Rural Women in Peru Seed Water Today to Harvest It Tomorrow

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Water & Sanitation

Women and men from the rural community of Sachac, at more than 3500 meters above sea level, build a kilometer-long infiltration ditch to capture rainwater and use it to irrigate crops in Cuzco, in Peru’s Andes highlands. CREDIT: Janet Nina/IPS

Women and men from the rural community of Sachac, at more than 3500 meters above sea level, build a kilometer-long infiltration ditch to capture rainwater and use it to irrigate crops in Cuzco, in Peru’s Andes highlands. CREDIT: Janet Nina/IPS

CUZCO, Peru , Dec 22 2021 (IPS) – “When I was a little girl we didn’t suffer from water shortages like we do now. Today we are experiencing more droughts, our water sources are drying up and we cannot sit idly by,” Kely Quispe, a small farmer from the community of Huasao, located half an hour from Cuzco, the capital of Peru’s ancient Inca empire, told IPS.


She is one of the 80 members of the Agroecological School of the Flora Tristan Peruvian Women’s Center, a non-governmental institution that has worked for the recovery of water sources through traditional techniques known as seeding and harvesting water in this part of the southern Andean region of Cuzco.

Muñapata, Huasao and Sachac are the three rural Quechua-speaking communities in the province of Quispicanchi, located between 3150 and 3800 meters above sea level, that have so far benefited from the project. The feminist-oriented institution promotes solutions based on nature and community work to address the problem of water scarcity and inadequate water use practices.

“We want to boost water security as well as gender equality because they are two sides of the same coin,” Elena Villanueva told IPS. On Dec. 14 she presented in this city the results of the initiative whose first phase was carried out in 2020 and 2021, with the support of the Basque Development Cooperation Agency and Mugen Gainetik, an international association for cooperation with countries of the developing South also based in Spain’s northern Basque region.

According to the National Water Authority (ANA), Peru is the eighth country in the world in terms of water availability, with a rich hydrodiversity of glaciers, rivers, lakes, lagoons and aquifers. However, various factors such as inefficient management of water and uneven territorial distribution of the population, in addition to climate change, make it impossible to meet consumption demands.

“The lack of water severely affects families in rural areas because they depend on small-scale agriculture for their livelihoods. The melting of glaciers as well as the increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts due to climate change are reducing water availability,” Villanueva explained.

This impact, she said, is not neutral. Because of the gender discrimination and social disadvantages they face, it is rural women who bear the brunt, as their already heavy workload is increased, their health is undermined, and their participation in training and decision-making spaces is further limited.

Kely Quispe, a farmer trained at the Flora Tristán Center's Agroecological School, holds a tomato in her organic garden in the farming community of Huasao. Her vegetable production depends on access to water for irrigation, but climate change has made water more scarce in the Andes highlands region of Cuzco in southern Peru. CREDIT: Janet Nina/IPS

Kely Quispe, a farmer trained at the Flora Tristán Center’s Agroecological School, holds a tomato in her organic garden in the farming community of Huasao. Her vegetable production depends on access to water for irrigation, but climate change has made water more scarce in the Andes highlands region of Cuzco in southern Peru. CREDIT: Janet Nina/IPS

“Moreover, although they are the ones who use water to ensure food, hygiene and health, and to irrigate their crops, they are not part of the decision-making with regard to its management and distribution,” she stressed.

The expert said that precisely in response to demand by the women farmers at the Agroecological School, where they receive technical and rights training, they are focusing on reviving water harvesting techniques used in ancient Peru, while promoting the equal participation of women in rural communities in the process.

She said that approximately 700 families living in poverty, some 3,500 people – about 11 percent of the population of the three communities – will benefit from the works being carried out.

Harvesting water

So far, these works are focused on the afforestation of 15 hectares and the construction of six “cochas” – the name for small earthen ponds, in the Quechua language – and an infiltration ditch, as part of a plan that will be expanded with other initiatives over the next two years.

The ditch, which is one kilometer long in 10-meter stretches, 60 centimeters deep and 40 centimeters wide and is located in the upper part of the community, collects rainwater instead of letting it run down the slopes.

The technique allows water to infiltrate slowly in order to feed natural springs, high altitude wetlands or small native prairies, as well as the cochas.

The mayor of the rural community of Sachac, Eugenio Turpo Quispe (right), poses with other leaders of the village of 200 families who will benefit from the forestation works and the construction of small reservoirs and infiltration ditches that will increase the flow of water in this highlands area that is suffering from prolonged droughts due to climate change. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS

The mayor of the rural community of Sachac, Eugenio Turpo Quispe (right), poses with other leaders of the village of 200 families who will benefit from the forestation works and the construction of small reservoirs and infiltration ditches that will increase the flow of water in this highlands area that is suffering from prolonged droughts due to climate change. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS

In their communal work, villagers use local materials and greenhouse thermal blankets to help retain water. In addition, they have used extracted soil to raise the height of the ditch, to keep rainwater from running over the top.

