The importance of local knowledge in finding resilient solutions to environmental problems

Contributor: Pablo Fernández

Lavalle is a rural district situated in the north east of Mendoza, Argentine. Surrounded by beautiful desert landscapes this place has, for many years, been home to the Huarpes, one of the last remaining aboriginal communities of the region of Cuyo, in the foothills of the Andes. Grouped in small, distant villages, these people received, a few years ago, official recognition from the government to apply and live under their own communitarian rules as a measure to protect cultural heritage.

For generations the Huarpes have adapted their traditions to thrive, fighting against chronic water shortages and limited vegetation with tenacious ingenuity. Consequently, they have learned to develop under harsh conditions far away from urban areas, and have developed remarkable strategies to increase their resilience to the inclement weather conditions. The value of the Huarpes’ knowledge is not lost on local decision makers. Lavalle’s municipal officer Oscar Chacón underlined this saying; “they know very well the desert, that’s why we always listen what they have to say”. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone at the District office that would disagree with that sentiment.

Nevertheless, in recent years, Huarpes communities have struggled to adapt to climate change. Heat waves and droughts have become even more frequent, sounding the alarm for the communities and exposing the fragility of their position. The fact remains that even well-adapted communities such as the Huarpes struggle when water courses run dry. Many in the community have been forced to sacrifice some of their animals and irrigate their crops with potable water.

The community’s resilience has been increased by maintaining close connections, and good relations with local authorities. Pablo Termini from the City of Lavalle Environmental Service Department explained that “We knew [the Huarpes] were having problems, they came to us and we started to work together. We helped to build some channels to direct water surpluses from two main rivers – The Mendoza and The San Juan.”

If we don’t have cold winters and there is less snowfall in the Andes Mountains we have water supply problems throughout the summer. Mendoza’s rivers are mostly fed by snow melting so if we don’t have snow, the streams run dry” he continued. Water supply is problematic for rural and urban areas alike. As the water reaches suburban areas it is channelled along an intricate canal network from west to east, serving both rural and urban communities. Those further from the sources are often short of water especially if communities lie beyond agricultural areas where large quantities of water is used for irrigation.

The rural district of Lavalle is one such area; far away from the mountains watercourses serve only the regions’ urban areas. Water availability in the rural areas of the district, is extremely poor, posing considerable challenges for communities engaged in crop farming and caprine (goat) husbandry. A few years ago the situation for the Huarpes became so severe that, local newspapers published disturbing images showing the consequences for the local communities. Severe water shortages had given rise to severe undernourishment and forced slaughter of farm animals. The images caused a public outcry and resources were mobilised to assist the district.

However, the problem of water scarcity in Mendoza remains complex. Managing competing interests is becoming increasingly difficult as resources reach critical scarcity. Mr Tremini explained that the physical adaptation measure was not sufficient to solve the water scarcity problem completely, saying “we had a lot of problems, even water stealing incidents. Some farmers opened the lock-gates to irrigate their lands in detriment of more distant settlements”.

The Huarpe community of Laguna del Rosario decided to take proactive action to increase their resilience. They collaborated with the government in an effort to find an effective solution that would work for all water users in the region. Municipal representatives and community leaders started to work together to design simple strategies to resolve water supply issues.

Their combined efforts eventually led to a workable solution that was grounded in the cultural heritage of the Huarpe community. For many years the Huarpes have learned to identify underground watercourses, observing especially wet areas during the infrequent rainy periods. By identifying these ancient watering holes in the desert, plans to create a network of natural springs were put together.

Using the Huarpe’s know-how, municipal engineers started to dig 1-2 m diameter holes along river watercourses. The first “aguadas” (waterholes) steadily changed the arid soils and became water sources for farmers’ animals. In less than two years 12 waterholes were uncovered in Laguna del Rosario.

The Huarpes are acutely aware of the significance of the impacts of climate change on their livelihoods. They know that it will keep forcing them to struggle against extended dry seasons and water-related problems in the years to come. But they show a positive attitude. As one of them said to me just before I left Lavalle “we don’t need a lot of money to resolve our problems, we – the Huarpe people – just need genuine governmental support to acclimatise and keep developing our villages, after all, these are our lands”.

The “aguadas” have helped increase the resilience of isolated rural communities, the experience of the Huarpes underlines the importance of collaboration and seem to be a really good idea to fight against desert water supply problems. In this case, innovative solutions to environmental problems have their roots in ancient techniques and cultural knowledge.

Pablo Fernández is a biologist and development practices consultant, dividing his time between living in Paris and Latin America. Pablo is experienced working in environmental education, CSR and projects development, with a large variety of non-governmental and private organizations in several countries. As an international consultant, climate change is one of his top concerns. He teaches courses on environmental sensibilization, climate change and development practices. 

Find him on Twitter: @pabfernan / Or online:

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