By Tundi Agardy, Contributing Editor, MEAM. Email:

A recent trip to Peru, where I’m working with CAF (Development Bank of Latin America) to evaluate marine ecosystem services, gave me a whole new perspective on EBM planning. No, it wasn’t the rich Humboldt Current ecosystem and the many initiatives focused on it that caught my attention, nor was it the fishermen-turned-ecotour-operators on the north coast. Instead, I learned something about marine EBM by observing the pioneering efforts of Peru’s water authority, high up in Andean watersheds.

Thanks to landmark new legislation that creates a legal requirement for a portion of water tariffs to go to watershed investments, Peru is now embarking on a model effort to develop a master plan for green infrastructure. The master plan will identify places along the water corridors from Andean mountaintops to the Pacific coast that if protected or restored will help maintain water balance, water delivery, and water quality.

As one would expect, such areas include riparian buffers and wetlands, but they also include the ingenious pre-Inca canals and basins – amunas – that act to increase groundwater and aquifer recharge. Over centuries of urbanization and industrialization, these traditional water infiltration systems have been bypassed by gray infrastructure such as dams, drains, channels, and culverts. This gray infrastructure delivers water to cities, but it has also led to increased vulnerability to flooding and drought and uneven water supply. Now the ancient recharge systems, the amunas, are being revitalized by surrounding communities, incentivized by the innovative state-sponsored financing system.

Linking the gray and the green

As of this writing, 12 Peruvian utilities have assigned a portion of their tariffs to ecosystem services assessment, protection, and enhancement, and the remaining 38 are on track to do so in coming years. Utilities must engage in sound planning every five years to create schemes for subsidizing watershed restoration and management, and the national water utility SUNASS (Superintendencia Nacional de Servicios de Saneamiento) helps provide capacity to do so. The existing commitment of funds across the 12 utilities exceeds US$30 million, much of which is under the jurisdiction of SEDAPAL (Servicio de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado de Lima), the capital’s water utility.

Importantly, this is not just about state-subsidized master planning at the landscape scale. This is also about finding ways that natural or green infrastructure can safeguard investments in gray infrastructure like dams, canals, water delivery pipes, irrigation systems, and even roads. And perhaps more intriguingly, SUNASS is working with partners to identify ways that newly designed and built gray infrastructure can enhance green infrastructure, by creating the conditions needed for degraded habitats to restore themselves.

True EBM in the Andean highlands

Readers may wonder why their time is being taken up by stories of freshwater delivery to residents of Peru. But this story is one of EBM. First, it is a master planning and management system built on understanding and maintaining the linkages between different parts of an interconnected set of ecosystems. Second, it takes an ecosystem services perspective, directing management to protect and enhance nature’s benefits. Peru revitalizing ancient systems is not just about least cost solutions that also preserve cultural heritage, it is also about solving human needs by paying attention to how nature operates on a bigger scale. This ecosystem services approach is made possible by recent Peruvian legislation that allows for Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), including investments in watersheds like those described here.

The remaining central principles of EBM also apply. SUNASS – working with regional utilities as well as Peru’s Ministry of Environment, Aquafondo (Lima’s water fund), The Nature Conservancy, the local NGO CONDESAN (Consortium for Sustainable Development of the Andean Region), Forest Trends, and NASA – is developing a systematic strategy for identifying priority areas for protection and restoration. This strategy requires both an assessment of cumulative threats to ecosystem services delivery and a management plan that aims to fulfill multiple objectives. Finally, the master planning in five-year cycles creates opportunities for adaptive management that is responsive to changing environmental conditions and human needs. This will prove particularly important if – as many models predict – extreme weather conditions become more frequent.

Peru’s commitment to EBM is a model for watershed planners the world over. We in the marine community could well learn from the approach, and adapt it for use in coastal areas. And at some time in the future – when watershed master plans align seamlessly with marine master plans – we’ll be able to say with confidence that we have finally accomplished true EBM.

Read more about Peru’s green infrastructure work.