Although the Andean region has a long history of mineral extraction, this industry has significantly expanded in the Peruvian highlands over the last two decades. This is due to the opening-up of the mining sector to foreign investment during the 1990s, and to the more recent rise in international demand for, and thus price of, metals. This increased demand means that deposits that were not previously economically viable are now worth exploiting.

This ‘new extraction’ presents significant social and environmental challenges for Peru. Debates in both academic and policy circles revolve around the potential for mining revenue to translate into economic growth, and to contribute to poverty reduction. Nevertheless, serious issues persist with environmental degradation associated with mining, as well as the exclusion of local people from decisions about mining ventures.

One of the most salient issues has been the effects of mining on water resources. Depletion of water sources (‘upstream’ impacts) and contamination of water courses (‘downstream’ impacts) have been widely associated with mining. As water is a flowing resource, the impacts of mines can be felt far from the mine site, as water is transported from remote sites, and contamination flows over great distances downstream. Mines require huge volumes of water for mineral extraction and processing. Although the mining industry argues that mining uses a very small proportion of water compared with agriculture, the effects of mines’ use of water at the local level can be significant. This is compounded by the fact that mineral deposits tend to be located at high altitudes, where water courses are nascent, or in arid areas, where water is naturally scarce. Due to these limited supplies, communities living in these areas have formed precisely around the existing water sources, and are using them. This means that securing water supplies for mining projects is not just a physical challenge, but a social one too. Thus, José de Echave, from the Mining and Communities programme at the Peruvian NGO CooperAcción, observes that all social conflicts around mineral extraction include water to some degree.

Existing research on the relationship between mining and water has tended to focus on the upstream and downstream effects. These issues have generally been approached from a technical and/or pragmatic approach, by focusing on the quantification of the impacts and measures to alleviate them. These are important issues, but this new research project aims to better understand the power relations and politics that influence control over water in the context of mining, which shape water use, management and debates in ways that have tangible outcomes for local people’s access to water and their livelihoods, as well as transformations to landscapes. This perspective stems from our observations that water issues relating to mining are not just technical issues, but are tied to the imbalance of power between the social actors involved, from multinational companies to Andean communities. So, we will examine the water legislation and policies in place, the strategies used by mining companies to secure water for new ventures – from the acquisition of local people’s land and water rights, pressure on governments to increase allocation, and construction of dam and diversion projects – and communities’ attempts to defend the resources that they consider to be theirs.

To facilitate this approach, we think it is useful to move away from a view of water as a purely material resource (H20), to a cultural one that also embodies meanings. Meeting demand for water for new and existing mines is not just due to scarcity, but also because of the symbolic value of water among Quechua and Aymara groups. These include notions of local priority over water based on heritage and custom, and the designation of sacred sources for the Pachamama (Mother Earth). In this way, tensions around water do not merely concern competition over water to fulfil needs (e.g. irrigation), but are inflected with cultural and spiritual ideas about whether/how water should be used, and by/for whom.

In order to carry out this research, we will do desk-based research and fieldwork in Peru, which will be roughly divided into two parts. We will start with an examination of water and mining issues in Peru, based on research mainly in Lima, and then we will conduct a more detailed study in Moquegua and Tacna in southern Peru. We have chosen this region because it has received less attention than other areas (e.g. Cajamarca, Piura), and because it is a particularly arid area. On the one hand, it possesses both rich copper and gold deposits and limited freshwater supplies, and is characterised by tensions between mining and indigenous-campesino agrarian livelihoods. On the other hand, it is characterised by the existence of long-standing copper mines (e.g. Cuajone/Toquepala) that have degraded water resources and surrounding environments, the development of new mines (e.g. Quellaveco) in the face of insufficient water, and proposals to encourage new mineral extraction through the construction of hydraulic infrastructure (e.g. Tacna).

For the first part, we will collect documents and datasets on mining-related water issues in Peru, and conduct interviews with key informants, including staff from government agencies, international organisations, civil society associations, research institutions, and mining companies. We will also attend and observe public events at which mining and water issues are discussed, such as the mining roundtable meetings in Lima. In Moquegua and Tacna, we will use the same methods but will also conduct interviews, focus groups and life histories with communities living in areas affected by water extraction and/or pollution from mines.

The project is financed by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), for two years. The project team comprises Dr Jessica Budds, Dr Leonith Hinojosa and Dr Clive Barnett, from the Open University, and Professor Anthony Bebbington from the University of Manchester. You can find more information and contact details on our website.