Although the ditch has been receiving rainwater this month (the rainy season begins in November-December), the ecosystem impact is expected to be more visible in about three years when the cocha ponds have year-round water availability, helping villagers avoid the shortages of the May-October dry season.

Several community members explained to IPS that they will now be able to harvest water from the ditch while at the same time caring for the soil, because heavy rain washes it away and leaves it without nutrients. Some 150 agricultural plots will also benefit from a sprinkler irrigation system, thanks to the project.

Since agriculture is the main livelihood of the families and this activity depends on rainwater, the main impact will be the availability of water during the increasingly prolonged dry periods to irrigate their crops, ensure harvests and avoid hunger, for both villagers and their livestock.

Eucalyptus and pine, huge consumers of water

The mayor of the Sachac community, Eugenio Turpo Quispe, told IPS that this is the first time that water seeding and harvesting practices have been carried out in his area. “We had not had the opportunity before; these works have begun thanks to the women who proposed forestation and the construction of cochas and ditches,” he said.

The local leader lamented that due to misinformation, two decades ago they planted pine and eucalyptus in the highlands of his community. “They have dried up our water sources, and when it rains the water disappears, it does not infiltrate. Now we know that out of ten liters of rain that falls on the ground, eight are absorbed by the eucalyptus and only two return to the earth,” he explained during the day that IPS spent in the community.

Women farmers from the rural community of Sachac show the map of water sources in their area and the uses for irrigation of their crops, for human consumption and household needs, as well as watering their animals, which they cannot satisfy throughout the year due to the increasingly long and severe dry season. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS

Women farmers from the rural community of Sachac show the map of water sources in their area and the uses for irrigation of their crops, for human consumption and household needs, as well as watering their animals, which they cannot satisfy throughout the year due to the increasingly long and severe dry season. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS

Turpo Quispe said they had seen forestation and construction of cochas and ditches in other communities, but did not know how to replicate them, and that only through the Flora Tristán Center’s project have they been able to implement these solutions to tackle the serious problem of shrinking water sources.

In Sachac, the three techniques have been adopted with the participation of women and men in communal work that began at six in the morning and ended at four in the afternoon. “Side by side we have been planting native plants, digging ditches and hauling stones for the cochas,” the mayor said proudly.

In this community, 9,000 seedlings of queuñas (Polylepis) and chachacomos (Escallonia Resinosas) – tree species that were used in the times of the ancient Inca empire – were planted. “These trees consume only two liters of rainwater and give eight back to Pachamama (Mother Earth),” Turpo Quispe said. As part of the project, the community has built fences to protect crops and has relocated grazing areas for their animals.

“We have planted seedlings and in 10 or 15 years our children and grandchildren will see all our hills green and with living springs so that they do not suffer a lack of water,” the mayor said.

Kely Quispe from the community of Huasao is equally upbeat: “With water we can irrigate our potatoes, corn and vegetables; increase our production to have enough to sell and have extra money; take care of our health and that of the whole family, and prevent the spread of covid.”

“But just as we use water for life, it is also up to us to participate on an equal footing with men in irrigation committees and community councils to decide how it is distributed, conserved and managed,” she added.

A model shows the water sources in the rural community of Muñapata in the Cuzco region, in Peru’s southern highlands. It was made by local women and men who built a system based on ancestral techniques for the collection and management of water, as increasing drought threatens their lives and crops. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS

A model shows the water sources in the rural community of Muñapata in the Cuzco region, in Peru’s southern highlands. It was made by local women and men who built a system based on ancestral techniques for the collection and management of water, as increasing drought threatens their lives and crops. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS

The decade of water security

Villanueva of the Flora Tristán Center said it was important for the country’s local and regional authorities to commit to guaranteeing water security in rural areas within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development was declared for 2018-2028 by the United Nations and SDG6 is dedicated to water and sanitation, to ensure universal and equitable access for all, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, and support the participation of local communities in improving management and sanitation.

“At the national level, public policies aimed at seeding and harvesting water should be strengthened because they revive the communities’ ancestral knowledge, involving sustainable practices with low environmental impact that contribute to guaranteeing the food security of families,” she said.

However, Villanueva remarked, in order to achieve their objectives, these measures must not only promote equal participation of men and women, but must also be accompanied by actions to close the gender gap in education, access to resources, training and violence that hinder the participation and development of rural women.

