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Cycle 5 (2015 Deadline)

AGUA-ANDES: Ecological infrastructure strategies for enhancing water sustainability in the semi-arid Andes

PI: Bram Willems (, Centro de Competencias del Agua
U.S. Partner: Andrea Gerlak, University of Arizona
Project Dates: January 2017 - December 2019

Project Overview

Panoramic view of the wetland of Minascurral with llamas grazing [Photo courtesy of Dr. Willems]
This project focuses on Ecological Infrastructure as an adaptation strategy for ensuring water sustainability in South America’s Semi-Andes region. Dr. Willems and his team seek to advance our understanding of ecohydrologic processes that take place in headwaters ecosystems, effects of changes in climate and anthropogenic drivers, and how these are reflected in the water supply along the basin. Andean puna wetlands are far less studied than tropical glaciers, but they play an even more crucial role in the hydrology of the majority of Peru’s Andean basins and hence in the provision of water to urban and productive centers of the country. As glaciers have almost disappeared in the team’s study site, this project will produce relevant information for climate change adaptation plans by generating new knowledge about post-glacier hydrological processes in the Andes. In addition, the researchers will study the eco-hydrological properties of human-made water-regulating ecosystems and their scalability for ecological interventions in urban and rural areas. On the social science side, the team aims to better understand how actors make decisions around Ecological Infrastructure. Specifically, they want to know how decision-makers receive information and learn about ecological infrastructure design and implementation, as well as what obstacles they face in understanding and advancing ecological infrastructure. This entails understanding trade-offs decision-makers face with regard to strategic planning, public investments, and institutional capability. Overall, the objective of this project is to establish an integrated, participatory approach to the design and implementation of Ecological Infrastructure Strategies that can be utilized in Peru’s Andean urban centers and communities. This research will address a key challenge in understanding how society undergoes changes in the use and distribution of environmental resources, and it should contribute to our understanding of decision-making around water sustainability more broadly.

The project is aligned with USAID’s new Adaptation Flagship Program for Peru, in which green infrastructure investments in watersheds are a key adaptation strategy. The project site (the headwaters of the Cachi basin and the 180,000-inhabitant city of Huamanga in Ayacucho) was selected to align with USAID’s focal regions within Peru. To promote interdisciplinary research and develop effective ways of mobilizing science to address societal needs, Dr. Willems and his team plan several specific activities. They will develop robust scenarios pertaining to the water supply in the region under different global change pathways. These scenarios will be implemented together with the Regional Government of Ayacucho, local governments, and the local water authority, institutions responsible for elaborating the policy, strategy, local planning, and regulation of water resources. The researchers will also develop Ecological Infrastructure Strategies by integrating natural and man-made water-regulating ecosystems with landscape planning, urban planning, and water and wastewater management, giving due and balanced consideration to social, economic, and environmental factors and involving local authorities and community organizations. These EIS will facilitate the incorporation of ecological infrastructure within water planning investments. Throughout the project, they will work closely with the University of Ayacucho (UNSCH) on the implementation of the Regional Research Institute for Water – Food – Energy Security (ir-NEXUS), which is envisioned as a think-tank that supports policy formulation and public investment processes with relevance to the local and the Andean region sustainable development. Finally, they will support the implementation of postgraduate programs at UNSCH to actively involve graduate students in the natural and social sciences.

2017 activities at a glance

5-259 Fieldwork in the Cachi basin headwaters  Ayacucho
Fieldwork in the Cachi basin headwaters, Ayacucho (August 18th-19th, 2017)
Assessment of the eco-hydrological functioning of headwaters wetlands
Research has been carried out in the highlands of Ayacucho and Huancavelica to assess the ecohydrological functioning of wetland and grassland ecosystems, mapping pressures exerted by natural and anthropic processes, and understand feedbacks between natural and socio-economic and institutional developments at local, regional, and national scale, among others. Research activities in 2017 included:
(1) design of a plan for preserving wetlands in the surroundings of underground mine expansion;
(2) design of a community management plan for grasslands and wetlands in Pilpichaka, and
(3) assessment of the hydrological functioning of wetlands in the headwaters of the Apacheta sub-basin.

