News / Americas

Peru Bores Through Andes to Water Desert

Pipeline stock is seen during the construction of the Olmos Irrigation Project in Peru's northwestern region of Lambayeque, March 15, 2013.
Pipeline stock is seen during the construction of the Olmos Irrigation Project in Peru's northwestern region of Lambayeque, March 15, 2013.
TEXT SIZE - +
Reuters
— Peru's Olmos Valley might be a desert now, with rare rains and rivers that trickle to life for just a few months a year, but a radical engineering solution for water scarcity could soon create an agricultural bonanza here.

Fresh water that now tumbles down the eastern flank of the Andes mountains to the Amazon basin and eventually the Atlantic Ocean will instead move west through the mountains to irrigate this patch of desert on Peru's coast. It will then drain into the Pacific Ocean.

The Herculean project to reverse the flow of water and realize a century-old dream is in many ways the most important water work ever in Peru. It could serve as a blueprint for the kind of construction projects needed to tackle worsening water scarcity.

Call it extreme engineering in the age of global warming.

"All of this will be green," said engineer Giovanni Palacios, looking out over miles of brown shrubbery at a construction site he oversees for the Brazilian firm Odebrecht.

Giovanni Palacios, director and lead engineer of the Olmos Irrigation Project, watches a construction area of the project in Lambayeque, March 15, 2013.Giovanni Palacios, director and lead engineer of the Olmos Irrigation Project, watches a construction area of the project in Lambayeque, March 15, 2013.
x
Giovanni Palacios, director and lead engineer of the Olmos Irrigation Project, watches a construction area of the project in Lambayeque, March 15, 2013.
Giovanni Palacios, director and lead engineer of the Olmos Irrigation Project, watches a construction area of the project in Lambayeque, March 15, 2013.
Palacios is the director of the Olmos Irrigation Project, an ambitious and - until it starts in 2014 - unproven vision with a $500 million price tag.

It has included drilling a 12-mile (20 km) tunnel through the formidable Andes to capture abundant water flows on the other side. That feat required a drill 1,000 feet long (305 meters).

It aims to fix Peru's most emblematic water problem.

Rainfall on the coast averages six inches (150 mm) per year and the project is coming online as Peru's tropical glaciers, a source of fresh water for millions, melt away with rising global temperatures.

"This will all be sugar cane, avocado, passion fruit, and people everywhere will be working, planting, harvesting, packaging," Palacios said, perched on a heap of sand - some of the 2.5 million cubic meters (808 million cubic feet) of earth that have been moved so far to make way for the water.

The Olmos project, which critics say benefits mostly big agricultural companies rather than small farmers, is the most ambitious of seven massive irrigation works that are turning swaths of desert valleys near Peru's coast into profitable, producing fields.

Together they will greenfield some 900 square miles, or about 233,000 hectares (576,000 acres), of desert over the next decade.

Most of the projects tap a few glacier-fed rivers along the Pacific coast. The Olmos irrigation project, however, is the first of at least two that will pull water destined for the Amazon to the coast to feed crops.

It shares some similarities with works that have drawn drinking water across the mountains to the capital, Lima, for years.

Peru is one of the countries most exposed to climate change, according to the United Nations, and Lima is about as dry as Baghdad.

Test flows of water on the tunnel for the Olmos Valley were conducted last year.

Next year, Odebrecht will start pumping billions of gallons of water into fields leased by agricultural companies over a 170-square mile (440-square km) patch of desert in the northern Lambayeque region, known for its algorrobo trees with roots that stretch up to 164 feet (50 meters) underground to find water.

'Crushing Burden'

Peru has long struggled to manage a natural water imbalance that climate change could soon visit on other nations: too much water in some places and not enough in others.

The coastal region west of the Andes range, home to two-thirds of Peru's population and 80 percent of economic activity, receives just two percent of the country's fresh water.

