Harnessing Ancient Water Wisdom Is The Best Way To Secure Our Future

Against the challenge of the climate crisis, Peruvian mountain communities are reviving ancient water systems to combat intensifying weather systems like El Niño. Community Voices Fellow Paloma Rodríguez explains why these lessons from the past are critical to facing the future.


The Peruvian Andes have long been home to Indigenous communities that possess a deep understanding of their natural surroundings. These communities have developed ingenious water management systems over centuries, enabling them to adapt to the region’s challenging climate conditions. As the climate crisis intensifies and the El Niño phenomenon becomes increasingly unpredictable, there is a pressing need to recognize and leverage the ancestral water technologies and knowledge of these Andean communities to build resilience and combat the adverse effects of environmental challenges.

What is El Niño?

El Niño is a recurring climatic phenomenon characterized by warming sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño changes atmospheric circulation patterns in the ocean, affecting weather around the globe. The Peruvian Andes, particularly the coastal regions, are highly vulnerable to the severe consequences of El Niño events, which include heavy rainfall, flooding, and landslides. In Peru, Coastal El Niño in 2017 left more than 100 people dead, and in the north of the country, work is still in progress to repair the damage it caused. By 2024, authorities have predicted a moderate to strong coastal El Niño. In addition to the human losses and damage to infrastructure, this type of phenomenon directly affects agriculture by reducing crop yields. In this sense, rural communities become the most vulnerable actors amid these eventualities. These impacts pose significant risks to the livelihoods and well-being of the local communities.

Ancestral water technologies as climate crisis solutions

The Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Andes possess invaluable knowledge of water management and conservation techniques passed down through generations.

These ancestral water technologies are based on a profound understanding of the local ecosystem, hydrological patterns, and the interplay between humans and nature.

By recognizing and revitalizing these traditional practices, we can find effective climate change adaptation strategies in the face of El Niño and other environmental challenges.

Some of these ancestral technologies are:

      1. Water harvesting systems. Indigenous communities have developed intricate water harvesting systems, such as the construction of andenes (terraces) and canals, like the ones in Yauyos, Lima, to capture and direct water from mountainous areas. These systems effectively regulate water flow, prevent erosion, and enable sustainable irrigation practices. Implementing and improving these techniques can help mitigate the impacts of erratic rainfall patterns associated with climate change events.

      2. Mountain spring management. Understanding the hydrological dynamics of mountain springs is crucial for ensuring water availability throughout the year. Indigenous communities have long practiced the protection and preservation of these vital water sources, employing techniques such as reforestation, natural filtration systems, and controlled water distribution networks. By safeguarding and expanding these practices, we can secure a reliable water supply during droughts caused by El Niño.

      3. Indigenous knowledge and climate forecasting. Some communities have developed their own observation-based climate forecasting methods, which can complement scientific predictions. Knowledge of astronomical observation in the Andes continues to play a fundamental role in the planning of agricultural activities today, based on the prior determination of the greater or lesser availability of water in the mountains. Integrating these systems into modern meteorological models can enhance the accuracy of El Niño forecasts and provide early warnings for communities to prepare and adapt effectively. This collaborative approach recognizes the value of Indigenous wisdom while promoting scientific advancements.

      4. Community-based adaptation. Ancestral water technologies are deeply rooted in community cooperation, with collective decision-making processes and shared responsibilities. These systems foster social cohesion and resilience in the face of environmental challenges. By empowering local communities and involving them in planning and implementing adaptation measures, we can ensure the sustainability and effectiveness of these initiatives.

Locally led success

The Instituto de Montaña, nestled in the heart of the Peruvian Andes, has been diligently working to breathe new life into ancient water management technologies and knowledge. RETAMA is a vivid example of this.

RETAMA is the Spanish acronym for Restoring Ancestral Technologies and Water Management. The aim is to disseminate effective solutions for revitalizing traditional water management techniques. This involves forming a network of experienced Indigenous leaders involved in restoration projects. Over time, these nature-based approaches can be shared across Andean communities and beyond. By collaborating with local communities and drawing from ancestral wisdom, the network has worked on research and restoration projects to rehabilitate intricate canal systems, terraced fields, and reservoirs that once thrived in these high-altitude landscapes.

For example, the Carania Community in Yauyos, Lima, decided to restore the Anta ancestral canal. To do this, the community gathered and organized communal workdays to clean and replenish 1.5 kilometers of the canal. Now, the community is expecting to receive more donations to achieve the goal of restoring the remaining 7.5 kilometers.

Contrary to popular belief, restoring dams or ancestral canals proves to be a significantly more cost-effective approach than constructing a modern concrete dam. Moreover, besides fulfilling the water requirements of communities, this method also helps to preserve valuable tangible and intangible heritage.

Thanks to donations to support this work through Instituto de Montaña’s GlobalGiving project, the communities of Miraflores in Lima and Pamparomas in Ancash are carrying out a process to identify the water technologies they want to recover.

There is still time to look to the past and save our future

In the Peruvian Andes, where the impacts of climate change and El Niño are increasingly felt, the revival and integration of ancestral water technologies are vital for climate change adaptation. Recognizing the wisdom of Indigenous communities and their adaptive strategies can bridge the gap between traditional knowledge and modern scientific approaches, ultimately leading to more robust and sustainable solutions. By working hand in hand with these communities, we can build resilience, protect livelihoods, and secure a more sustainable future for all.

It is imperative that we harness the power of ancestral water technologies to navigate the challenges of the climate crisis and the unpredictable El Niño phenomenon. Efforts like the RETAMA network are a great example of how sustainable mountain development is best achieved when it is in the hands of mountain people.

Paloma is a Communication Specialist for Instituto de Montaña. Support her work to help mountain communities in Peru prosper.


About Community Voices:

GlobalGiving’s Community Voices fellowship aims to elevate and amplify the ideas of nonprofit partners in the GlobalGiving community. Six change leaders from Afghanistan, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, and Tanzania share their perspectives on challenges affecting our world and the solutions that exist in their communities. Each leader has embarked upon the eight-month fellowship with support from GlobalGiving and The OpEd Project to elevate their underheard, yet vitally important, viewpoints. Read more from Community Voices Fellows.

Featured Photo: 7 Communities Respond to Glacier Loss in Peru by Asociacion Instituto Andino de Montana

Looking for something specific?

Find exactly what you're looking for in our Learn Library by searching for specific words or phrases related to the content you need.

WARNING: Javascript is currently disabled or is not available in your browser. GlobalGiving makes extensive use of Javascript and will not function properly with Javascript disabled. Please enable Javascript and refresh this page.