attempt to revive
Kashyapa A. S. Yapa
In spite of the four
thousand meter altitude and the early morning hour, it does not feel cold
today around the lakes of Ozogoche. The
rising sun is lighting up the cloudless blue sky and splashing gold over
the mountain slopes, their majestic peaks slowly stir up from the
night’s sleep pushing aside their soft white blankets, and the two
immense lakes, trapped among the steep peaks, mirror all this without
missing a detail. This
resplendent spectacle warms up the bodies and minds of all who have
gathered today in the Ozogoche plateau to celebrate an unprecedented
Two autonomous political
corporations, the municipal governments of Guamote and Alausí, both
inhabited by the same Quechua speaking indigenous population, have left
aside their territorial disputes and the bitter quarrels over meager
provincial and national financial resources, and have met here, today, to
work out a mechanism on sharing this valuable natural resource, the high
plains (páramo) of Ozogoche.
Guamote intends to irrigate its parched lands with the waters of
River Ozogoche, but, has to canalize it through the lands belonging to
Alausí. The geographic
barriers make it impractical for Alausí to irrigate its dry lands using
these waters, however, it wants to promote this beautiful landscape to
attract national and international tourism.
The mayor of Alausí planted himself facing the gathering of inhabitants of the páramo and the aspirants of irrigation water; “…We won’t oppose our brothers of Guamote using these waters, because true progress transcends artificial political boundaries. Let’s reach a compromise, though; you may take advantage of the river flow, but, please, please, help us conserve these wonderful lakes and their surroundings…”
proponents won Alausí’s green light for the Project, yet,
could they keep their end of the compromise?
Because, the preliminary Project design, prepared by a
group of engineers, proposes building a regulatory reservoir
just before the canal intake, which would flood both lakes and
the plateau around them!
This and other technical aspects of the Project need a
careful revision, taking the local socio-political and
ecological reality into account, however, could the political
organization of Guamote carry out the challenging task?
Guamote and its population
In 1992, the indigenous of Guamote broke open their political prison and emerged in the national scene, electing its first indigenous mayor. Four more years later, coinciding with the resurgence of the national indigenous political movement, the natives of Guamote consolidated their power, by winning the majority in the municipal council. Looking beyond the municipal bureaucracy, which stagnate the just and long repressed demands of the indigenous communities, the new political leadership gave birth to the first Municipal Indigenous Parliament in the country, in Guamote, permitting the community leaders a voice in prioritizing municipal public works and a platform for overseeing their execution. Simultaneously, they created the Local Development Committee, an action group consisting of all local NGOs, that plans and implements integrated development projects within the municipality. In today’s local government of Guamote, these three branches share the responsibility in looking after the welfare of its 32,000 inhabitants, who still struggle untiringly, simply to assure the survival of their families.
The local population bases its survival on agricultural activities. However, the greater part of the municipality suffers from a lack of rain, and sustaining a family through farming has become a Herculean task. Their rain-based production permits only one harvest per year, if at all.
continue to shrink in size because of increasing population
pressure, and their productivity decreases because of
Their only mobile wealth, the herds of cattle and sheep,
can pasture only in the frigid and fragile páramo, due
to lack of grass in lower areas.
Located above 3800m altitude, the previously
collectively-owned páramo lands, now are partitioned for
individual agricultural use, them being the only lands that
contain sufficient humidity and virgin soil.
Excess pasturing and farming deteriorate rapidly the
water retention capacity of these plateaus, further reducing the
availability of water, not only for irrigation, but also for
The farmers dare
not invest their meager resources in improving agricultural
production, by fertilizing the soil, procuring better seeds, or
taking protective measures against soil erosion, when their
crops are at the mercy of unpredictable climatic variations.
An irrigation system would motivate them to invest, as it
would guarantee a return.
crisscross the municipal territory, but they don’t carry
perennial flows, in sufficient quantities and at suitable
elevations, that would allow their utilization for irrigation.
Some communities possess small irrigation canals; yet,
they can irrigate only a very small area of the total.
Thus, the urgency, in building a system of irrigation
that can cover an area large enough to justify the cost of
canalizing water over long distances.
Conscious of the
need to improve the living conditions of its inhabitants, the
Local Government of Guamote elaborated, with active community
participation, a Regional Development Plan, in which
agricultural production and environmental conservation jointly
lead the list of priorities.
The local authorities face a formidable challenge in
developing mechanisms that help improve the agriculture while
protecting the fragile natural resources.
Under this strategy, they have focused on the
Ozogoche-Guamote Irrigation Project, which would directly
benefit over a fifth of the population of the municipality.