The team worked together with a mining company in Huancavelica, on a pilot wetland located inside its influence area. The research involved hydrological studies during the rainy and drought periods, and the assessment of the ecosystem quality (water, sediments and vegetation), with a focus on the wetland capacity for accumulating heavy metals. Underground and open pit mining explorations impact the local hydro-geology, leading either to the depletion or surplus of groundwater supply to ecosystems. One of the findings of the study was the viability of implementing small reservoirs in the headwaters to harvest precipitations during the rainy season, and hence, ensure water supply to the wetlands during the drought period. Another key finding was the identification of plant species with high metal accumulation capacity, which could be used for the construction of wetland systems to remediate acid waters, produced by either natural and anthropic processes. The community management plan for grasslands and wetlands in the Pilpichaca community, Huancavelica, has been developed in collaboration with CONDESAN, a NGO with more than 30 years experience in working with communities in the highlands of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. The intervention area is located at around 4000 masl, where alpaca raising is the main local economic activity. Conducted research involved  quantification of overgrazing processes to identify hotspots, for which the research team developed maps based on remote sensing techniques and validated them against ground data. Opportunities were identified for the construction of small reservoirs for rain harvesting. Overgrazing and water stress amplify degradation processes of grasslands, impacting soil quality and well being of the local population. In Peru, there is a lack of studies that quantify these phenomenon, even less with a broad geographical focus. In that sense, the team's  research is contributing with a more realistic view of the problem, identifying potential hotspots, and in turn, contributing to the design of more effective interventions by the local government. On the social sciences component, one of the key aspects was to understand the drivers underlying degradation and how these could affect local water and food securities along the different scales of the basin. During the process, three field campaigns were organized, as well as seven workshops with the authorities and  local community to present and validate results. Currently, the team is working on completing the report and maps that will be delivered to the stakeholders.  Analysis of Apacheta headwaters were intended to further enhance the dataset regarding the ecohydrological functioning of wetlands and their contribution to the basin. Between 14-19 August, field campaigns were developed together with three visiting students of the University of the West of England at Bristol, UK as part of the International Water Security Network project, which is developed in synergy with the PEER project. These students will design their undergraduate theses based on the studies performed with the team in Peru. A second visit was organized in September, this time with the U.S. counterparts led by Dr. Andrea Gerlack. The US team  learned about water harvesting initiatives undertaken by peasant communities in the highlands of Ayacucho and which have been promoted by CEDAP, a local NGO with whom the team is collaborating.

During 2017, the research team worked on: (1) development of water treatment modules at lab scale for studying hydraulic and quality parameters of treatment process, and the scaling-up assessment to real infrastructure, and  (2) design of the water sensitive campus of the UNSCH. The PEER team of the University of Ayacucho (UNSCH), under the leadership of Prof. Cipriano Mendoza, successfully constructed water treatment prototypes at a lab scale. These combine standard and passive (wetlands) treatment techniques, and will be used for evaluating hydraulic and water quality parameters, in order to do scale-up assessments for water treatment plants according to the local water sources and needs (e.g. population). The team also initiated the design of the "water sensitive campus" concept for the UNSCH. This will be incorporated within the master plan that guides the institutional development of the university, such that the campus, in addition to it becoming an open lab for research, will serve as an ecological spot to the city of Huamanga. The core of the concept is a water treatment system based on wetlands for treating domestic waste-water, which will be then re-used for irrigating the parks and gardens that will form part of the campus.  Last October, the research council of Flemish universities (VLIR) has awarded the team with  funding to work with the Architecture Faculty of the KUL on this process. The team also count  on collaboration with Dr. Andrea Gerlack and Dr. Adriana Zuñiga from the University of Arizona as well as a team of architects and urban designers from Peru.Assessment of the water-treatment capacity of ecosystem-based designs

