Embedded Water

17 September 2010

Progressio, Centro Peruano de Estudios Sociales (CEPES) and Water Witness International have produced an interesting report on the ‘embedded water’ or ‘water footprint’ or ‘virtual water’ of importing agricultural produce. They have done it through the exemplar of importing asparagus from Ica, Peru into the UK. The report therefore has particular resonance for those in the UK interested in Peru and who eat Peruvian asparagus! The report is 90 pages long, but the Executive Summary is a very readable four pages.

‘Embedded water’ is all the water needed to get the asparagus onto our supermarket shelves: irrigation, processing, transport etc. It is a similar concept to ‘embedded CO2’ that is used in analysing global warming through greenhouse gas emissions. For example, direct CO2 emissions from the UK have been lessened because of the outsourcing of steel production to China. Doing the embedded CO2 calculations exposes this effect.

For asparagus embedded water turns out to be about 1.3m3 for each kilo of asparagus and most of this is used in the growing and processing phases. There has been a massive increase in production over the last few years and one of the effects is that the mean water-table in the area has dropped from 28m to 36m below ground level in the period 2003 to 2007. This is an average over the area; in one part however the water-table has been dropping at 10m/yr! Already agro-business has had to drill deeper wells and many traditional farmers have given up for lack of water or increased salinity from water ingress into the aquifers from the sea. In some cases they have sold their wells to agro-businesses. There is also an impact on the water supply for domestic use in Ica. The report discusses methods of making more efficient use of water and increasing supply – including enhancing the existing flow from piping water through the Andes from the other side of the continental divide. But importing water from the Andes has had a significant impact on those living there. This rate of water abstraction is unsustainable in the long term and if continued is likely to lead to the collapse of the industry and perhaps even of Ica itself.

One might think that there are a few ‘baddies’ out there that just need sorting, but it is more complicated than that. The industry has produced jobs for many and real wage-rates have increased in Ica; labour has moved into the area. Our supermarkets through their monitoring processes have raised general standards of production, environmental issues and worker rights – though they have yet to tackle the water issue effectively. Government has passed good new laws on management of water basins. However, as so often is the case in Peru, corruption, inefficiency, lack of resources for overseeing the implementation of the law has not kept the problem from worsening. Further, the general problem of lack of good local and regional planning is made manifest again. (This is the same issue as raised, for example, in the March 2007 PSG report on mining.)

Since the Progressio report was released water is again in the news. On 16 September 2010 there have been reports of one person killed in Espinar (the town nearest to Xstrata’s Tintaya copper mine) over the proposed new Majes-Siguas II irrigation project. Protesters say that it will ‘leave Espinar without water’ and are concerned that the project would divert water supplies from local faming to export-oriented farms.

Peruvian human rights groups are also concerned that police may invoke a new piece of legislation (DL 1095) that was introduced by the government as part of a package of controversial laws on 1 September 2010 which would allow them to call upon the support of the military to control protests. One of the laws in the package (DL 1097) has already been revoked due to national and international pressure.

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  • PSG Aims

    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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