Ozogoche River water as a
The River begins at the lakes Cubillin and Magtayan, located within the parish of Achupallas, in the northeast corner of the Municipality of Alausí, and has a fairly stable and high flow, during the summer months of Guamote. That study defined a project, at the prefeasibility level, that would irrigate some 5000 hectares in Guamote, by diverting the Ozogoche River through a long transbasin canal.
the future beneficiaries of the project to form an organization,
called CODIOIGPA (Corporation for integral development of
indigenous organizations of Guamote-Palmira), which, through
arduous struggles, managed to advance a part of the Project’s
hydrologic and topographic studies in 1995, by combining
financial and technical resources of some governmental and
In 2002, through
financial help from the Central Government and the Municipality,
a part of the estimated cost of the Project’s feasibility
study was collected, and was passed on to the Committee for
Local Development (CDL) of Guamote. The CDL put together a technical team, attracting primarily
the regional talent, even including some future Project
beneficiaries, and began elaborating the feasibility study in
early March of 2002.
The Ozogoche-Guamote Irrigation Project, as defined in the Feasibility Study, proposes diverting a maximum of 3000 liters per second of water from River Ozogoche, using an intake at the altitude of 3730msl, located some 1200m downstream from its birthplace. Its transbasin canal snakes around the mountain range for some 80km, to the point where it crosses the range, and then divides into two branches that distribute water to the irrigation parcels, the northern branch being 10km long and the southern one, 40km. The 1582 families that aspire to benefit directly from the Project represent 36 communities and associations. The zone of irrigation covers 5000 hectares approximately, located between the altitudes 3650msl and 3000msl, in the northeast quadrants of the parishes Guamote and Palmira and in the northwest quadrant of the parish of Cebadas. The major commercial crops of the zone are potatoes, haba beans, corn, barley and pasture for animals.
assumes the challenge of modifying the Project
National Park, which encompasses the lakes of Ozogoche and a
part of the community of Ozogoche Alto, was declared a Natural
Patrimony of the Humanity by UNESCO; a strong argument for not
erecting any structures that could alter its magnificent
engineers who elaborated the prefeasibility study of the Project
had paid attention to no such criteria but only to that of
guaranteeing a constant flow in the irrigation canal, and had
proposed building a 30m deep regulatory reservoir, that would
engulf both the lakes and a greater part of the grassy plateau
around them. The
flow of River Ozogoche doesn’t fluctuate much daily or weekly,
because the two large lakes upstream act, to some extent, as
regulatory reservoirs. However,
today, the degradation of the upper catchment has reduced the
summer inflow to such a level that the river flow could vary
from 7000 l/s in the rainy season to some 1000 l/s during the
dry season. Thus,
without the help of a storage reservoir, the Irrigation Project,
which hopes to capture 3000 l/s of flow, would face a deficit in
certain months. Yet,
that deficit wouldn’t significantly affect the irrigation area
in Guamote, because its dry season doesn’t coincide with that
in Ozogoche. The
River Ozogoche is fed heavily off the rains delivered by the
oriental winds, which coincide with a long dry spell in Guamote.
The River flow diminishes as the rains recede, and
simultaneously, the demand for irrigation water will also
diminish because, then, the wet season commences there.
The rains in Guamote don’t occur at the same intensity
every year, and in some years, the demand for irrigation could
exceed the flow available in the River.
A conscientious public, concerned about conserving the páramo,
could assume this risk. Furthermore,
a concerted effort, aimed at preventing further degradation of
the grasslands above the lakes of Ozogoche, could even increase
the dry season flow of the River.
political leadership of Guamote and the new technical team
agreed on sacrificing the proposed reservoir, because that would
reduce the environmental damage at Ozogoche and also
significantly lower the total project budget.
But, what would the Project’s future beneficiaries say?
Following the practice of the Local Government of Guamote
of allowing citizen input in all of its development plans, we,
the CDL technical group, decided to actively incorporate all the
potential users of the Project in the new design process, from
the first stage. We
regularly convened meetings with user representatives, to inform
them and to consult them about possible alternatives, before
making any important decision with regard to the design.
At the first gathering of the future irrigators, we explained to them the available options and potential risks, involving the construction of a reservoir before the canal intake. Some community leaders, who had heard the words of the mayor of Alausí at Ozogoche, and had interpreted them as a de facto opposition to the Project, now showed surprise learning about the minimal risk that signify the elimination of the reservoir. Everyone knows about the deplorable conditions the páramos face in one’s own community, and so, all agreed about the need to conserve the River that would provide irrigation water for their parcels. They unanimously voted to scrap the reservoir, but a seed of doubt continued to bother many minds: “how could we share the irrigation water during the times of deficit?”
justice in water allocation
Those projects have histories
completely different to ours.
