Traditional uses and water rights: a story from an Andean community in the Cusco Province of Peru

Meeting between researchers and community leaders

Extremely uneven distribution is a key issue related to water resources. It drives the field of ‘water justice studies’, one of whose main virtues is to highlight the disparities and differences between actors, groups or regions, and the different opportunities for accessing water. Besides being a field of academic study, water justice is also a body of work that is intended to have real-world impact. It is a first step for the promotion of genuine changes towards equity.

From 20-24 November, I attended the 8th International Meeting of Researchers on Water Justice in Cusco, Peru. The event brought together around 20 researchers whose discussions aim to influence and encourage action among policy makers, and support civil society strategies to achieve more democratic water management policies, more effective water conflict resolution mechanisms, and ultimately, a more equitable water distribution scheme.

Lagoon in the upper basin

During the first day of the meeting, we went on a field trip, visiting three rural communities that have conflicts over water use: Siusa, Ccamahuara and Occoruro. We had the opportunity to meet local people, leaders and authorities in the micro basin and to learn more about local water resources management issues. The three communities belong to the district of San Salvador, in the Calca Province, in the Cusco Department, located at about 4,500m and 3,000m above sea level, in the Chuecamayo basin, on the right bank of the Vilcanota River basin. All the water that reaches the three communities originates in lagoons, lagunillas, wetlands and natural springs. The community of Ccamahuara has two lagoons (T’eraqocha and Mamaqocha), natural springs that nourish wetlands, streams and downstream agricultural land. Occoruro has two major lagoons, Rumicacha and Sorayoq. Both feed downstream wetlands and rivers. Siusa has no lakes, only water springsĀ  located in the upper part that are fed by rainfall. In general, within the three communities, there is the general perception that water is becoming scarcer from year to year. This situation is more serious for the community of Siusa because it does not have any reservoirs to meet their water requirements during the dry season.

Water reservoir in the Andes

In addition to these physical conditions of water availability, communities have their own perceptions on the uses, scarcity and rights for accessing the resource. The community of Ccamahuara is located in the highest part of the basin, close to the water sources. However, the formal rights to the water are owned by the community in the lower part of the basin. The water rights of the lower basin are recognised by the institutional authority, which makes these rights legal. Unlike the communities in the upper basin that use water for self-sufficiency, the lower basin communities use water to grow crops that they sell at the market in Cusco. The lower basin inhabitants state that the lagoon was channelled by their ancestors and those rights have been inherited from generation to generation. In addition, they claim that they have constantly made improvements to these works, such as waterproofing the channels. State law is a source of significant power, therefore these users seek to strategically use the rules, rights and procedures for their own convenience.

Discussion between communities of the upper
and lower basin

In contrast, the rights of the inhabitants of the upper community are not recognised by an institution or public authority. They are rights that transcend the legal standard and fall into a broader notion of territorial rights. In this case, the ‘water use’ that these indigenous and peasant communities claim cannot be understood as an official rule or regulation. Instead, their right to water has many other components that are created, reconfirmed and recreated in historical processes specific to their location, within political and cultural contexts. In the case of the communities of San Salvador, the conflict over who has legitimate access to water is based on an interaction between a local regulatory system, which has a cultural basis and is founded on uses and customs, and the duties imposed by the formal law. This is a clear example of how the official rules are not sufficient enough to cover the wide spectrum of practices and ideas of a community. In addition to the formal rights that decide who has access to water and how, and as a result of the lack of recognition, communities develop their own strategies, rules and agreements. This way, the formal rights to water are answered, reinterpreted, and transformed under the influence of specific socio-cultural regulatory systems and relations of power and control, which differ from those that define the formal regime.

Communities in the San Salvador District

While the implementation and success of these strategies, as well as the nature and scope of the agreements, is not homogeneous, their success will depend on how communities articulate certain resources (human, social, productive, symbolic). Although not all succeed in equal measure, these strategies constitute a local order based on transactions and negotiations of formality, which coexists and relates, in opposition and/or negotiation, with the formal or dominant institutional political order. Considering these local rules, there is a demand for legal and institutional recognition and a specific claim for water access. To analyse this, we need to develop an system that looks at all the stakeholders, their uses and practices, the overall water distribution, and the real decision-making processes. To have harmonious and just water resources management in the Chuecamayo watershed, it will be critical to consider the different sources of law.

Ancestral adaptive practices: Cochas are rustic reservoirs in the upper areas of the Cusco region. It is an ancestral practice of aquifer recharge that are still used today. Some cochas are only used for water seeding – to infiltrate and recharge the aquifer. Other cochas are used for water seeding and harvesting. The system works with open ditches that follow the contour of the punas (or high plateaus), allowing rainwater to reach the cochas. Water is then filtered by the mountain to rise again downstream, when the dry season is more severe in the basin. That way, communities can still practice agriculture and livestock feed even when there is no rainfall. Additionally, cochas require community work to keep them clean and in good condition. These practices constitute an example of the hydraulic wisdom of these communities and an effective ancestral adaptation strategy to water shortages.