The irrigation projects transforming Peru’s produce prospects

Peru irrigation project expanding the agricultural frontier

The Olmos irrigation project in Lambayeque will open up agricultural land in Piura and Cajamarca too

Fernando Cilloniz governor of the Ica region in Peru
Fernando Cilloniz, the governor of the Ica region, has made resolving water shortages a key pledge

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The sustainability of the tremendous transformation that has taken place in Peruvian agriculture over the past decade is being supported by enormous investments in infrastructure projects, including initiatives to tap into water sources in the Andes mountains. Produce Business UK investigates the initiatives underway in Ica, Peru’s traditional fruit and vegetable growing area in the south, as well as Piura, Lambayeque and Cajamarca in the country’s rapidly emerging northern production zone

During his successful campaign to become governor of Peru’s southern Ica region, Fernando Cillóniz made resolving water shortages a key pledge to voters, including the many small- and medium-sized growers that populate an area famous for its Nazca Lines. Although coastal, the region is historically dry, being composed of sand dunes and plains that rise up to the beginnings of the Andean Cordillera. However, the development of modern agriculture and the resulting demand for water has rapidly become a problem for Ica, according to Cillóniz, with aquifers being overexploited and considerable pressure being placed on supplies.

“The agricultural sector is very modern, very competitive and is developing fast in Ica through the production of fruits and vegetables to such an extent that the level of subterranean water has decreased and we have to bring in more fresh water from other sources,” he explains.

It is also true to say, Cillóniz continues, that like many coastal regions and many other areas of the world, a great deal of water is lost during Ica’s rainy season, resulting in a need to take filtered water from the sea. Despite work to achieve the latter, Ica has still been left with an acute shortage of fresh water.

Such difficulties have led to efforts to channel water from other sources, at a considerable cost. Cillóniz has given his backing to two major projects in Ica that are focused on achieving just that.

At Huancavelica, excess water from the Pampas River, which runs to the Atlantic, is being transferred to farming areas, while water from the Pisco River, which heads to the Pacific, is also being diverted to aid growers.

The river projects are being supported by construction of a dam in the western Andes to conserve rainwater and make the water source available to producers during Ica’s dry season.

“We have to store and filter rainwater – having access to water all year round is a necessity for agriculture, and for fruit and vegetable production most of all,” says Cillóniz.

At an estimated cost of US$400m (£259m), the three-part project, which is currently in its initial stages, is expected to be completed by 2018. Once finished – all three are taking place in Ica province within Ica region – Cillóniz hopes that further, similar projects can be realised in the southern provinces of Palpa and Nazca.

“High quality, competitive fruit production requires access to water all year round, every day of the year,” he says. “I know this because my sons produce table grapes for export and the reality is that although you irrigate more at certain times of year and less at others, you never stop irrigating.

“We always irrigate, so we need access to water all year round. This is the case for everything, whether it be asparagus, avocado, grapes or citrus, that we export from Peru.”

In the case of Ica, asparagus and table grapes are the most important crops produced in the region by volume and Cillóniz says both are experiencing significant growth. To a lesser extent, however, the region also produces pomegranates, pecan nuts, peppers and onions, among many other products.

Despite the shortage of water, Cillóniz says Ica has continued to increase its fruit and vegetable exports; a trend which is encouraging producers of traditional crops in Ica, including cotton and maize, to switch to fresh produce.  

“It’s obvious that this process is unsustainable in the long term – we have to have access to more water to sustain this growth,” he adds.

First of its kind in the north

Further north, the province of Olmos in the region of Lambayeque close to the Peruvian border with Ecuador, is the setting for a recently-inaugurated US$580m (£376m) project encompassing irrigation and hydropower, aimed at bringing water to the dry Olmos Valley.

It is another project which featured close involvement from Fernando Cillóniz, this time in his former role as Chair of the Promotion Committee for the Public Land Auction of the Olmos Irrigation Project.

As Alfonso Pinillos, of the company behind the project, Odebrecht, explains, the completed initiative will irrigate and open up agricultural land for use, not only in Lambayeque, but also in the neighbouring regions of Piura and Cajamarca.

The Olmos project, says Pinillos, is the first of its kind to channel water from the Huancabamba River, which flows from the eastern Andes, eventually reaching the Amazon River.

The aim of the project is to divert the water through the construction of the Limón Dam and along the course of a 20 kilometre-long tunnel, which will run from the eastern to the western side of the Andes to eventually irrigate 5,500 hectares of land.

Realisation of this tunnel – the second deepest of its kind at a global level, which in places is 2,000 metres below the surface of the mountain – has, in the words of Pinillos, been a “colossal piece of work, a formidable project”.

This will be followed with the diversion of water through concrete tunnels to the 790m cubic metre capacity Palo Verde Reservoir and Dam, from where it will be used to irrigate an additional 38,000 hectares of land.

A second phase, not overseen by Odebrecht, will be the construction of hydroelectric power stations powered by waterfalls of up to 400 metres in height to generate electricity in the region.

Over the next five years, the initiative is expected to generate 40,000 new jobs directly and a further 120,000 jobs indirectly.

According to Pinillos, the total area to be irrigated by the project will cover 43,500 hectares in Olmos Valley, including an area farmed by around 500 small growers who previously only had access to water for three months of the year, and even then only in a sporadic manner.

Outside of the 5,500 hectares accounted for by the small farmers, the initiative has opened up 38,000 hectares of new agricultural land, which has been sold by public auction to domestic and international agroindustrial companies. These include Grupo Gloria, which plans to plant sugar cane over 11,000 hectares and build a sugar refinery.

Although to date only approximately 4,500 hectares of the 38,000 hectares – a little over 10% – have been sown with crops, major plans are in place for the valley. Around 800 hectares of avocados have already been planted by a local company partnered with US-based Mission Produce, while the region is also expected to produce large volumes of table grapes, peppers, asparagus and blueberries, among other products.

It may experience high temperatures, but unlike other equatorial regions, Olmos receives very little rainfall, typically around 100 millimetres a year. “We call the area a natural greenhouse because it has high temperatures all year round, but a dry climate, with little rainfall,” explains Pinillos.

“For this reason, we have been able to develop production of crops during some unique windows of opportunity and are able to supply the northern hemisphere at certain times of the year.”

“This project will give an opportunity to enter the market at distinct times with low cost, high quality products. If we compare the region with Chile for example, we are 3,000 kilometres further north and near to our destination markets,” adds Pinillos.

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