Almost always, State entities had planned and built them,
and then, handed them over to the users, with hardly any user
participation in the previous stages.
Their problems begin there: the users do not identify
themselves as owners of the infrastructure.
They treat the systems as someone else’s, and even
purposely cause damage; do not value the water, steal it and
waste it. The water
tariff system doesn’t encourage saving water either.
It charges the user for his surface of land available for
irrigation, without any regard to actual area of cultivation,
the type of crop grown, or its seasonal water needs.
“Why should I economize on water, if they charge me the
same, whatever the case?” responds the user.
experiences helped us incorporate the concepts of austerity,
equity and social justice, the basic governing principles in
Guamote, into the Project’s water allocation system.
All of its future beneficiaries plan to bear the burden
of the Project’s construction and maintenance, sharing equally
their manual labor and their meager financial resources.
So, justice dictates that all should receive equal water
analyzing this issue in detail during various meetings, they
agreed on this mechanism. It
would also prevent distribution-related conflicts in
water-deficient projects like ours. During the droughts, the individual water right would be
proportional to the flow that can be captured from the river.
indigenous community in Guamote, each member possesses more or
less the same amount of cultivable land, even though some
communities collectively own much more land than others.
The differences in access to land and other resources
make possible the scenario, where, at times, some users would
not be able to use all the irrigation water allocated to them,
while others would like to use water in excess of their
technical team recommends the use of 0.6 l/s per hectare of an
average plot of land. We
designed a tariff system, based primarily on the volume of water
consumed, instead of the amount of land available for
irrigation, which promotes efficient water use and avoids
punishing unjustly the farmer incapable of using her/his full
system benefits the efficient farmer because s/he can irrigate
more land using the same amount of water, by improving the soil
characteristics of the land and by adopting optimum irrigation
also would avoid irregular water transactions among the farmers.
Resolving the question of how to redistribute water
between those who have water in excess and those who need more
water, we decided to leave in the hands of each community’s
Irrigation Users Association, to be established on par with the
Association, or in its place, the Communal Leadership of each
community, should assume the responsibility of the construction,
operation and maintenance, of the secondary canal that brings
water to the community and the rest of the structures that
distribute water to individual lots.
Because of the intimate interdependent relationships that
prevail among the community members, we believe that a communal
organization, rather than any external entity, would have a
better chance at mediating in the conflicts caused by irrigation
water distribution. Moreover,
it could take into consideration the collective benefit and
design a just redistribution scheme, in times of deficit or in
the case of someone possessing water in excess.
All users would have a hand in
Not just the
beneficiaries, but also the Local Government of Guamote, want to
reduce the Project’s budget.
It wants to administrate the Project construction
directly, through the CDL, if its economic feasibility can be
we, the technical team of the Feasibility Study, had to assume
the challenge of designing an economically viable project, and
designing it making the best use of available local resources,
such as, the materials of construction and the technical
prefeasibility study had recommended carrying the canal through
the mountain range between the Ozogoche/Cebadas river basin and
that of River Atapo, using a 4000m long tunnel.
However, the topography permits crossing that range
without a tunnel, at a saddle point at its northern end, but
that requires building a long open channel hugging the range.
The exINERHI engineers had discarded this option, citing
possible geological problems and the high costs associated with
a longer canal. A
tunnel that long would force the Local Government to hire an
international contractor with that kind of expertise, raising,
as a consequence, the Project’s cost to extremely high levels.
On the other hand, in the construction of an open
channel, we can efficiently incorporate the most abundant local
resource, the manual labor of the beneficiaries in the form of
community volunteer service.
Thus, we proposed the alternative of an open channel
instead of the long tunnel to the Users’ Assembly, and they
accepted it. This
option also allows incorporating a few more communities as
beneficiaries and amplifying the zone of irrigation. Posterior geological investigations confirmed our suspicions
about the viability of the tunnel: it crosses, head-on, the
regional geological fault Peltetec, and its construction would
have been extremely risky and costly.
The previous study had also recommended paving the entire length of the canal with a thick concrete layer. Along the trajectory of the canal, the bulk of the construction materials needed for such a lining, sand and gravel, are very scarce, and the long hauling distances make the new, extended canal a prohibitively expensive item. That forced us to investigate alternative canal lining materials. We built experimental canal liners at two running watercourses, using highly compacted, sun-dried, soil-cement bricks, that employ the same soil to be excavated from the future canal. The first, installed in River Guamote, measures the resistance of the material to erosion, and the other, in San Vicente irrigation canal, measures its durability. The resistance to erosion of soil-cement blocks has been well proven, but the investigation on durability requires long-term observations.
