to create regional and local organizations to ensure the participation of as many users as possible. This has resulted in an organizational framework resulting from Integrated Water Resources Management – from the creation of “irrigation commissions” by farmers and peasants, rising through the hierarchy with “watershed councils” (created to obtain active and permanent participation at the local scale). A brief diagrammatic version of this structure is displayed below.


Another fascinating impact of this new Water Resources Law is an actual effort to educate regular everyday citizens in water conservation practices; practices described to them as “a civic duty and gift for future generations” (Paerregaard et al., 203). While it ties in with the World Bank’s notions of a “water culture”, high-ranking officials at the ANA (Autoridad Nacional del Agua – the national water authority of Peru) state that “water culture” is being defined in two opposing views – a plural set of traditions versus a singular practice, resulting in Peruvian state authorities engaging in double discourses of water.

What seems to be the biggest struggle of the functioning of the Water Resources Law is the evident social inequality caused by “severe historical trauma due to conquest, colonization, and discrimination against indigenous people” (Paerregaard et al., 203). For a policy that aims at creating a singular form of water citizenship, this prevalent segregation through culture and education can prove to be a large hurdle to overcome. 

The authors came to the conclusion that the new water law could potentially create a “new water culture that viewed water as a measurable, quantifiable, and taxable substance, but neglects other ways of valuing water, including indigenous conceptions of water as a sacred and collective resource that shape the management of irrigation systems in many Andean communities” (Paerregaard et al., 198). The authors also established that new forms of water citizenship emerge from the ways water authorities and water users (the state and the public) one on hand, define rights to access and use water, and obligations that contribute to the construction and maintenance of water infrastructure, on the other.

Similar to the Pittsburgh’s Water and Sewer Authority’s current situation, where the organization aims at inviting the participation of the public through local meetings, but the risk and debate about privatization is still in the air, Peru is also at risk to privatization through the new water law, which provides ample space to private interests. However, as the authors say, the urgency of water scarcity in the Peruvian Andes is dire, and rethinking water management is necessary. The questions of how, who, and how much are questions that could potentially shape this country’s political, social, and natural landscape in the years to come.

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