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Peru’s water, UK’s asparagus

Large-scale production of a luxury vegetable for European tables risks a water disaster in the dry Ica valley, an NGO warns. Felicity Lawrence explains the human impact of Britain’s reliance on “virtual water”.

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Asparagus grown in Peru and sold in the United Kingdom is commonly held up as a symbol of unacceptable food miles, but a report has raised an even more urgent problem: its water footprint.

The study, by the development charity Progressio, has found that industrial production of asparagus in Peru's Ica valley is depleting the area's water resources so fast that smaller farmers and local families are finding wells running dry. Water to the main city in the valley is also under threat, it says. It warns that the export of the luxury vegetable, much of it to British supermarkets, is unsustainable in its current form.

The Ica valley is a desert area in the Andes and one of the driest places on earth. The asparagus beds developed in the last decade require constant irrigation, with the result that the local water table has plummeted since 2002 when extraction overtook replenishment. In some places it has fallen by eight metres each year, one of the fastest rates of aquifer depletion in the world.

The UK is the world's sixth largest importer of "virtual water", that is, water needed to produce the goods it buys from other countries, according to the environmental organisation WWF. Much of the UK’s thirst is directly related to the boom in high-value food imports in recent years. The market in fresh asparagus is typical; it barely existed before the end of the 1990s. Now the UK is the third-largest importer of fresh Peruvian asparagus, consuming 6.5 million kilogrammes a year.

Peru, meanwhile, has become the largest exporter of asparagus in the world, earning more than US$450 million a year from the trade. Around 95% of that asparagus comes from the Ica valley.

The expansion of the agricultural frontier in the region was made possible thanks to multimillion-dollar investments by the World Bank from the late 1990s on. In just 10 years, asparagus cultivation has exploded to cover nearly 100 square kilometres of reclaimed desert. Some of the largest producers have received loans from the World Bank's commercial investment arm totalling US$20 million or more over that period. The trade has created around 10,000 new jobs in a very poor area, contributing significantly to Peru's growth, but it has already provoked conflict. When a World Bank executive went to investigate complaints about the water shortages in April he was shot at.

"The water tragedy unfolding in this region of Peru should set alarms bells ringing for government, agribusiness and retailers involved in Ica's asparagus industry," said Progressio report author Nick Hepworth.

The report accuses supermarkets and investors, including the World Bank, of failing to take proper responsibility for the impact of their decisions on poorer countries' water resources. "We need action now to ensure water is used sustainably in Ica and beyond," said Hepworth.

Two wells serving up to 18,500 people in the valley have already dried up. Traditional small- and medium-scale farmers have also found their water supplies severely diminished.

Juan Alvarez's experience is typical. His family has farmed the Ica valley for four generations. He employs 10 people through the year, with up to 40 jobs for workers in peak asparagus season, but he says those livelihoods are under threat.


Farm workers harvesting asparagus in an irrigated field in Peru.
Photo by phoosh

The wells on his farm used to hit water at 55 metres and he could pump 60 litres of water a second from them. Now some have dried out and where there is still water he has to drill down to 108 metres and can extract only 22 litres a second even at that depth.

Alvarez told researchers: "Agro-exporters came with new government policies and tax exemptions. They bought water rights and started buying wells very far away. They have created jobs and that's important, but the reality is they are depleting the water resources and when the water is gone, they will leave. But what future is there for us? We will never leave."

For smaller farmers the crisis is even more acute. Elisa Gόmez and her family own a small farm next to one of the largest asparagus exporters and have to buy water for irrigation from the local canal, but the industrial production has made it hard to survive. "We pay for water for 15 days twice a year. But the soil is not as productive as before and dries out in just three days. Now the land is so dry the water drains away much faster."

The rights to the wells in their part of the valley have all been sold to the exporter. "Those of us who didn't sell land suffered water shortages, so many people were forced to sell anyway. The exporters just wait for people to get tired and sell them cheap dry land," she said.

The large-scale exporting companies are not immune from the crisis of over-extraction either. They are facing rising costs for their water. They have been deepening existing wells, buying up old ones from neighbouring land and piping water across huge distances. Some also are alleged to have got round a ban on new wells by paying off officials.

One of the largest and most modern of Peru's fresh asparagus producers, which supplies 18% of exports to the UK, spoke to Progressio researchers anonymously. The producer has received loans from the World Bank's lending arm. Its chief executive said that the water levels in some wells were falling by as much as two metres a year. All its wells are licensed and legal, but he said regulation was weak and there was no inspection of what people extracted.

"Peru provides the world with the best example of how to mismanage water. We desperately need to rationalise water use in the Ica. We are spending huge sums just to survive."

He argued that big businesses such as his were at the forefront of science to use water efficiently but traditional farmers used water carelessly.

Competition for diminishing global water resources is emerging as one of the most pressing concerns for business as well as development organisations. Leading retailers have told The Guardian privately that water shortages in the areas where they source fresh fruit and vegetables out of season are at the top of their list of priorities when they check how sustainable their businesses are.

The water shortages on Peru's Pacific coast are expected to get worse as climate change shrinks the Andean glaciers that feed the Ica river system.

Promoting food for export has been a key plank in World Bank policy for developing countries. Its investment arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), said in a statement that it aims to promote sustainable development through investment in private sector companies, which it requires to commit to minimising their water use: "We define sustainability as providing economic growth opportunities for the poor and protecting the environment and the rights of vulnerable communities."

How far the policy helps the poorest in those countries remains a subject of fierce debate among international development experts. Progressio is not calling for an end to the asparagus export business. "The area relies on asparagus for employment. We are not saying the trade itself is wrong but supermarkets and investors have to take responsibility for finding more of a balance," said Petra Kjell, an environmental policy officer.

