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Management of the hydrographic basins of the Andean region

Management of the hydrographic basins of the Andean region

By Walter Chamochumbi

The Cordillera de los Andes constitutes one of the most extensive geographical areas in the region and a common space in the problem of land use planning in the Andean countries. Its biogeographic configuration is highly complex and heterogeneous, as well as the spaces-territories that make up the hydrographic basins of its western slope.

Territorial dialectic and ordering criteria of the hydrographic basins of the Andean region

The Cordillera de los Andes constitutes one of the most extensive geographical areas in the region and a common space in the problem of land use planning in the Andean countries. Its biogeographic configuration is highly complex and heterogeneous, as well as the spaces-territories that make up the hydrographic basins of its western slope (those that are oriented towards the Pacific Ocean) and eastern (those that are oriented towards the Atlantic Ocean), presenting us a singular scenario - at the level of biophysical and social systems - for the analysis of their multiple interactions according to scales, times and maturation processes. Such processes respond to a particular territorial and ordering dialectic in the context of hydrographic basins.

Land use planning as an empirical and scientific practice


Land use planning constitutes a very old empirical practice that probably appears as the result of a spontaneous process during the formation of the first human societies.1 Various researchers point out that the rulers of the states and the political leaders of the different territorial jurisdictions have always carried out some kind of land use planning without knowing it or having exact awareness of it.2 Only in the first half of the 20th century, from the 1930s, as a reaction to the great capitalist crisis of 1929, in England but mainly in the United States. Together, land use planning emerges as a scientific practice integrated into political planning decisions. However, it also refers to the fact that the concept of land use policy -as such- was recently coined in France, in 1963.3

The history of land use planning in Latin America -as a scientific practice- appears late, after the Second World War, starting in 1945, and related to the theory of growth poles, until the end of the 1960s, in which is related to the model of industrialization by import substitution. In the 1970s, with the dependency theory, new questions appeared to this model; and later, starting in the 1980s, with the globalization process and the application of the neoliberal economic model, new elements and instruments for land use planning were incorporated and developed. Now, in Latin America, processes of territorial ordering have also been developed as a result of a very important empirical practice, which had a singular development at the Andean region level. This is due to the strong territorial linkage developed by the multiple cultures and ethnic groups that inhabited the region from before and after the Spanish conquest, and as a dynamic expression of the relationships of tension and permanent conflict that characterized their processes of occupation, adaptation and settlement in the complex Andean territory.4

Territorial dialectic and ordering of the Andean regional scenario

Numerous investigations corroborate that with the historical episode of the Spanish conquest, an endogenous process of territorial ordering of the Andean regional scene is abruptly interrupted and the dynamics of the multiple processes of occupation, adaptation and settlement that led up to then the different cultures and ethnic groups local. Highlighting in them the different ordering processes tested in the natural-social spaces formed by the hydrographic basins of both slopes of the Andean mountain range, and which highlighted a highly complex and heterogeneous territorial scenario in which successful management practices were achieved ( even in the midst of relations of tension and conflict of the various social groups in conflict, in addition to the variability of climatic-environmental factors). In this context, it refers to the fact that the impact of the Spanish Western rationality, which imposes its ethnocentric vision of occupation and management of the Andean space-territory, was of such magnitude that it significantly altered the central features of the Andean indigenous rationality (eminently agrocentric) and their cultural, socioeconomic and environmental structures and dynamics.

It is from these historical facts that later new events take place that would configure what some researchers have called the modern territorial crisis. With the evolution of the leadership assumed by the dominant cultures and social groups in the practices of territorial ordering, they correspond to very dynamic and unstable processes, because these have not always followed an invariable and ascending (progressive) time line, but have often followed uncertain processes, with periods of stagnation, progress and regression determined by political, socioeconomic and environmental factors, both internal and external. However, these constant changes and rearrangements of the territory can be better explained by the contradictions inherent in each territorial social process, and which have been understood within the framework of the so-called “territorial dialectic” .5 In this regard, the different articulation processes, The disarticulation (and rearrangement) of the different components of the territories are resolved as a consequence of the contradictions and tensions inherent to each process, at the level of natural events (such as some natural disaster) as well as social events (that is, in which the different groups Humans immersed in conflict regarding the management of territories play a role, both in their role of leadership and / or subordination).
According to the above, we can synthesize that the processes of territorial ordering in the Andean regional scenario, and in the particular sphere of hydrographic basins, respond to a territorial dialectic that supposes a scientific and empirical praxis in the process of analysis and intervention of their spaces, according to each context and scale of development. This practice is based on a holistic and systemic approach to basins, and refers to the use of quantitative and qualitative methods and indicators that integrate their different interaction components and apply sustainability criteria (mainly in the economic, social and environmental fields), and which also includes the elements of the local experience and dynamics of the different actors involved. And resulting in the design of policies, plans, strategies and management actions for change and in a comprehensive development perspective.6