That is because the towering Andes catch rising warm air in chilly mountain peaks - forcing moisture to condense and drain into the jungle, and casting a long, dry "rain shadow" over coastal regions to the west.

The lack of water in regions along the coast already places a "totally crushing" burden on Peru - South America's fastest-growing economy, said Jorge Benites, the conservation director for the national water agency.

"With climate change and rapid population and economic growth, trans-Andean projects like Olmos will surely multiply," Benites said.

Water has defined life on Peru's coast since pre-Incan times, with power accompanying those who control it.

Before extreme weather and droughts marked its collapse in 800 AD, the ancient pyramid-building Moche civilization thrived along the northern coast of Peru for some 700 years, thanks to a surface irrigation system that used seasonal rivers to soak fields of corn, bean and peanut crops.

Farmer Ricardo Julca poses while irrigating his crops after a rare rain in the outskirts of Olmos, March 14, 2013.Farmer Ricardo Julca poses while irrigating his crops after a rare rain in the outskirts of Olmos, March 14, 2013.
x
Farmer Ricardo Julca poses while irrigating his crops after a rare rain in the outskirts of Olmos, March 14, 2013.
Farmer Ricardo Julca poses while irrigating his crops after a rare rain in the outskirts of Olmos, March 14, 2013.
Irrigation in Olmos hasn't changed much since the time of the Moche for many local farmers. While some can afford to pump groundwater to their fields in the long dry season, others wait for the Olmos River to swell after brief downpours during the rainy months before rushing to dig out irrigation paths with shovels.

Odebrecht estimates the Olmos irrigation project will create about 40,000 direct jobs and another 120,000 indirect jobs - so many that a team of Peruvian architects from different firms designed a new city to house the newcomers.

Inspired by the Moche, it would rely on adobe structures that would create shade and harness winds to cool residents.

"This whole Olmos experiment is like what the Moche did thousands of years ago. They conquered the desert through irrigation and built urban centers," said Jose Orrego, an architect with the firm Metropolis in Lima. "The idea is very seductive.''

Century-old Vision

Engineers say Olmos is the most complex and risky project they have ever worked on, with hot and stuffy conditions inside the mountain requiring air conditioning and unstable geology outside that has caused at least two slides.

Construction on the tunnel was finished in late 2011 and by 2015 enough water to fill 160,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools (400 million cubic meters) can start moving annually through the mountain, powering a small hydroelectric plant in the process.

Workers put together a pipeline during the construction of the Olmos Irrigation Project in Lambayeque, March 15, 2013.Workers put together a pipeline during the construction of the Olmos Irrigation Project in Lambayeque, March 15, 2013.
x
Workers put together a pipeline during the construction of the Olmos Irrigation Project in Lambayeque, March 15, 2013.
Workers put together a pipeline during the construction of the Olmos Irrigation Project in Lambayeque, March 15, 2013.
The project has been a dream of engineers and politicians since the late 19th century, well before worries arose over global warming. It languished over funding issues until 2003, when a decentralization push moved it to the regional government in Lambayeque to work it out with the private sector.

Odebrecht eventually won the right to build the project, which has arguably taken on added importance as scientists warn that many of Peru's glaciers could disappear.

"Lambayeque has a bright future but to get there we need more investment, and what will bring that investment is water," said Humberto Acuna, the president of the regional government.

Odebrecht, the Brazilian company, plays a supersized role in Peru, building everything from highways to mining facilities, and even putting up a smaller version of Rio de Janeiro's famous Christ the Redeemer statue over Lima's coastal skyline.

To pay for construction of the Olmos project without government funds, Odebrecht said it asked investors to bet on the future flow of water that would feed crops. It auctioned off idle public land to agricultural companies for half of the financing and sold debt based on future water sales to those companies for the rest.

"For this to go forward, the stars had to be aligned," said Jorge Barata, the director of Odebrecht in Peru. "The novelty of the financial structure created some doubts in the beginning."

Does Turning Desert into Garden Work?

