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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 2 (2012 Deadline)

Strengthening resilience of Andean river basin headwaters facing global change

PI: Bram Willems (Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos)
U.S. Partner: Christopher Scott (University of Arizona)
Project Dates: August 2013 to July 2016

Project Website:
Decreasing water availability in Andean river basins, rising temperatures, increased probabilities of drought occurrence, and expanding water demand all indicate that Peru will experience a severe future water crisis. This PEER Science project considers Andean headwaters, particularly páramos and puna wetlands, as socialecological systems (SESs) in which coupled natural and human processes like drought, flooding, water use and impoundment in reservoirs for irrigation, and mining act together to destabilize and threaten water availability and quality for human and ecosystem purposes. This project is expected to produce innovations in Andean headwaters characterization methodologies by combining use of satellite imagery (optical and radar), products derived from their analysis (e.g., land use and land cover change), and field data (e.g., precipitation, runoff, and water use, including socioeconomic characteristics). These methodologies will allow the researchers on the project to identify headwaters, quantify their extent, and define indicators for assessing their dynamics. In turn, cross-correlation analysis between these indicators and climatic and anthropogenic drivers, such as El Niño Southern Oscillation events and mining operations in headwaters, for instance, will lead to the establishment of characteristics that make Andean river basin headwaters vulnerable to global change. A second important contribution of the project will be the integrated assessment of Andean páramos and puna wetlands, which are far less studied than glaciers but 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 coastal regions. According to the Autoridad Nacional del Agua, glaciers play a primary hydrological role in Vilcanota (Cusco) and El Santa (Ancash) basins, whereas headwaters wetlands are far more pervasive but not adequately identified, much less assessed from a water management perspective.

2-359 Ayacucho Fieldwork
Fieldwork in Apacheta - Ayacucho (above 4400 m.a.s.l.).

2-359 Project team at La Montanas Lake
The project team and guides pose near La Montaña’s lake.

The results of the project will include development of a satellite-based monitoring system for assessing biophysical changes in Andean headwaters and creation of case-study documentation of human dimensions of global and local changes affecting the headwaters regions of the basins, with particular emphasis on water use and quality degradation. Capacity-building activities as part of the Geophysics Masters's Program at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos will also be expanded.

Summary of Recent Activities
During the second quarter of 2016, the team carried out final field work in the headwaters of the Cachi basin in Ayacucho. Together with students and researchers from the University of Ayacucho (UNSCH) and researchers from the French Research Institute for Development (IRD), they collected soil and vegetation samples, as well as data regarding water quantity and quality in two case-study wetlands. One important achievement was the collection of a sample from more than 4 meters deep, which is being analyzed in France using dating techniques for establishing paleoclimatic events, as well as carbon storage assessments. As noted in a previous report, dating techniques have shown that 1 meter of sediments covers more than 2,000 years of paleoclimatic information. These studies are important in providing quantitative evidence for reconstructing past climates in the area. Such information will allow the researchers to establish possible effects of historical El Niño events and determine whether long drought periods and climate change processes occurred in the past.

Several outreach and dissemination activities have also been carried out recently. On April 21, 2016, Dr. Willems and his group organized the International Seminar on Methodologies and Research Experiences in Geosciences" at UNSCH, which attracted a packed house of students and professors from the university’s science and engineering faculties. During the seminar, researchers from the PEER team, IRD, and the University of Stuttgart discussed topics on geosciences and presented results and findings from their studies. In addition, the PEER team also participated in some recent seminars and scientific events organized by partner institutions. For instance, on April 13 the PI presented results of the PEER project in the AQUAFUTURA seminar of the National Meteorological Office (SENAMHI). Master’s student Jorge García participated as a speaker in the May 27 National Congress of Environmental Engineering Students held at the National Engineering University of Lima. The PEER team also collaborated on the organization of the XIV Latin American High Level Technical Meeting: Technologies to Meet the Hydrological Crisis, held June 23-24 by the Centro de Competencias del Agua (CCA, a spin-off institution resulting from the PEER project), SEDAPAL (the major water utility of Peru, with more than 1 million connections), and the Inter-American Association of Environmental and Sanitary Engineering (AIDIS). Students Gisell Carbajal and Martin Leyva participated in a follow-up training event organized within the framework of the National Drought Observatory, an initiative of the project PI to which the PEER team has contributed several remote sensing products. Over the past two years, the observatory has been established as a multi-sectoral initiative led by the National Water Authority (ANA) and counts on the participation of the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Agriculture, and Ministry of Economy, among others, with sponsorship by the International Hydrological Program of UNESCO.

Meanwhile, Dr. Willems has been leading the design process of the new Regional Research Institute for Water - Food - Energy Security (ir-NEXUS). For this purpose, he has held several meetings in Lima and Ayacucho with governmental entities (e.g., the Regional Government of Ayacucho, ANA), private companies (e.g., AECOM, VEOLIA), USAID and the U.S. State Department, NGOs (e.g., The Mountain Institute) and international offices (e.g., CEPAL). The ir-NEXUS is attracting strong interest, as it offers a unique opportunity to articulate research with capacity building and policy formulation. The USAID mission in Lima is closely following the process and is helping with establishing contacts and networking. Within the framework of the ir-NEXUS design process, a workshop with government stakeholders was organized in Ayacucho on June 29 to identify strategic research areas. High Andean wetland ecosystems maps have been published on the project's website (, which are informing the working group for implementing the national wetland inventory. Master’s student Wilmer Moncada calibrated the PRMS hydrological model using data provided by the Regional Government of Ayacucho. The results are being analyzed together with technical staff and are feeding the planning process for water allocation from the Cachi hydraulic project, which provides drinking water to the 200,000 inhabitants of the city of Ayacucho. Currently, Dr. Willems and his team are also collaborating with The Mountain Institute (TMI) in the implementation of a strategic plan for boosting research activities at the University of Huaraz (UNASAM), with a science-policy dialogue focus. This collaboration is done under the framework of the TMI USAID-funded project “Ensuring water provision and livelihood in the mountains.”

As part of the closing activities of the project, Dr. Willems plans to organize a final workshop in Lima, to which he will invite researchers from the local universities with whom he and his group have collaborated during the past years, representatives from the National Water Authority, the Regional Government of Ayacucho, and the Ministry of Environment, and other stakeholders. The purpose is to show and discuss the results and findings achieved and agree on further collaboration activities. Plans also call for students Jorge García, Wilmer Moncada, Gisell Carbajal, and Martín Leyva to complete their master thesis drafts and initiate the thesis defense process. Two U.S. partners from the University of Arizona, Dr. Adriana Zuñiga and Dr. Rob Varady, are expected to arrive in Peru on July 25. They will visit Ayacucho for meetings with the rector of the local university and stakeholders within the framework of the implementation of the ir-NEXUS institute. The University of Arizona, through the International Water Security Network (IWSN), is collaborating with this initiative. Finally, Dr. Willems will be participating at the 10th International Wetlands Conference (INTECOL 2016), which will be held in Changsu, China, September 19-24, 2016. Together with Dr. P.V. Sundareshwar of USAID Washington, he is organizing a panel on Andean wetlands in which two other PEER PIs (Dr. Juan Castaño and Dr. Julio Cañón) will also participate.


2-359 Le Leche Fieldwork
Fieldworks in the La Leche basin, Lambayeque (Photo courtesy Dr. Willems).

Peru Partnership 6
A group photo of participants in the Cajamarca field trip surrounding Dr. Willems, center (Photo courtesy Dr. Willems).