Interview with Sergio Martos Rosillo from the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain

The expert spoke about ancestral systems for water management in Latin America and its benefits for global challenges such as the climate emergency. In this way, UNESCOSOT launches its interactive podcast series in which it looks for disseminate science around sustainability.


Barcelona, February 8


On December 11, 2020, the UNESCO Chair on Sustainability launched the Call for Good Practices in Ancestral Hydrotechnologies for Climate Emergency. A project that looks for revalue the intangible cultural heritage of native peoples.


Within the framework of this event, we invited Sergio Martos Rosillo from the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain with whom we pursue to expand concepts related to Ancestral Ecotechnologies and highlight their work around the project "Planting and Harvesting Water in Protected Natural Areas".


What are the most representative characteristics of the ancestral systems for water management in Latin America?


The diversity of water management systems in Ibero-America is very ample, so its characteristics are also very ample, and, especially, in areas with arid and semi-arid conditions. There are millenary water management systems that allow rainwater to be collected from rooftops and stored in cisterns. Systems that capture and channel the scarce runoff water that occurs during storms over a large area and concentrate it in a smaller area where species are grown that require a greater demand for water than is found in natural conditions. There are many wet areas, generically referred to as wetlands, where human beings have been managing water since time immemorial. This is the case of many high Andean wetlands where the waters of the snowy mountains are derived in order to increase the pasture area of camelids through complex networks of channels excavated in the wetland and known as camellones.


When these wetlands are used for agriculture, numerous channels are built and the extracted earth is piled up between the channels, giving rise to raised fields, also known as Waru-waru, in Peru, Zenú channels, in Colombia, or Suka-kollus, in Bolivia.

There are also other equally complex systems that capture rainwater, streams and springs and infiltrate it into the subsoil, to temporarily store it in aquifers. This infiltrated (seeded) water is collected, that is to say it is harvested later, during dry periods. For your catchment are used wells, underground galleries, or it is taken directly from springs or rivers that feed on this process of ancestral recharge of aquifers. We have focused on the study of these last systems, known in South America, as Water Sowing and Harvesting systems.


As general characteristics, the use of local materials for its construction can be pointed out. That they are systems adaptable to changing conditions, with minimal energy requirements, given that most work with the force of gravity, that use the self-purifying power of the soil and associated ecosystems and that in addition to generating economic benefits increase biodiversity. They are systems that favour social cohesion, since they require the involvement of the collective, and that improve the living conditions of the population. They are systems that have been operating for more than a thousand years. They are, therefore, living examples of resilience, from which, from the field of science and management, we have much, much, to learn.



Photograph 1: Author, Diego Aranibar Esteban / Iniciativa Mas Agua.

Photograph 1. Description:

Maintenance of water infiltration channels in a high Andean wetland in the town of Turuna, Commune of Colchane, Region of Tarapacá (Chile). These great wetlands are maintained by the Aymara communities, increasing, through water infiltration channels, the extension of these pasture areas and the regulatory capacity of these systems, that slowly discharge the infiltrated water from snowmelt to maintain the flow of springs and rivers located downstream.


How do you value the knowledge about them at present and especially their possibility of being replicated in different contexts to address the climate emergency?


Research on these ancient water management techniques is in the beginning. Investigating these systems requires interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work teams, that they must have experts in anthropology, archaeology, paleoclimatology, ecology, hydrogeology, hydrology, agronomy and forestry engineering, among others. Only in this way can you reach your comprehensive knowledge.


From the point of view of my specialty, hydrogeology, we can say that there is almost everything to do. Research is currently beginning on the water regulation capacity of the extensive high Andean wetlands and the Waru-Waru, where the water management carried out allows agriculture, cattle raising and aquifer recharge, in addition to providing important ecosystem services. The investigation of the Peruvian amunas and the irrigation ditches of Sierra Nevada, in the south of Spain, has confirmed the efficiency and millennial age of this system of joint use of surface and underground water and of recharge of mountain aquifers. The effect of regulating the flow of rivers where these channels are used has already been demonstrated in the few hydrological basins where it has been investigated. The infiltration qochas or albarradas, the Andean tapes and many other Sowing and Harvesting Water systems are beginning to be monitored to demonstrate their hydrological efficiency as water regulation systems.