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Water Harvesting Strengthens Food Security in Central America

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Combating Desertification and Drought, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Food & Agriculture, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations, Water & Sanitation

Water & Sanitation

Angélica María Posada, a teacher and school principal in the village of El Guarumal, in eastern El Salvador, poses with primary school students in front of the school where they use purified water collected from rainfall, as part of a project promoted by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. The initiative is being implemented in the countries of the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Angélica María Posada, a teacher and school principal in the village of El Guarumal, in eastern El Salvador, poses with primary school students in front of the school where they use purified water collected from rainfall, as part of a project promoted by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. The initiative is being implemented in the countries of the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

SENSEMBRA, El Salvador , Jun 23 2021 (IPS) – At the school in El Guarumal, a remote village in eastern El Salvador, the children no longer have to walk several kilometers along winding paths to fetch water from wells; they now “harvest” it from the rain that falls on the roofs of their classrooms.


“The water is not only for the children and us teachers, but for the whole community,” school principal Angelica Maria Posada told IPS, sitting with some of her young students at the foot of the tank that supplies them with purified water.

The village is located in the municipality of Sensembra, in the eastern department of Morazán, where it forms part of the so-called Central American Dry Corridor, a semi-arid belt that covers 35 percent of Central America and is home to some 11 million people, mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture.

In the Corridor, 1,600 kilometers long, water is always scarce and food production is a challenge, with more than five million people at risk of food insecurity.

In El Guarumal, a dozen peasant families have dug ponds or small reservoirs and use the rainwater collected to irrigate their home gardens and raise tilapia fish as a way to combat drought and produce food.

“We are all very proud of this initiative, because we are the only school in the country that has a (rainwater harvesting) system like this.” — Angélica María Posada

This effort, called the Rainwater Harvesting System (RHS), has not only been made in El Salvador.

Similar initiatives have been promoted in five other Central American countries as part of the Mesoamerica Hunger Free programme, implemented since 2015 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and financed by the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation (Amexcid).

The aim of the RHS was to create the conditions for poor, rural communities in the Dry Corridor to strengthen food security by harvesting water to irrigate their crops and raise fish.

In Guatemala, work has been done to strengthen an ancestral agroforestry system inherited from the Chortí people, called Koxur Rum, which conserves more moisture in the soil and thus improves the production of corn and beans, staples of the Central American diet.

José Evelio Chicas, a teacher at the school in the village of El Guarumal, in El Salvador's eastern department of Morazán, supervises the PVC pipes that carry rainwater collected from the school's roof to an underground tank, from where it is pumped to a filtering and purification station. The initiative is part of a water harvesting project in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

José Evelio Chicas, a teacher at the school in the village of El Guarumal, in El Salvador’s eastern department of Morazán, supervises the PVC pipes that carry rainwater collected from the school’s roof to an underground tank, from where it is pumped to a filtering and purification station. The initiative is part of a water harvesting project in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

“The best structure for conserving water is the soil, and that is where we have to work,” Baltazar Moscoso, national coordinator of Mesoamerica Hunger Free, told IPS by telephone from Guatemala City.

Healthy schools in El Salvador

The principal of the El Guarumal school, where 47 girls, 32 boys and several adolescents study, said that since the water collection and purification system has been in place, gastrointestinal ailments have been significantly reduced.

“The children no longer complain about stomachaches, like they used to,” said Posada, 47, a divorced mother of three children: two girls and one boy.

She added, “The water is 100 percent safe.”

Before it is purified, the rainwater that falls on the tin roof is collected by gutters and channeled into an underground tank with a capacity of 105,000 litres.

Farmer Cristino Martínez feeds the tilapia he raises in the pond dug next to his house in the village of El Guarumal in eastern El Salvador. A dozen ponds like this one were created in the village to help poor rural families produce food in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Farmer Cristino Martínez feeds the tilapia he raises in the pond dug next to his house in the village of El Guarumal in eastern El Salvador. A dozen ponds like this one were created in the village to help poor rural families produce food in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

It is then pumped to a station where it is filtered and purified, before flowing into the tank which supplies students, teachers and the community.

The school reopened for in-person classes in March, following the shutdown declared by the government in 2020 to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are all very proud of this initiative, because we are the only school in the country that has a system like this,” added the principal.

There are 40 families living in El Guarumal, but a total of 150 families benefit from the system installed in the town, because people from other communities also come to get water.

A similar system was installed in 2017 in Cerrito Colorado, a village in the municipality of San Isidro, Choluteca department in southern Honduras, which benefits 80 families, including those from the neighbouring communities of Jicarito and Obrajito.

Rainwater is filtered and purified in a room adjacent to the classrooms of the school in the village of El Guarumal, in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. Gastrointestinal ailments were reduced with the implementation of this project executed by FAO and financed by Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Rainwater is filtered and purified in a room adjacent to the classrooms of the school in the village of El Guarumal, in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. Gastrointestinal ailments were reduced with the implementation of this project executed by FAO and financed by Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Vegetable gardens and tilapias boost food security

About 20 minutes from the school in El Guarumal, following a narrow dirt road that winds along the mountainside, you reach the house of Cristino Martínez, who grows tomatoes and raises tilapia in the pond dug next to his home.