While the plan is to keep moving water from east of the Andes to the coast, the Peruvian government's appetite to do so with business models like Olmos may be waning.

President Ollanta Humala has touted irrigation works for small farmers instead of industrial projects like Olmos, which was under way before he assumed power, that are financed in part through higher water prices.

Critics say the Olmos project sidelined family farms and gave public resources - land and water - to big export-oriented companies for little in return.

The smallest plot of the 38,000 hectares (94,000 acres) auctioned off was 250 hectares (618 acres), requiring a minimum investment of about $1 million.

"It was a good idea, but in reality the project has favored agroindustry over the farmers in the region who dreamed of it for 100 years,'' said Fernando Eguren of Cepes, a group that advocates for small farmers.

Odebrecht said it had agreed to make water available for 5,500 hectares (13,590 acres) of community parcels and will offer it at a rate below what farmers now pay to pump groundwater.

Irrigation water is seen near passionfruit crops after a rare rain in the outskirts of Olmos, March 14, 2013.Irrigation water is seen near passionfruit crops after a rare rain in the outskirts of Olmos, March 14, 2013.
x
Irrigation water is seen near passionfruit crops after a rare rain in the outskirts of Olmos, March 14, 2013.
Irrigation water is seen near passionfruit crops after a rare rain in the outskirts of Olmos, March 14, 2013.
However, Juan Rodolfo Soto, the president of the local farmers group in Olmos, said Odebrecht should build the same irrigation infrastructure on community parcels that the companies will get.

He and other farmers have long dreamed of gaining access to stable water supplies.

"After so many years, so much of our hope has turned into disappointment," said Soto. "But I think we will still benefit indirectly, with jobs in hotels or working for big companies."

An important global miner, Peru has more than tripled its agricultural exports over the past decade, according to the Agriculture Ministry, using its year-round good climate and around 19 free trade agreements to meet global demand for high-priced crops like asparagus.

Still, watering Peru's coastal regions to keep growing agricultural exports has its own risks. The El Nino phenomena that periodically warms the Pacific and stirs up destructive rains has the potential to wreak havoc.

Also, access to water that is too easy can result in salinization, as water-logged fields build up salt in soil at levels toxic to crops.

"Turning Peru's desert into a garden sounds really nice, but how well does it really work," said Jeffrey Bury, a geographer at the University of California Santa Cruz who studies water issues in Peru.

You May Like

'Exceptionally Lucky' US Boy Survives Flight in Wheel Well

The boy was unconscious for most of the flight, and appeared to be unharmed after enduring the extremely cold temperatures and lack of oxygen More

US Anti-Corruption Law Snags Major Tech Company

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in December, 1977 More

Cameron Criticized for Calling UK 'Christian Country'

Letter from scientists, academics and writers says the prime minister is fostering division by repeatedly referring to England as a 'Christian country' More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: david lulasa from: tambua,gimarakwa,hamisi,v
April 08, 2013 7:08 AM
that means that lack of water is a national disaster in peru,therefore,all they need is the intervention of good drills that can bore through...such machines would be better be owned by everybody..i dont think they will make people idle as long as they are working/on.


Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid

More Americas News

Venezuelan Protesters Burn Leaders in Effigy

Hundreds take to streets of Caracas Easter Sunday demanding ‘resurrection of democracy; President Maduro’s image among those burnt
More

Photogallery Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians
More

Audit Finds US Housing Aid Program in Haiti Falls Short

Results show post-earthquake USAID program has delivered only a quarter of planned number of homes at nearly twice the budgeted cost
More

Mourning, Memories in Garcia Marquez's Languid Hometown

Nobel Prize-winning author's early years in Aracataca inspired characters, tales for major novel
More

Powerful Earthquake Rattles Mexico

US Geological Survey says quake measuring 7.5 on Richter scale, was centered in the western state of Guerrero, north of Acapulco beach resort
More

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support
More