September 4, 2018 │ Five years ago, Peru made history when its legislators included a short but groundbreaking paragraph in a new law to modernize the country’s sanitation sector. The new provision said that water utilities should invest in natural infrastructure – natural areas such as forests or grasslands that can purify water, absorb floodwaters, and like a sponge soak up excess precipitation in the rainy season and release it months later during dry months – rather than only in engineered infrastructure, the traditional subject of water utilities’ attention and expertise. That requirement has not only already resulted more than tens of millions of dollars set aside for green investments by Peruvian water utilities alone, but also initiated a transformation in the way the country’s government leaders think about water. Now, ministries across the government need to work together in new ways to execute an entirely new approach to national water security. At a high level panel held in Stockholm, Sweden at this year’s World Water Week, Peru’s next generation of water leaders proudly shared their country’s ambitious vision with an international audience.
“I’m an engineer by training, but meeting our water supply only through more construction – like importing water to Lima from across the Andes – it’s just not sustainable,” said the Chief of Peru’s National Water Authority, Walter Obando. “Our projects have been based entirely on ‘gray’ infrastructure. Now we want to see to what degree we can turn to green, and to do that we need to work with other ministries.”
Already, more than $30 million has been allocated by public water companies in Peru for projects like replanting forests or rebuilding ancient pre-Incan canals high in the Andes that collect water and funnel it underground, so that it emerges to replenish rivers feeding cities like Lima, months later and hundreds of kilometers away. Lima’s water utility SEDAPAL, which with a customer base of 11 million people is Peru’s largest water utility, has already announced it will allocate more than $23 million from user tariffs to natural infrastructure for water, the most significant commitment made to date by any Latin American water service provider.
Obando addressed an international group of policy-makers, water experts, and international cooperation agencies, alongside his colleagues Lucía Ruiz, Vice Minister of Environment; Iván Lucich, President of the Board of Peru’s national water utility regulator SUNASS; Dirk ten Brink, Biodiversity and Climate Change Adaptation Specialist at the US Agency for International Development (USAID); Fernando Momiy, the former President of SUNASS and current Chief of Party of Forest Trends’ Natural Infrastructure for Water Security project, and Juan Tarazona, Peru’s Vice Minister of Housing, Construction, and Sanitation.
The officials discussed their involvement with the Natural Infrastructure for Water Security project, a $27.5 million initiative supported by USAID and the Government of Canada that seeks to support Peru’s investments in natural infrastructure by encouraging more coordination across ministries and various levels of government on water resources. The initiative aims to help create a pipeline of green projects that can both pass muster with water utilities focused on quantifiable outcomes, and also support gender equality and sustainable livelihoods in rural areas. The Natural Infrastructure for Water Security project will also invest in human capital, building the necessary technical and scientific skills to realize Peru’s national vision of nature playing a central role in the country’s water security and climate adaptation responses.
Water touches virtually every area of a country’s economy. Obando, Ruiz, and Lucich all emphasized that realizing the goal of rapidly scaling up investments in natural infrastructure will require an unprecedented level of coordination across sectors. No longer can water utilities only take responsibility for water once it has entered their intake pipes for treatment, nor can decision-makers in the agricultural sector fail to consider how intensive agricultural production upstream might affect the quality or supply of water for cities in the catchment below. Similarly, national policy-makers must work closely with their counterparts at the local level, as Lucich explained.
“The regional and national governments might pay for the initial investment in conservation projects,” said Lucich. “To make that investment sustainable, the utility must then maintain the natural infrastructure for the long term.”
Obando, Ruiz, and Lucich declared themselves united in embracing the challenge. Obando says policy-makers from other countries, including Brazil and Bolivia, are already asking him for advice on how to advance their own investments in natural infrastructure.
“There has been a meeting of wills on this issue,” said Ruiz. “We know we need to work on this together, even if it’s not always easy to work across ministries. The foundation is there, and we need to build on it. This is the time and opportunity.”