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Water Stewardship: Inspiring Leadership In Peru’s Ica Valley


OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest columns written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. In this article, Adrian Sym, Chief Executive of the pioneering Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) describes, with focus on the agri-export sector in Peru's Ica Valley, how a robust and credible standard for water sustainability is a framework behind which diverse stakeholders can unite and, with strong leadership, can help to plot a pathway through complex and contentious situations.

Since joining AWS in 2011, Adrian has overseen the development of the Alliance into the a truly global network that ignites and nurtures leadership in credible water stewardship. Adrian leads a globally-dispersed team of experts who support this work and ensure that lessons from local contexts are shared across the network, inform the ongoing development of the AWS Standard, and inspire responsible stewardship of our freshwater resources. A development and sustainability professional, Adrian has extensive international experience ranging from Fairtrade International in Germany to grassroots NGOs in Nepal and Bangladesh. His diverse experience, together with his academic background (Masters in International Policy and Diplomacy), has helped to shape Adrian’s view on sustainable development, believing that this can only be achieved through relationships built on trust and respect amongst and between stakeholder groups.

José Luis Camino runs Sun Fruits Export, a successful agro-exporting business in Ica Valley, Peru. As a major grower of table grapes, tangerines, avocados and blueberries, José Luis knows that year-round sunshine and favourable soil conditions are vital, but the most precious resource of all is the water that flows from the Andes Mountains into the Ica river and the region’s groundwater reserves.

José Luis’s business, and with it the employment of up to 2,000 people, depend on the sustainable management of Ica’s scarce water resources. The story of Sun Fruits is typical of many companies in Ica, fuelled by the ever-increasing demand for high-value export crops in Europe, North America and Asia. Data from Ica paints a picture of relative prosperity, compared to neighbouring regions of Peru, however this prosperity comes at a cost. There are long-standing concerns about groundwater levels and negative impacts on the upstream region of Huancavelica resulting from surface water transfers.
In 2010, Progressio published “Drop by drop: Understanding the impacts of the UK’s water footprint through a case study of Peruvian asparagus”, a report that was instrumental in capturing the attention of the mainstream media in Europe and raising questions about embedded water in international value chains. Further studies have added to this, notably Swedwatch which published “To the Last Drop: Water and human rights impacts of the agro export industry in Ica, Peru: the responsibility of buyers” in late 2018.
In Ica, as in many other locations worldwide, it is easy for an overall negative picture to obscure the positive action that many individuals and groups are taking to ensure the Valley’s sustainable future. General criticism tends to put everyone on the back foot, leaving little space for constructive and collaborative improvement.

As a globally consistent and stakeholder-endorsed framework, the AWS Standard helps to plot a pathway through such complex situations. Certification to the AWS Standard provides recognition for sites whose stewardship is "best in class". 

In December 2019, I had the opportunity to see first-hand how the Standard is helping to reconcile different interests in Ica. In contentious settings, the risk of taking positive action that involves greater transparency, and therefore potential criticism, can be very high. Taking the first step takes courage. It was inspiring to see the leadership of José Luis Camino and five other major growers in the region who have committed to seek AWS certification. Even in a location as apparently homogeneous as Ica, the actions adopted by different growers reflect their specific relationship with water. Sun Fruits’ water stewardship activities has a strong focus on access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for workers and local communities, building on their experiences in refurbishing a government-run wastewater treatment plant (pictured).
By contrast, Manuel Yzaga, CEO of Vanguard Peru, focuses on utilizing technology and data to improve water use on his Challapampa farm, and promoting all actors in Ica to share data, with the vision of achieving better integrated water management. Sun Fruits and Vanguard are improving their farms’ water use while, more importantly, bringing others with them by demonstrating that water stewardship makes good business sense and is vital for the prosperity of communities in a region as water stressed as Ica. This leadership and commitment to transparency and collective action has been brought into sharp relief by the way in which these and other AWS members have responded to community needs during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The AWS Standard lends itself well to supporting collective action. Growers in Ica are sharing their commitment with peers, both local and further afield. This is complemented by strong endorsement by local agencies of a stewardship approach, including the JUSAVI, the Ica Groundwater Board, the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and AGAP, the Peruvian Association of Agricultural Producers.

This type of constructive engagement is precisely the kind recommended by Swedwatch. It builds the trust and confidence needed to ignite local leadership and to break the negative cycle of blame. In a location that is so connected to international value chains, constructive engagement must also extend to international stakeholders.

AWS is engaging with supermarkets, importers, investors and NGOs to ensure their support for the work on the ground in Ica, and other sourcing hotspots in Latin America and beyond. Just as trust and confidence are needed locally, they are also essential for ensuring international stakeholders understand how they can best support water stewardship efforts. Shared learning helps to expand the scope of international interest and increase positive local impacts.

Water stewardship is no panacea, and the sustainability of water for the agri-export sector in Ica will need constant attention. But the experiences in Ica and elsewhere show that a robust and credible standard is a framework behind which diverse stakeholders can unite and, with strong leadership, can help to plot a pathway through complex and contentious situations.

The six growers in Ica who have publicly committed to pursue AWS certification are: Agrícola Chapi, Agrícola Valle del Sol S.A.C., Campos del Sur, Safco Perú, Sun Fruits Export, y Vanguard Perú.

AWS would like to acknowledge our partners who are supporting work in Latin America: Edeka, WWF-Germany, DEG (Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft mbH) and FMO (Netherlands Development Finance Company).

The AWS International Water Stewardship Standard (AWS Standard) is a globally applicable framework for major water users to understand their water use and impacts, and to work collaboratively and transparently for sustainable water management within a catchment context. The Standard is intended to drive social, environmental and economic benefits at the scale of a catchment.