When I arrived in Mendoza, what first caught my imagination was the drastic transition between the dry desert surroundings and the green, luxuriant city. Mendoza’s parks, plazas, fountains, trees and its labyrinth of “ acequias “ lining every street belie this province’s parched existence.
In the city center, you can live with the illusion of water abundance for a while, but a trip to the borderland quickly confronts you with the reality. There you’ll find a latent fear of drought, transmitted from generation to generation.
Rare are the truck drivers who do not offer a bottle of water to Difunta Correa, a popular saint who died in the badlands of San Juan. Her newborn was found alive, clinging to her breast.
The desert highways are lined with little sanctuaries heaped with plastic bottles, each a plea for safe passage without incident or thirst.
The oasis of Mendoza is a drop of water squeezed from the desert by the stubbornness, creativity and constant effort of its settlers. It is just 5% of the province. The remaining 95 % of the provincial territory is desert, mountain and wild scrub.
If Mendoza is relatively close to the Pacific Ocean, the gigantic Andes, home of the highest summit in the Americas – Mt Aconcagua, act as a natural barrier. The clouds coming from the Pacific have no choice but but to discharge their humidity in the mountain while those coming from the Atlantic go out in a puff in the Sierras of Cordoba and San Luis.
It rains only 200 mm per year here, 4 times less than other wine regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux and 6 times less than in New York City.
Ironically, the ability to steer water from the mountain has been the cornerstone of Mendoza`s geographical, economic and social development. Irrigation is its identity, and the good management of water represents a challenge for the future.
The First Drops
The acequias (street canals), which are so much a part of Mendoza’s identity, had been introduced to the region by the native people the Huarpes. According to accepted wisdom, the huarpes used pre-existing geological faults to help water circulate and irrigate their crops by flooding. The places where they settled and grew crops were always a little bit inclined in order to allow for a better irrigation of the low lands. In the 1480’s, the Incas and their high level of hydraulic knowledge arrived in Mendoza and are said to have consolidated and extended the irrigation system developed by the Huarpes.
Upon the arrival of the Spanish around 80 years later, there were four main acequias in what is now Mendoza urban area. To indicate their importance, they beared the names of the Indian chiefs and would deteremine the territory of different peoples.
From the Spanish foundation of Mendoza in 1561, the colonialists copied and extended the original system of irrigation.
Interestingly, the Spanish colonial urban model “ la cuadricula” had to adapt itself to the natural reality of the region and integrate with the Indian channels. The plan of the city, including the orientation of the streets was affected by the rationality of water. In the new map, the preexisting ditches and acequias became the new limits of urban and rural sectors. Only the names changed, reflecting who dominated the territory.
By the end of the 18th Century, the control of water was concentrated in very few hands. A powerful Mendocinian establishment appropriated for themselves the best land with access to water. The poor were relegated to the margins of the oasis. This geography of poverty and affluence stills prevails in contemporary Mendoza – the greener the place the richer.
An Italian Genius
The end of the 19th century was a momentous period in the development of the modern water system. The creation of the railway linking Mendoza to Buenos Aires in 1884 meant the massive arrival of migrants. The oasis needed to adapt its water distribution network to deal with this new situation and the resulting growth in crop production.
The very same year the railway was inaugurated, the governor Bermejo created the Water Law and the General Department of Water (DGA, then DGI ) in order to normalize the rights and duties of those who received water, the irrigation infrastructure and the distribution of water.
By 1885, the majority of houses had access to drinking water. However, a year later, Mendoza was plagued with cholera. The reason being that the acequias served for everything – irrigation of the streets, the fields, sanitation and drinking water.
The arrival of the Italian engineer César Cippoletti, would mark a profound reorganization of the water supply. Cippoletti was brought by the Mendocinian government in 1889 with the object of “ taming the waters of the American Summit ”. At the time, he was world famous for being a pioneer in using hydraulics to generate electricity, the inventor of a gauge to measure better the distribution of water and the creator of major water systems in Europe and Egypt.