The hydrographic basin: a problem-scenario for land use planning

Despite the fact that different authors perceive the hydrographic basin indistinctly as space and territory, being different but complementary terms, in general we can say that the hydrographic basin constitutes a physical space delimited by nature itself and mainly by the limits imposed by the zones. of surface water runoff (falls due to precipitation) and that converge towards the same channel forming what is known as the course of a river.


Strictly speaking, hydrographic basins suppose certain forms of association or interrelation of the different resources or components contained in their space (water, soil, flora, fauna, etc.), offering us certain environmental goods and services to satisfy human needs. In general, its biotic and abiotic components respond to a natural and social dynamic of continuous interaction but with different magnitudes, processes, results and impacts. In this sense, when non-integrated (dysfunctional) manipulation of any of its components occurs, it can define acute problems and conflicts in it. But, on the other hand, there may also be circumstantial benefits (usually not permanent) in another part of it. For example, the increase in rainfall that occurs in the upper part of the basin increases its aquifer reserve at the same time that it can cause damage in the lower part due to increased soil erosion or the occurrence of floods. In both cases, the benefits or damages produced by the function or dysfunction of any of the biophysical components of the basin can be (usually are) accentuated by anthropic action.7 In fact, human settlements and their road articulation networks, or the extractive productive activities (agricultural, mining, oil, etc.) that operate in the basin generate benefits but also problems of environmental irrationality (negative externalities).

Thus, for the best management of the different components of the hydrographic basins, we must have some criteria for land use planning. For this reason, at least in theoretical terms, we can consider that the basins constitute very interesting and apparently advantageous biophysical and social scenarios for carrying out tests of territorial modeling and gradual ordering of its different components from an environmental perspective of development. However, due to their dimensions and their structural and operational characteristics, they make them highly complex and heterogeneous scenarios, with different degrees of spatial-temporal difficulty to apply such criteria. Despite this, in its areas it is possible for us to identify and delimit territorial units with characteristics of biophysical homogeneity, with specific biogeoenergetic cycles and where it is also possible to zoning the activities of the different socioeconomic agents to define the conducive ordering criteria - in the short , medium and long term - towards its integral development. But notwithstanding the advantages that river basins can offer us to consider them as “units of analysis, planning and management” 8, they are not the only scenarios in which various actions of territorial ordering and development planning can be tested.

Some researchers argue that river basins can be considered as ideal spatial units (problem scenarios) for the study of all environmental impacts generated by human activities. In this sense, the comprehensive analysis of the territorial and environmental problems of the watersheds can enable an appropriate framework for the better planning of the measures aimed at correcting or mitigating negative environmental effects and impacts, and enhancing the positive ones. Thus, in a concerted planning process, it will be feasible to define objectives and goals of the possible uses of the territory according to its problems and potential. Within this framework, river basins should allow us to guide comprehensive management actions for their different components to meet the needs for goods and services of a society - in the short, medium and long term - but without exceeding their carrying capacities or affecting (or exhausting ) its stock of available natural resources.

Some basic criteria for applying the territorial planning instrument in hydrographic basins

A first criterion to consider is the diagnosis of the problems and potential of the watersheds. In other words, we must go beyond traditional diagnoses, which tend to focus only on the problem and with an eminently technical bias. On the contrary, what is required is to establish a technical-social baseline that integrates (from a holistic and systemic approach) the different components of analysis of the problems and potential of the basins, and that characterizes their characteristics and biophysical-social dynamics. , with attention to the economic, social and environmental fields. For example, if the hydrographic basin contains important water reserves, mineral deposits, oil or other natural resources of economic interest, it can be considered as a strategic space for intervention, both from the public and private sectors. Even so, this will not necessarily guarantee a rational behavior of its operators in the exploitation of these resources (and neither will it guarantee a rational use of the biophysical-social space for their exploitation). On the contrary, the economic value and the “style” of use (extraction) that is applied to one natural resource compared to another (for example, minerals versus water) can generate various territorial and environmental problems and conflicts with local populations ( what at the beginning we indicated as a criticality generated by the non-integrated manipulation of some of the components of the hydrographic basin). In this case, it is necessary to establish a diagnosis with an economic and ecological zoning that allows delimiting the natural capacities and the productive problems of the basin, assigning use value criteria not only of economic interest but also of social and environmental interest. As we know, in the Andean region, the hydrographic basins present an enormous potential of mineral resources, oil and gas, in addition to water resources and biodiversity, generating the highest expectations of the various sectors involved with their exploitation. However, most of these natural resources are found in the environment and / or in the territories occupied by indigenous and local populations. And in these cases, what mostly happens is that the logic of the extractive-commercial use value prevails in the exploitation of the natural resource without necessarily applying criteria of zoning and land management and environmental management in the field of operation. Nor are consultation and consultation mechanisms applied with those involved, generating multiple conflicts between economic agents and local populations (which almost always have high rates of poverty and little development). These aspects, among others, generate varying degrees of difficulty in approaching a harmonized process of territorial ordering of hydrographic basins.9

