Astrid Andersen – University of Copenhagen

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Waterworlds > Letters from the Field > Astrid Andersen

Astrid Andersen

Arequipa, Peru

august 2011

From the minibus that takes me from the city center to 1ro de Junio (1st of June), the neighborhood where I am focusing parts of my fieldwork, I look towards the volcano Chachani and see a big grey cloud of dust covering the “skirts” of the snow peaked volcano, as well as the urban neighborhoods that slowly crawl uphill as the city grows in population. I step out of the minibus and as I walk the last meters uphill, I have to cover my eyes, nose and mouth in order not to swallow the dust that is whirling around in the blowing wind.
In Arequipa in Southern Peru, August is the month of winds, and up here, where most streets haven’t yet been asphalted; the wind lifts big amounts of dust with it.

Yet, life looks like any other morning in 1ro de Junio. Women are walking with their uniformed kids, bringing them to kindergarten or school. On a street corner, Marta has set up a table from where she serves quinoa with apple, soups, and other breakfast dishes for people to buy. Further up the street, at the public water taps (piletas públicas), women and a few young men are lining up to fill buckets for their daily water use.

 “It is always windy in August, but we don’t suffer as much from it as we used to. It seems the buildings and the asphalting of the main road has calmed the dust,” states Señora Celia while filling her plastic buckets. When a bucket of 18 liters is full, she quickly puts another one under the tap and its thin flow of water. When her 8-12 buckets are full, she packs 5 to 6 of them on a wheelbarrow and starts pushing it uphill, approximately 25 meters to her home. Sometimes I help her push. Celia suffers from arthritis and the daily pushing and carrying of water from the public tap to her home, provokes pain.

In the lower part of 1ro de Junio, the households do have water connections, yet water only comes for a few hours every day. 120 households in the upper part of the neighborhood don’t have water yet, which means that the neighbors everyday have to stand in line at one of the 15 public taps in order to get water for their daily use. The neighbors that use the public water taps are organized in a water committee, which is in charge of securing daily water supply; receiving payment for water use, organizing faenas, collective reparations of pipes and cleaning of the water tank. Also, the committee controls that the neighbors are using the water properly.

The women at the tap are complaining; they want water connections to their houses, they are tired of carrying their buckets between their home and the public taps everyday. 1ro de Junio was formalized as an Asociación de viviendas, a housing association more than 15 years ago. Although the neighbors are discontent with the present water situation, they do remember worse times: “In the beginning, there was no water. We had to buy water from people in neighborhoods further down, until Sedapar (the public drinking water company) installed one public tap. But water only came from 1 to 6 a.m., and we all had to get up at night to stand in line for our water. There were always fights about the water; who had come first, who took more than needed… Now at least we have a tap at every street corner, but we have all worked hard to get it; the regional government constructed the reservoir and the plant, but we had to put the pipes from the reservoir to every neighborhood”, Isabel recalls. She is president of the water committee. In 1ro de Junio, as in many other new urbanizations in Arequipa, water scarcity is not a consequence of climate change and melting glaciers. Rather, it is a product of lacking public services and complicated geography for water supply.


My fieldwork in Arequipa is focusing on water (scarcity) and climate change. When I arrived six months ago, I set out to learn about the anatomy of water; I spent time “mapping” the different kinds of water systems that run through the city; the material structures as well as the social organization around them. Pipelines, water treatment plants and reservoirs for drinking water; systems of wastewater; canals for irrigation of cultivated land; canals for rainwater; the hydraulic infrastructure of dams that store millions of cubic meters of water during rainy season up in the highlands, far from the city. How this water is released into the river Chili in very measured volumes, in order to supply the different demands of use in the city: generation of electricity, agriculture, population use, industry and mining.
Following this anatomy has made me move between different levels and get to various “water-spaces” in this urban context. The implementation of the new general water law, institutional practices of water, logics of control, social inequality, politics of water, and encounters between different practices and kinds of knowledge are some of the central themes on my ethnographic path in Peru’s second largest city.

I follow some daily doings of various institutions and organizations that work with water management in Arequipa. The National Water Authority (ANA) has two offices in Arequipa. From these, the implementation of the new water law is planned and done. Many workshops are carried out, especially with Arequipa’s many irrigation commissions. In these workshops the water authorities hand out exemplars of the law and they explain farmers what the new law means for their access to, managing and control over water.


Also I accompany Sedapar, the public drinking water company of Arequipa, and the regional Authority of Environment in a campaign called “Water, essence of life” in public schools. In this encounter between students and public institutions, students are sensitized about the importance of environment, the value of ecological diversity in Peru, the impacts of contamination, the importance of water in the world, the melting of the glaciers, future scarcity and world wars about water. Also, the students are explained the process and the costs of treating drinking water and given advise about how to use less water. The objective is to “change attitudes towards the Earth and environment”. 

Water and water management is complex matter everywhere in Peru, and Arequipa is no exception: a fast growing city in an arid region, with many different uses and users of water, each with different interests, making conflicting claims.

Sometimes the theme of water collides with the theme of climate change, many times it doesn’t. For many of the engineers in the National Water Authority, climate change is not an issue; many of them see climate change as something that NGOs have come to put on the agenda, and they argue that the predictions of a future lack of water is exaggerated and alarmist, that the cycles of precipitation have always varied, and that securing water for future economic and social growth in Arequipa is a question of constructing more dams. Other engineers, mostly employees of NGOs and activists do see climate change as an occurring fact, and they critique the fact that climate change only is taken seriously by very few actors, and only at a discursive level.

In 1ro de Junio, the neighbors have noticed that the climate has changed during the last years. It is normal to hear comments like “The climate is crazy” (El clima está loco) or “The climate isn’t well” (El clima está mal). It affects people’s health; children suffer more from cough and influenza than they used to, because of shifting temperatures. When I ask for the causes of the changing climate, people answer in different ways, the most common are: contamination, the world is coming to its end, or simply they don’t have an idea of the causes. 

There are many conflicting voices and claims when it comes to water, but all seem to agree on one thing: water is life – agua es vida!

Greetings from Arequipa,
Astrid