We asked the leading UK retailers to comment but only two were able to do so in the time available. Marks & Spencer said: "We have a range of responsible water-use projects under way and have strengthened our farming standards to include greater focus on water efficiency." 

Tesco said: "We are pleased that Progressio has highlighted Tesco's role in raising industry standards in water management in areas such as the Ica valley. We have a strong record in this area and our Nurture standard is regularly reviewed and improved. We acknowledge there is more to do and so we are continually working with our suppliers to help them minimise their environmental impact, including water use."

Names of farmers have been changed.


Case study

Alicia Flores and her family live in the village of Callejón de los Espinos in Peru's Ica valley. Each house in the village normally receives water for about one hour, three times a week.

They used to get two hours' water four times a week, but about four years ago the water pressure dropped off dramatically, as agricultural exporters extracted more and more groundwater. Then the 2007 earthquake exacerbated the problem by damaging infrastructure. Now, when the water is on, the family is only able to collect half the amount of water they used to, so they are reduced to 10 litres of water per person, per day. The World Health Organisation says a person needs five times that amount to maintain health.

Like most people in the village, Alicia's husband works for the asparagus exporters. They say the working conditions are good but pay and benefits have been cut since the global economic crisis.

"We have seen water pressure dropping in the past years since the agro-exporters came, but if the water runs out and they leave, we will have no work and no water. What will happen to our children then?" asked one villager.

Names have been changed

http://www.guardian.co.uk

Copyright © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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评论 comments

Default thumb avatar
gaidee

地下水最终到哪去了?

虚拟水或者隐含水是个复杂的概念,没几个人明白。咱们看看这个案例。沙漠地区缺水,所以井越大越深,抽出来的水用于浇灌,除了部分水进入了农作物外,其它的都蒸发掉了,进入大气,然后到哪儿去了呢?是进入了大海,变成了海水不动了,还是又有部分被蒸发,重新循环了呢,还是怎么着?我总是觉得,这部分的水少了,地球上的某个地方的水会多了,可惜,不是这部分水的老家。不知哪位专家可以解释一下,这到底怎么回事,以及如何解决问题。

Where does underground water go in the end?

Virtual water or hidden water is a complex concept which not many people know about. Let us look at this case. Desert areas lack water so wells become bigger and deeper; extracting the water they have for irrigation. Apart from the share of water that goes into farm crops, the rest evaporates into the atmosphere – then where does it go? It goes to the ocean and becomes motionless sea-water. There is still a portion that gets evaporated and is recycled, or whatever? I always think, as the water becomes less in one place, it increases in another spot on earth – it’s just a shame this place isn’t home to the water.
Any expert could explain to us what, after all, is going on and how we can solve this problem?

Default thumb avatar Reply arrow
bingo

虚拟水的意思是

虚拟水,就是在生产用来贸易的产品的过程中,消耗的水。
本文中,秘鲁的芦笋是对英国出口的。种芦笋,加工芦笋,直到形成可以出口的带有包装的芦笋的整个过程用的水,就是虚拟水。

The meaning of virtual water

Virtual water is the water used up from the process of producing products for trade. In this article, Peru's asparagus is exported to the UK. The water used in the whole process of planting the asparagus, processing the asparagus and packaging the asparagus, is virtual water.

Default thumb avatar
gaidee

水呢

用的水区哪了呢?我们有能量守恒定律,有水量守恒定律嘛?如果没有,那么关系如何?盼复。

Water

Where does the used water go? We have energy conservation laws, do we have water conservation laws? If not, where is the relationship? Look forward to your reply.

Default thumb avatar
paulwenman

这题跟中国有什么关系?

这是很重要的话题,但是为什么在这儿把它提出来,还有为什么要关注英国?当然我们应该把精力集中在中国水源的糟糕状态吧?

What has this got to do with China?

This is an importnat issue, but why raise it here and why the focus on UK? Surely there should be a focus here on the horrendous state of China's water resources?

Thumb original linden photo
linden.ellis

环境比中国更大

中外对话网站上的大多读者认同中国存在环境问题,从南到北的中国土地上及外国的虚拟水问题正是其中之一。我认为这样一个双语的平台很有意义,让我们分享观点,也了解到,受环境问题困扰、寻求解决方案的国家不止中国一个。英国的案例对于中国的读者具有参考价值,帮助他们思考如何处理国内的类似问题,或者寻求国际合作。这个网站是讨论环境问题的绝佳平台,这么说的原因是一些事件只可能在中国发生。——Paulwenman

董鹤冰译

The environment is bigger than China

Paulwenman - Most readers of this site recognize that China has environmental issues and that "virtual water", both north to south in China and beyond China's borders, is one of them. I think it is productive to share on a bilingual forum that China is not alone in experiencing these issues, or in searching for solutions. How the UK deals with this issue might be relevant to Chinese readers thinking about how to deal with it at home, or might help them think of international partners to work with. I think this is the perfect place for that discussion, especially since the story is probably not available in Chinese anywhere else.

Default thumb avatar Reply arrow
gaidee

更大,更难

就可耕地面积来说,中国是一个小国家。然而,环境灾难的后果越发严重了。交流的目的在于发送讯息后能够得到反馈,然而,在中国,我们得到的有实质意义的反馈太少了。众所周知,中国人在课堂上很安静,但是在饭桌上就没那么安静了。

Bigger, and bitter

China is a small country in terms of arable land area, but the environmental disaster is bitter and bitter. The aim of communication is to send out the signal with a possible feedback. However, we get too little significant feedback here in China. As we all know, Chinese people are always silent in classrooms, but they behave the opposite when sitting at a dinner table.