After a gripping five-hour drive, winding over skinny mountain roads through goat traffic, we arrive in the tiny town of Huamantanga (Fig. 1). The water that flows through this town eventually ends up in Lima, Peru, and Huamantanga is one of the first community partners to work with AquaFondo – Lima’s water fund. Like other water funds, AquaFondo works with rural communities to support watershed conservation and restoration to secure clean and ample water supplies for both up and downstream water users. It turns out the community of Huamantanga and the city of Lima have one major thing in common: they both face water shortages in the dry season.
Building on the work of a local NGO, Alternativa, AquaFondo, CONDESAN, and Huamantanguinos came up with two innovative solutions. First, they’re restoring ancient pre-Incan in ltration channels that the communty believes “seeds” water from the wet season to feed springs in the dry season (Fig. 2). And, second, they’re running an experiment to see if removing wild rodeo cows from their highland native grasslands (the puna) might help to restore the natural soil “sponge” that slowly releases water during the dry season.
We’re excited about water funds. They’re an example of an Investment in Watershed Services (IWS) project designed to improve downstream water resources by engaging upstream residents in watershed conservation, restoration, and sustainable management. We’re not the only ones excited about IWS projects – they’re becoming more and more popular around the world, especially in Latin America. We think that’s because they have a ton of potential for win-win solutions that provide water and improve livelihoods. On the other side of South America, Brazilian farmers have signed on to the Extrema and Guandu “water producer” projects not only because they, too, want less sediment in their water but because the programs provide income and offset the cost of riparian restoration.
But we don’t really know if IWS projects work. And we definitely don’t know if they are going to work as the climate changes. That’s in part because there are still a lot of unanswered scientific questions about hydrology and climate change in South American mountains. And it’s also because a lot of these IWS projects are only just beginning to measure and monitor their impact.
The trip to Huamantanga was part of a partnership with CONDESAN, the Natural Capital Project, AquaFondo, Huamantanga, The Nature Conservancy, and Forest Trends to help figure out whether these unique investments in natural infrastructure are working for ecosystems and people. The water monitoring focuses on two watersheds, measuring ow in one where rodeo cows will be removed and another where they will continue stomping around for a while longer. CONDESAN started collecting data before conservation activities started to establish a baseline and continue to collect data now that the cows have been rounded up. These datasets will help us determine whether those cows really do affect the amount of water available during the dry season (Fig. 3).
Although different than AquaFondo, the Extrema and Guandu projects in Brazil are starting to ask a similar question: will all this upstream conservation work improve hydrologic services important to people? Extrema, Guandu, and AguaFondo are among six IWS programs that have installed hydrologic monitoring programs. A few are even working to monitor social outcomes as well.
Working with these programs to help them understand the data they’re collecting and to learn more about the hydrology and climate of South American mountains in general is where ClimateWIse comes in. Our first step is to really dig in and understand what various water benefits stakeholders expect these programs to deliver. Next, we’ll use the growing pool of data to assess whether the programs are achieving these objectives. Finally, we’ll use models to understand how climate change will alter hydrologic outcomes of water funds and how these programs can use this information to increase their long-term effectiveness and resilience.
By linking with IWS programs in mountains across South America, we can learn a lot about how land use and climate change will affect water resources and, in the process, help improve the programs themselves (Fig. 4).
ClimateWIse: Climate-Smart Watershed Investments in the Montane Tropics of South America is a Belmont Forum funded project that will run from 2016-2019. Scientists from the University of Minnesota, the University of North Texas, the University of Sao Paulo, the University of Kassel, Germany and the Natural Capital Project will work to evaluate Investments in Watershed Services projects, right now and in the face of climate change. Find out more on our website.
Pictures by Leah Bremer.