A second criterion, and related to the diagnostic processes, refers to the methods, tools and techniques that we can use to achieve greater precision in the characterization of the different components of the hydrographic basins (measurements, records, mapping, etc. .). In this sense, land use planning processes make use of the contribution of other disciplines, for example, applied geography, whose methods of computer-assisted mapping, use of mathematical simulation models, satellite photographs, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing systems, etc., are undoubtedly very important tools for the proper design of land use planning plans, and they also allow updating information almost in real time.

A third criterion is that the management processes of the hydrographic basins are oriented around a scenario of flexible and inclusive agreement between all the actors that - permanently or temporarily - are users of their different resources. For example, the pollution generated by mining activities and which is usually located in the headwaters of the basins affects the different water users in the upper, middle and lower parts. Mining waste produces a direct negative impact on the water resource (both in the main course that forms the river and its tributaries and in the napaphreatic that flows downstream); However, it also has an indirect impact on other associated resources (for example, soil, flora and fauna). So, if water is a vital resource of multiple uses and continuous throughout the basin and that articulates the development of different human activities, all its users should be aware of the benefits they receive. Thus, around this specific pollution problem, they should assume their responsibility and find the spaces for participation and dialogue among those involved to seek solutions. Even though most of the problems associated with the multiple uses of a single resource may be more feasible in a preventive manner, as in this case of water, in many cases the perception and highly differentiated interest of those involved makes it complex and difficult (yes perhaps it does not go so far as to preclude further progress.

A fourth criterion in the ordering of basins implies considering not only their geomorphological configuration (at the basin, sub-basin, micro-basin level), but also their mesh of legal-administrative territorial delimitation and the management systems that are superimposed on it from the political structures state. In this sense, there are other elements to consider: legal-administrative and social and cultural management and participation systems, because their not being considered in the diagnostic processes, in many cases have been decisive (by omission) of failures in the tests. of sectoral planning and land use planning policies. Thus, it is very important that any management plan at the basin level be harmonized with all the management systems that operate within them, in the case of provincial, district, regional and communal municipal systems and plans.

A fifth criterion is the scale and temporality, since it is important to define the area and the deadlines for the planning and land use planning processes. For example, if we talk about local development processes, there may be different instances of political-administrative management within a basin. Those that due to bureaucratic and hierarchical issues can overlap (one absorbs the other); Furthermore, government and sector plans are usually imposed without local plans or initiatives by communities and grassroots organizations being addressed, generating a scenario of tension and permanent conflicts in the basin. In the Peruvian case, there is the figure of the Autonomous Watershed Authority, as a technical-administrative entity that -in theory- has normative functions for territorial management and the administration of natural resources. However, it is a vertical, bureaucratic and dysfunctional entity to the needs of the users of the basin and that does not manage to articulate plans or major development objectives.10

A sixth ordering criterion is population density, because it is another parameter that influences decision levels and resource allocation for territorial management of basins. It is said that population density is a factor of incidence in the greater or lesser demand and pressure that the population can exert on the stock of available natural resources in the basins.11 Depending on the number of inhabitants per unit of surface, they can have different effects. forms in the environmental and development situation of the basin. Despite the fact that population density –at urban, peri-urban and rural level - is an important causal factor in the analysis of risks of producing negative environmental externalities in the basin, it is also important to point out that depending on the type of productive-extractive activity that is carried out in certain areas -to the upper, middle or lower parts of the basin-, can have a direct and even greater impact on the availability and quality of use of natural resources and on the balance of the ecosystems that support them. Consequently, the population density criterion can be a factor of second order of importance in the territorial and environmental problems of the basins compared to the techno-productive factor caused by the specific development of a productive-extractive activity (the case of agricultural activities , mining, oil, etc.). That is why it is very important to discriminate all the elements of causality and incidence in the territorial and environmental problems of the basin.