The ponds are pits dug in the ground and lined with a polyethylene geomembrane, a waterproof synthetic material. They hold up to 25,000 litres of rainwater.

“The pond has served me well, I have used it for both the tilapia and watering tomatoes, beans and chayote (Sechium edule),” Martínez told IPS, standing at the edge of the pond, while tossing food to the fish.

The cost of the school’s water harvesting system and the 12 ponds totaled 77,000 dollars.

Martínez has not bothered to keep a precise record of how many tilapias he raises, because he does not sell them, he said. The fish feed his large family of 13: he and his wife and their 11 children (seven girls and four boys).

And from time to time he receives guests in his adobe house.

“My sisters come from San Salvador and tell me: ‘Cristino, we want to eat some tilapia,’ and my daughters throw the nets and start catching fish,” said the 50-year-old farmer.

Cristino Martínez and one of his daughters show the tilapia they have just caught in the family pond they have dug in the backyard of their home in the village of El Guarumal in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. The large peasant family raises fish for their own consumption and not for sale. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Cristino Martínez and one of his daughters show the tilapia they have just caught in the family pond they have dug in the backyard of their home in the village of El Guarumal in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. The large peasant family raises fish for their own consumption and not for sale. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

According to FAO estimates, the ponds can provide about 500 fishes two to three times a year.

The ponds are built on the highest part of each farm, and the drip irrigation system uses gravity to water the crops or orchards planted on the slopes.

Tomatoes are Martínez’s main crop. He has 100 seedlings planted, and manages to produce good harvests, marketing his produce in the local community.

“The pond helps me in the summer to water the vegetables I grow downhill,” another beneficiary of the programme, Santos Henríquez, also a native of El Guarumal, told IPS.

Henríquez’s 1.5-hectare plot is one of the most diversified: in addition to tilapias, corn and a type of bean locally called “ejote”, he grows cucumbers, chili peppers, tomatoes, cabbage and various types of fruit, such as mangoes, oranges and lemons.

“We grow a little bit of everything,” Henríquez, 48, said proudly. He sells the surplus produce in the village or at Sensembra.

However, some beneficiary families have underutilised the ponds. They were initially enthusiastic about the effort, but began to let things slide when the project ended in 2018.

A farmer proudly displays some of the tomatoes he has grown in the region known as Mancomunidad Copán Chortí in eastern Guatemala, which includes the municipalities of Camotán, Jocotán, Olopa and San Juan Ermita, in the department of Chiquimula. Water harvesting initiatives have been implemented in the area to improve agricultural production in this region, which is part of the so-called Central American Dry Corridor. The initiative is supported by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: FAO Guatemala

A farmer proudly displays some of the tomatoes he has grown in the region known as Mancomunidad Copán Chortí in eastern Guatemala, which includes the municipalities of Camotán, Jocotán, Olopa and San Juan Ermita, in the department of Chiquimula. Water harvesting initiatives have been implemented in the area to improve agricultural production in this region, which is part of the so-called Central American Dry Corridor. The initiative is supported by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: FAO Guatemala

An ageold Chorti technique in Guatemala

In Guatemala, meanwhile, some villages and communities are betting on an agroforestry technique from their ancestral culture: Koxur Rum, which means “wet land” in the language of the Chortí indigenous people, who also live in parts of El Salvador and Honduras.

The system allows corn and bean crops to retain more moisture with the rains by combining them with furrows of shrubs or trees such as madre de cacao or quickstick (Gliricidia sepium), a tree species that helps fix nitrogen in the soil.

By pruning the trees regularly, leaves and crop stubble cover and protect the soil, thereby better retaining moisture and nutrients.

“Quickstick sprouts quickly and gives abundant foliage to incorporate into the soil,” farmer Rigoberto Suchite told IPS in a telephone interview from the village of Minas Abajo, in the municipality of San Juan Ermita, Chiquimula department in eastern Guatemala, also located in the Central American Dry Corridor.

Suchite said the system was revived in his region in 2000, but with the FAO and Amexcid project, it has become more technical.

As part of the programme, some 150 families have received two 1,500-litre tanks and a drip irrigation system, he added.

“Now we are expanding it even more because it has given us good results, it has improved the soil and boosted production,” said Suchite, 55.

In the dry season, farmers collect water from nearby springs in tanks and, using gravity, irrigate their home gardens.

“Many families are managing to have a surplus of vegetables and with the sales, they buy other necessary food,” Suchite said.

The programme is scheduled to end in Guatemala in 2021, and local communities must assume the lessons learned in order to move forward.

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