The Regional Research Institute for Water-Food-Energy Security (ir-NEXUS) is envisioned as a think-tank to support public policy formulation and public investment processes, by generating research that advances basic science about coupled natural and human systems, with the goal of informing practical solutions to sustainable development in Ayacucho and the semi arid Andes in general. Led by the Universidad Nacional San Cristóbal de Huamanga (UNSCH) of Ayacucho, an institution that is investing around US $6million as seed funding during the first three years, this initiative is being developed in close collaboration with the Centro de Competencias del Agua (CCA) and the IWSN.
Context of Ayacucho
Ayacucho forms part of Peru’s ‘poverty triangle’ and faces a constant water-scarcity situation. Triggered by the internal conflict during the 1980s and 1990s, and further driven by the persistence of low well-being conditions and a lack of opportunities in the rural areas, the region’s main population centres have experienced a rapid and non-planned expansion, growing at a faster pace than the government’s capacity to cope with the demand for basic services, such as water and sanitation. Coupled with demographic growth, new market opportunities have fuelled the expansion of productive activities with high water demand – such as agriculture (with a shifting to higher altitudes), cattle raising (with subsequent overgrazing), mining and hydropower production – which is further increasing pressure on water resources and ecosystems, and exacerbating competition between the different users, which frequently leads to social conflicts. To complete the ‘vicious cycle’, a systematic contamination of the basins has been caused by the release of wastewater (household, industry) without treatment and the dumping of solid waste.
The map shows the distribution of wetlands in the headwaters above the 3800 m.a.s.l. These water-regulating ecosystems store the precipitation during the rainy season, translating it into a constant water flow along the whole year. Their presence is particularly important for the provision of water to diffuse populations during the dry season, and to feed springs. Over the past decades, climate change has been shifting temperatures, with a faster rate at higher altitudes. This situation raises concern about the fate of the hydrological functioning properties of these ecosystems as changing temperatures will affect vegetation and evapotranspiration, among others factors that influence their water-regulating properties.
The reservoir of Cuchoquesera is shown (right) with a water level below 25% of its storage capacity, much lower than usual for the period when this photo was taken (at the end of January 2016, in the midst of the rainy season). Due to an El Niño event, the southern part of Peru experienced a deficit in precipitation, causing important losses in crop production. The Cuchoquesera reservoir forms part of the Cachi river irrigation project, initially planned to provide water to 150,000 inhabitants of the city of Huamanga, the capital of Ayacucho, and for irrigating 25,000 ha of agricultural land. Currently, the population of Huamanga is estimated at 200,000 inhabitants, while the project’s real irrigation capacity is around 7,000 ha.
Need for the ir-NEXUS Institute
Water availability and quality are growing concerns among the local population, who are demanding the authorities make more investment in irrigation infrastructure, and improve access to water and sanitation services. The authorities and decision makers are becoming aware that, to address global challenges, standard ‘grey infrastructure’ approaches (e.g. construction of dams, channels, transfers) are not enough by themselves, but require integral interventions, taking into account the social and cultural dimensions of water and natural resources management, as well. Nevertheless specialised knowledge and capacities are still developing in the region, as is the case in much of the semi arid Andes.
The ir-NEXUS model
The ir-NEXUS is the result of the collaboration process between the CCA and the UNSCH under the umbrella of the IWSN component in Peru and the USAID funded PEER project, and constitutes a stepping-stone towards positioning the University as a key driver of local sustainable development. Therefore, in the long term, a crucial task of the Institute is to contribute to the training of a critical mass of talented scientists and decision makers, who have to occupy strategic positions in the academic, governmental and other spheres. The capacity building component will adopt a demand-driven research-based training strategy: young researchers and prospective decision makers will be involved in one of the postgraduate programs (either a strongly research-oriented Masters/PhD or a management-oriented MBA/MPA type program), and their thesis will address a specific challenge of an ‘end user’ institution (e.g. government, water companies, etc.). In that sense, the Masters/PhD students will act as hinges between the ir-NEXUS and relevant key actors of the region, contributing to the establishment of a science-policy dialogue culture. Through the IWSN, international expertise and experience in research and training will be brought in, improving the capacity building ability of the Institute.
The implementation process of the ir-NEXUS comprises three stages: design, incubation and ‘take off’. The design process started earlier this year and has involved the participation of institutions, such as the Regional Government of Ayacucho, the Local Water Authority and the Water Utility of Ayacucho, as well as researchers, NGO members and water user associations, among others. Their involvement is to ensure a demand-driven research agenda and to facilitate science-policy dialogues. This stage also comprises the design of the way the Institute will be organised, as well as a business model to ensure its economical sustainability.
The incubation stage is scheduled to begin in early 2017, when the research teams will be occupying the new building of the Institute to work on the projects. During this phase, the postgraduate programs will be implemented as well.
The ir-NEXUS is conceived to play a major role in the region’s decision and policy formulation processes, by providing sound scientific evidence and innovative technological solutions to address the challenges that global change is imposing, and will impose, on the nexus. The challenge is big, but this is what makes it worth it.