Another crucial investigation, to which much more attention should be paid, is the effects of water regulation provided by traditional irrigation systems. Traditional irrigation systems irrigated by gravity are far from being inefficient, as we have been led to believe. Irrigation surpluses in these agricultural areas present good quality water, free of artificial fertilizers and without pathogenic organisms, thanks to the use of natural fertilizers and the self-purifying power of the soil and aquifers. That water recharges the aquifers and due to its low speed in the underground environment it feeds rivers and springs continuously, ensuring that they do not stop flowing, even during drastic periods of drought.This already knew our ancestors. The terraces of the Andes, or the terraced crops of the Sierra Nevada, present at their feet numerous springs and rivers of continuous flow and crystal clear waters that are proof of this.


Unfortunately, in countries like Spain, the Administration encourages the transformation of traditional irrigated areas into localized irrigated areas contributing to dry rivers and associated springs, to lose our cultural and landscape heritage and landscape and to lose all the knowledge acquired by the local communities, after thousands of years of observation of nature. It is our task as scientists to reverse this situation and to take advantage of all that ancestral knowledge to improve the knowledge of our society.



Photograph 2: Author, Sergio Martos Rosillo of the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain

Photograph 2. Description:

Detail of the flow derived by the Mecina canal from the Grande de Bérchules river, on the southern face of Sierra Nevada, in Granada (Spain). All this flow is used exclusively for its recharge in the aquifers on the side of this mountain. The infiltrated water maintains springs, increases the flow of rivers in dry seasons and allows the supply of the local population and their agricultural and livestock activities.


Regarding the replicability of these systems, their ample variety would allow them to be reproduced on a large scale in almost all types of environments. Elevated fields exist at 4.000 m a.s.l. and a few meters of altitude. There are specific water management systems for sloping areas and others for flat areas. Some require low permeability substrates and others highly permeable areas. Its replication is possible and necessary, in fact, Peru is already doing it through the Sierra Azul program. This country also has a pioneering law for the recovery of costs of environmental services, with which economic items are collected that allow the recovery and replication of these ancient forms of water management. The quality and quantity of available water is thus increased, improving the living conditions of the population and contributing, at the same time, to fix the local population and to reduce the abandonment of the rural environment.


More frequently projects arise that look for better understand these ancestral systems, how can we coordinate all these initiatives so that there is a broad and powerful sector capable of influencing the sector?


Consult the answer in this audio:


What are the elements that you would like to highlight from the Network "Planting and Harvesting Water in Protected Natural Areas"?


The Thematic Networks of the Ibero-American Program of Science and Technology for Development are associations of research groups of public or private entities and companies from the member countries of this program, whose scientific or technological activities are related within a common area of interest. Its objective is to exchange knowledge between R&D groups and to promote cooperation as a working method.


Our Network, "Planting and Harvesting Water in Protected Natural Areas", is included in the area of Sustainable Development. It was formed in 2019 and has the following fundamental objectives:

1) Collect and critically analyse the different methods of Sowing and Harvesting Water (SyCA) and the associated ecological knowledge of the local communities that developed them.

2) Assess the efficiency, resilience and potential of SyCA as a measure of adaptation to Climate Change.

3) Promote the exchange of technological knowledge, the dissemination and replicability of the different SyCA techniques.

4). Promote better water management, make socio-political proposals that allow water governors and planners to conserve, recover and develop SyCA in their respective territories.

5) Develop and strengthen a remarkable multidisciplinary, open and diverse research group in which transdisciplinarity is encouraged.



Photograph 3: Author, Sergio Martos Rosillo of the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain

Photograph 3. Description:

Detail of one of the areas where the water from the Mecina canal is discharged for its infiltration into the hillside aquifers. In these areas of great infiltration capacity, locally known as "calaeros" or "simas", all the flow discharged from the careo ditch is recharged. Recent studies have shown that this form of water management is more than 1200 years old in Spain, with very similar systems in Peru, the amunas, for which there are dates of 1400 years.


In the two years of operation of our network, and despite the enormous difficulties that the pandemic is posing, I must say that the results achieved have exceeded our expectations. There are many countries where these ancient techniques for managing water and soil are maintained, being unknown by the scientific community and by planners. In other countries they are being abandoned. The creation of powerful research groups in each of the countries that participate in our network is helping to reverse the situation. On the other hand, all the research groups have told us how through collaboration we have increased our knowledge and the quality of our work, how we are helping to reduce insecurities and increase the number of quality ideas. Another fundamental aspect is that of diffusion. Our network is acting as a speaker for the work carried out by the different research groups. If we want our society to value and protect this legacy, we have to research it and make it known. We are working on that.




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