Water budget analysis
Starting in April 2017, the research team with their collaborators organized a field work session in the Cachi Hydraulic System (SHC), which collects water coming from the headwaters of the Cachi basin in the 80 million cubic meter reservoir of Cuchuquezera  which  distributes the water to the city of Huamanga and irrigates 7000 ha of agricultural land. A collaboration agreement has been established with the office of the Regional Government  in charge of managing the SHC - the Oficina de Operaciones y Mantenimiento (OPEMAN) - for the installation of a network of sensors in different locations of the system for measuring the altitude of the water surface. In August, the Agua-Andes team, together with OPEMAN, began installation of the five sensors. This pilot study will allow OPEMAN to  test the system for their daily operational tasks, and  the data collected will enhance the hydrologic database of the Cachi basin. The team initiated synergies with the Comité Impulsor de los Mecanismos deServicios Ecosistémicos, a local committee composed of several NGO's, governmental institutions (regional and local governments) and the academia.   
Capacity building and outreach: In regards to capacity building, together with our collaborators from Peruvian universities, the team started the design of a master program in water treatment that will be implemented in the UNSCH. The program will be based on the research experience of Agua-Andes and will have a strong technical focus, promoting learning based on resolving local problems for water and waste water treatment in communities. A second objective is to build-up a high-level training program to benefit the largest number possible of students. This will allow to use more effectively the resources provided by USAID-PEER and other funding agencies.

The team  organized several meetings and workshops with stakeholders, in Ayacucho and Huancavelica. One of our major achievements has been the successfully organization of the I Congreso Peruano Agua Andes in Ayacucho, with more than 400 attendees during 3 days.
5-259 Congress_5-259 Canal 5 Ayacucho_Bram Willems interview
 Panel presentation at Agua-Andes CongressDr. Bram Willems being interviewed at the Congress by Canal 5 [Photo courtesy of Dr. Willems]

I Congreso Peruano Agua Andes 
 was an unprecedented scientific event in Ayacucho with high-level presentations and  active participation of decision makers, stakeholders, scientists and students.  29 keynote speakers (13 international speakers) and 18 oral presentations of research developed by junior researchers were given. The topics covered included water security, green infrastructure and sustainable management of ecosystem resources. In addition, two round tables were organized for participating stakeholders and decision makers, a workshop for validating the national plan for science and technology on water resources of CONCYTEC, and a presentation of modules for water treatment constructed by the students supported by the PEER project was presented as well. One of the major impacts of the Congress, according to Dr. Willems, is  that the term of GI has been included in the
debate surrounding water security in Ayacucho. For much of the participants, which included decision makers, scientists, students and stakeholders, the term was new and the presentations done by U.S. partners from the University of Arizona, the University of the West of England and Monash University of South Africa were real eye-openers. Within the Congress, together with the national council for science and technology of Peru (CONCYTEC),
the PEER team organized a workshop for  presentation of the National Research Plan for Water Resources. During the workshop, the team of CONCYTEC have had the opportunity to receive  feedback from stakeholders, decision makers and researchers, and hence include the local agenda into this major policy tool. Once approved, it is anticipated to  trigger several funding mechanisms for developing research relevant to water resources management.
Future plans: For 2018, a permanent office of the Agua-Andes project will be opened in Ayacucho. In terms of research, the PEER team we'll work on  systematizing  the data collected so far and prepare articles for submission in  peer reviewed journals. The team will start the design and construction of the water-treatment facility inside the campus of the UNSCH.  (2) A series of workshops will be organized during 2018, with participation of local actors and colleagues from the KU Leuven, Belgium  as well as collaborators from UA, UWE and others. (3) Implementation of a master program for water treatment, which will have a strong technical focus, will continue. This
program will consist of a series of learning modules, which will be build-up with the team of the UNSCH and partner institutions, such as CEDAP, as well as our international collaborators. Also, collaboration of companies will be promoted.

Outreach and impact. As part of the activities for enhancing outreach and impact, the team have agreed with the Red de Comunicación Regional - an online radio station that feeds a network of more than 30 stations in Peru - to start with a sequence of short programs, which will be called, Agua-Andes. The aim is to disseminate our research and activities in the Andean region, as well as to cover different topics and issues regarding water management
and green infrastructure. These sequences of 5 to 10 minutes will be broadcast several times during 2 weeks periods. On the other hand, we'll collaborate with the organization of the Panamerican Congress of Wetlands that
will be carried in Lima, next May 2018. Together with our national and international partners, we're planning to organize a parallel session on green infrastructure. In addition, we'll contribute with conferences and oral
presentations. The PI is planning a visit to Tucson for next February 2018, to carry out several coordination meetings, workshops and research activities together with the colleagues from the University of Arizona

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