Typically, concrete-lined canals are designed with a trapezoidal cross-section to facilitate the placement of concrete. However, soil-cement lining can be placed without difficulty in a semicircular shaped canal, which will also have better flow characteristics, reduced volume of excavation, and more importantly, will permit efficient use of unskilled manual labor during both the construction and the maintenance. Therefore, we recommend continuing with the investigations on the use of soil-cement lining, and using it for canal sections, where rock excavation is small and where the canal gradient doesn’t exceed its regular value, 1:1000. According to our preliminary estimates, this alternative in lining the canal would reduce the total project budget by approximately 30%.
Who decides where to irrigate?
In the prefeasibility study, only the valley plateaus or the gently sloping terrains were designated as the irrigable zone, strictly following the technical norms dictated by exINERHI. However, the reality doesn’t concur with rigid technical criteria: the farmers have other criteria, equally valid. “Cultivating in the plateau is very risky; at times freeze sets in and we could lose all. Moreover, those lands are too far from our homes. We want to grow and irrigate in medium sloping lots, closer to the village.” They sure have a long tradition of cultivating in slopes without losing the topsoil. For example, when they have irrigation water, they wouldn’t grow anything but pasture on steep slopes.
Therefore, we decided to let the farmer choose his best lots for irrigation, under the guidance of a technician. Each community is usually divided into several sectors, delimited naturally by stream-heads, and the members would have at least one lot in each sector. The cultivation capability varies significantly from sector to sector because of the topography and the soil type.
community leaders, we established an irrigation ranking among
the sectors, to facilitate the design of secondary and tertiary
canals. We included
a 25% margin in defining the design flow of tertiary canals, to
allow for future changes in lot preferences by the farmers.
We also considered the need to build reservoirs to store irrigation water at night, as irrigating at night is problematic because of the low temperatures and the steep gradients. However, the lack of sizable communal tablelands precludes building large storage tanks. Building group or family-owned small reservoirs (of 20 to 30 cubic meters) could solve the problem, and they could be constructed, to a great extent, using the resources of the farmers themselves.
Minimizing environmental impacts –
everyone shares the responsibility
The human population continues to
rise, and consequently, rises the demand for agricultural lands,
later tilled by machinery and cultivated with agrochemicals.
The animal population has also gone up dramatically.
The indigenous communities that surround the zone admit
their responsibility in the destruction; “Unlike in the old
times, the páramo continues to dry out and we are forced
to go higher and higher, year after year, seeking lands apt for
agriculture and pasture. What
other alternative we have?”
River Ozogoche has fed various irrigation projects and also a
hydropower scheme. Yet,
till now, nobody has a plan for conserving its upper catchment,
neither has offered viable economic alternatives to the
inhabitants there to stop further destruction.
If the current tendency continues, irrespective of
whether the irrigation project for Guamote is built or not, one
can visualize grave negative environmental consequences in
Ozogoche, in the near future.
It motivated us to convene, from the first days of the
Study, the representatives of all the inhabitants of the
catchment, of all the irrigation users and of all the
governmental and non-governmental organizations that are
interested in the issue, for a series of meetings, to analyze
strategies for upper catchment management, including the
possibility of channeling water use payments for environmental
protection. As a
result, a joint management plan emerged, that establishes
various economic alternatives for the indigenous population of
Ozogoche, like ecotourism, introduction of less destructive and
more profitable pasture animals, and improvement of pasture in
the lower, already impacted zone.
The benficiaries, in turn, should modify their role in
the zone, from rapacious destructors to conscientious guardians.
water intake structure and the transbasin canal would also cause
certain environmental damages to the area surrounding the River
and would bring certain inconveniences to the communities living
along the canal’s trajectory.
The first four kilometers of the canal lie within the
limits of Sangay National Park, and we designed the structures
trying hard not to tarnish that majestic landscape. At the kilometer 8 of the canal, we designed a short tunnel
to penetrate a rock outcrop, instead of carrying the canal
around it, which would have spilled excavated boulders on the
village center of Ozogoche Bajo, right underneath.
The canal crosses various gently sloping swamps, and to
prevent them being drying out, through those stretches, we
decided to dig the canal deeper and cover it.