A seventh criterion, and related to population density, refers to the gender approach. This to the extent that the consideration of the social, cultural and ethnic dynamics present in the different human groups, implies understanding the different roles that women and men play with respect to the use, access and control of natural resources and the processes of territorial ordering. that lead -at different scales and times- in the hydrographic basins. In this sense, various studies show the important role that rural women play not only in the articulation of their family and community nucleus, which in itself demands enormous daily responsibilities in the face of the temporary migration of their husbands to other locations - well in the same basin or in others- in search of work and better opportunities, but also in the tasks they fulfill in the function of production and reproduction of ecosystems, as well as in the decision-making mechanisms for the better management of their local resources .

Finally, we clarify that with these criteria we have not tried to exhaust the subject, on the contrary, we know that there are other criteria that are also important to consider in any process of territorial ordering of a hydrographic basin. In this sense, we point out the importance of considering not only the technical aspects of the ordinance -as such- but also the new criteria and methods of social and cultural participation. In this regard, it is necessary to develop alternative instruments, such as participatory land management or community land management, which focus on the development of inclusion criteria, agreement and democratic and community participation through the use of flexible methods and techniques in the diagnostic and community processes. management of specific territorial problems, the particular case of indigenous and local communities in the Andean region.

(*) Mag. Ing. Agronomist, Consultant in Environmental Management and Development.

1 CÓRDOVA, J. AND ROUX, J.C. (1996)… “1st National meeting of Bolivian Geography” UMSA-ORSTOM, Minutes of the meeting of SEPT 25-29 1995, La Paz, p 105-125.
2 BASTIE, J. (1996)… ”Reflections on the planning of the territory”, Edic. GAEA, Nº 20, Buenos Aires, pp.7-29.
3 BOISIER, S. (1996)… ”Territorial planning and national project”, in ILPES Bulletin Nº 95/31, Edic. ILPES, Spain, 17 p.
4 See “Indigenous communities and their evolution in the process of territorial adaptation, resilience and endogenous development: theories and notes of the Latin American context”, essay by Walter Chamochumbi, 2006, Lima, 43 p
5 See "Andean Territoriality", by Alain Peigne, 1994, Andean School Works No. 13, CBC-Bartolomé de Las Casas, Cusco, 104 p.
6 See “Notes on Development, Environmental Problems and Land Management: a prospective approach relative to cases of local communities and indigenous populations in Latin America”, Walter Chamochumbi, 2005, Working Document, Oxfam America, Lima, p. 22-26.
7 See "Theory and methodology of environmental management of urban development", by Roberto Fernández, 1994, CIAM / FAU / UNMDP Postgraduate Course, Volume I, Publication of the Center for Environmental Research-CIAM, Mar del Plata, 97 p.
8 See "Public Policies for sustainable development: integrated watershed management", by Axel Dourojeanni, 1990, Ministry of Agriculture-INRENA Edition, Lima, 216 p.
9 In the Latin American context, the lack of foresight of most states regarding the establishment of national policy guidelines for land use planning is notorious, which leads to a situation of permanent contradiction between the development models that are applied by government agencies and the modeling of the territories in which they apply their policies. This is the case of the development of extractive activities of natural resources in the hydrographic basins of the Andean region, the case of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, among other countries, where improvisation, lack of political will and weak institutional mechanisms The existing ones do not allow for harmonized land use planning processes.
10 In the Peruvian case, there are approximately 53 hydrographic basins distributed along the entire western slope of the Andes mountain range, and although these present similar problems, the territorial planning processes require specific measures. To date, the Autonomous Authority of Cuenca has turned out to be a vertical and bureaucratic technical-administrative instance that has failed to promote important changes in the management of natural resources, much less from an environmental development perspective. There are various factors that explain such a situation, but it is evident that this figure must be changed and must correspond to the new water law in order to generate a dynamic technical-social entity that is functional to the needs of the local population, integrating the participation of all stakeholders. users of the basin.
11 The concept of “Population Density” refers to the characterization of human settlements in urban, peri-urban or rural populated centers that determine (exert) greater or lesser pressure on the carrying capacity of the artificial or natural ecosystem of the territories in which that are found.


Video: Drainage basin hydrological cycle (June 2021).