It is well known that Peru is one of the countries of the world where climate change is having the most devastating impacts on the livelihoods of some of its poorest citizens, peasant farmers living in the Andes. Glacial melt is already reducing the flows of water on which their agriculture depends, while climatic uncertainty is disrupting long-established patterns of rainfall that traditionally shape the survival strategies of peasant producers.

However, there are other factors that are also impinging on peasant life, threatening water supplies in even more direct ways. The increasing demand for water among urban users, irrigated agriculture and extractive industries is exacerbating shortages and leading to public policies that further prejudice the livelihoods of small-scale Andean farmers. Southern Peru provides some graphic examples of this.

A recent study on peasant producers in Caylloma, in the highlands of Arequipa, shows how water is siphoned off to the benefit of other users, leaving those whose land provides that water quite literally ‘high and dry’.

The giant Majes project, whose life began as an exercise in geopolitics in the 1970s under the then military government, takes water from the highlands of Arequipa and Cuzco, and diverts it to the benefit of irrigated cash-crop farming on the Majes plains to the north-west of Arequipa city. It is depriving the farmers of Caylloma of their sustenance and accentuating problems of drought.

According to the study, conducted by Astrid Stensrud, in both the media and policy-making circles discussion of water shortage is couched in talk of economic efficiency and productivity, with the emphasis on individual user rights and on water as an economic commodity with a price attached. There is little proper discussion of the issues with respect to redistribution and social justice.

“When leaders of local organizations in highland Caylloma claim compensation for the water that is born in their territories and used downstream for value extraction, they address the unequal relations to the powerful others in the watershed” Stensrud argues. It is thus not surprising that the farmers of Caylloma are demanding compensation for the water that is drained from their land to the benefit to of urban dwellers and agribusiness.

A short summary by Stensrud of her work and recommendations is published by the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in its most recent LASA Forum.