Small footbridges, erected at every 250m along the full
length of the canal, would facilitate the passage of the farmers
and the animals over it. A
6m wide road would be built parallel to the canal, which would
provide access not only to the canal, but also to various
neighboring communities. When
the canal would have to cross very steep rocky slopes, we
adopted a minimum-width platform, in which the access road
climbs on top of the canal, now covered with a concrete slab.
This avoids tall, steep slope cuts, minimizing the risk
of future rock or mud slides, and also reduces the volume of
rock excavation. The
canal would also have a large number of spills and bottom
discharges, especially where it crosses large streams, that can
rapidly evacuate the water in emergencies, like canal rupture or
blockage due to slides.
irrigation zone, the canal would bring more benefits than
damages. With the
construction of the canal, the farmers could be persuaded to
limit the agricultural boundary at the altitude of the canal and
to take conservation measures in the higher plateaus.
With the irrigation water assured, they would be willing
to invest their meager resources in improving the productivity
of their parcels. They
admit the lack of soil conservation practices, reforestation
with native plants and product diversification.
To get the most out of their production, they also
request help in commercializing them.
Integrated solutions for the
We designed the Pilot Project to test various strategies in solving the long-standing problems that affect the irrigation zone, and we implemented it from the first days of the Study. In the communities that already have small irrigation canals, we put into practice a training program on different irrigation techniques. We used a small amount of financial help to improve their existing infrastructure, and through that, tried to reorganize and strengthen the administration of the same.
Six communities that reside in the catchment of River Atapo were persuaded to work together to build a common irrigation canal. The communal organizations that united to share that canal are also working together to preserve this valuable resource, by controlling the entry of pasture animals to upper catchment areas and planting native trees around water springs.
members pooled together soil, fertilizer and manual labor to
produce a great number of native plants at a central nursery,
which, later, will be divided among themselves, for replanting
in stream-heads and also for installing wind curtains in their
beneficiaries of Ozogoche waters have already begun skills
building programs that train them on soil conservation
techniques, preparing and applying organic fertilizer, and on
reintroducing a variety of traditional crops in their home and
school gardens. A
nutritionist helps them to incorporate locally available,
healthy and cheap foods to their daily diets to improve family
health. The Pilot
Project also provides assistance in improving the feeding
practices and the health of their productive animals.
As another aspect of improving the productivity of the
zone, a proposal on reorganizing the commerce of local products
in nearby markets was presented to the Municipality of Guamote.
We strongly recommend the Local Government of Guamote to
continue with the Pilot Project, with proper evaluations and
adjustments, to help the future users of Ozogoche waters
maximize their benefits.
economic evaluation with emphasis on social benefits
economic benefits the Project would bring include, the increase
in farmers’ earnings, the savings reflected by the reduction
in city migration of villagers and the reduction in family
health problems helped by better dietary practices.
The farmers’ incomes would increase because they would
invest more on their parcels with a guaranteed supply of water,
and the availability of training and technical advise would help
according to Andean indigenous living styles, one can’t
measure those benefits through rigid financial accounting
techniques, but through a careful evaluavation of gradual
improvements in their socioeconomic conditions.
Therefore, we decided to take into account the above
savings that reflect the reduction of indigenous family
A comparison of
the costs and the benefits of the Project, considering all the
different alternatives, like the two options for canal lining
and the use manual labor remunerated or as unpaid voluntary
community service, permitted us to deduce that the Project is
economically viable under every possible alternative. Its economic feasibility (reflected by the Internal Rate of
Return for the investment realized) improves considerably under
the option of soil-cement canal lining, built using voluntary
manual labor (IRR = 21.35%).
A future based on Andean economy
At other stretches, the river slides smoothly, exposing, under the brilliant sun, its multi-colored bottom full of algae that dance cabaret, paying homage to the visitors. For Ozogoche, famous for its freezing winds, gray skies and constant drizzles, this is a totally different day, indicating, probably, a birth of a different future.
We designed this Irrigation
Project betting on such a future, a brighter future with a
different economy; an economy where not the numbers and
formulas, but the Andean indigenous faces would dominate.
We wagered our hopes on: that a local government,
elected, directed and supervised by its people, like that of
Guamote, should have the capacity to lead and administrate the
construction of a development project so important for its
population; That the urgent need to supply irrigation water to
the suffering people of Guamote should have priority over many
other uses of the same waters; That despite the scarcity of
financial resources to completely fund the Project, their strong
communal organization and their fierce will and cooperative
discipline should mobilize other resources that would be
sufficient to successfully complete it.
If you would like to begin a discussion, please send me an email. Write to me
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