For Cippoletti :
“Water is the future, anyone who understands that will sow progress”.
Over the 8 years he spent in Mendoza, he designed and supervised the construction of the first water dam in the country in Lujan de Cuyo which was completed in 6 months and nowadays bears his name Dique Cippoletti. This dam is the main point of distribution of mountain water from the Rio Mendoza to the oasis. through the use of floodgates and overflows that ensure a better water flow.
Inside the oasis, Cippoletti improved the irrigation system and opened up thousands of hectares of desert to cultivation. He also created a separate network for potable water, made the drinkable water canals more hygeinic by covering them, and created a filtrating plant.
The eminent engineer become very powerful in many different Mendocinian institutions linked to water. So much so he provoked jealousy and rivalry. At one point he got expelled by the Mendocinian establishment under the pretext that he had too many official posts, that he did not speak the language and did not enrol his son in the army.
After completing 18 dams in Argentina, and numerous other irrigation works in San Juan, Tucuman and Neuquen, political instability with Chile forced him to return temporarily to Europe. On his way back to Argentina, he died in voyage.
History now recalls Cipolletti as a visionary that was “born in water, dedicated to water and died inwater “. In 1971, his remains were finally brought back to Mendoza and buried near a statue of him looking over Cippoletti dam.
Dam the Future
In the mid 1920’s hydraulic engineers in Mendoza came up with another plan. The idea was to create an artificial reservoir of water in the mountains, on the Rio Mendoza, in order to control the water flow better, creating a stock of water for irrigation and enabling the product ion of electrical energy.
Potrerillos Dam was finally built 80 years later and opened in 2003. 30 kms from Mendoza, it covers a surface area of 1300 hectares and submerged the historical village of Potrerillos. Nowadays, the magnificent expanse of water with its lost village has become a favored week-end escape for locals.
The water from the dam also feeds two hydroelectric plants and covers 20% of the annual electric consumption of the province of Mendoza.
The wate is distributed through two historical canals, Canal San Martin and Canal Cacique Guaymallen, each of them replenished every 4 days according to the volume of water stored in the dam. Those canals are then divided into secondary, tertiary and quarterly canals. A huge network of floodgates help to block or release the precious liquid to the different parts of the city. Mendoza now boasts 5000 km of waterways and around 11,000 wells.
The Water Judge
In the growing oasis, there is fierce competition for water. Nowadays, 81 % of the total quantity of water is used for agriculture, 17 % for the domestic network, 1% by other industries and 2 % for public irrigation.
The biggest consumer of water is the agricultural sector which relies entirely on irrigation to survive. It rains on average 200 mm of water per year in Mendoza and a plant of vine needs a minimum of 500mm of water per year. A square meter of vineyard absorbs at least 300 litres of water per year to survive.
The same traditional method used by the huarpe to water their land is used today. They get water from the acequias and circulate it by flooding small channels ploughed in the vineyard.
Two traditional Cuyo characters are in charge of water distribution – the Water Flow Inspector and the Tomero.
The latter is so important that there are popular songs dedicated to the blessed Tomero. To understand better this very unique, regional career, I went to meet 39-year-old Carlos from Colonia de Junin. He has been working as a tomero for 20 years. He explains to me that there are two types of tomero, one is in charge of releasing the water from the big channels, and the other, like him, who works in secondary branches of the canal and is responsible for cleaning, maintaining and releasing the right quantity of water to the different farms
To manage the logistics of irrigation, the Water Ministry has created appointed water times, whose timing depends on the surface under cultivation of each farm. In the 700-hectare territory worked by Carlos, the rule is to give 20 minutes of water per hectare at a speed of 320 litres per second.
The responsibility of the tomero consists in checking the level of water in the nearby dikes, opening the sluice gates at the entrance of the network and controling and cleaning the waste thrown into the open acequias to prevent flooding the streets.
When the volume of water is normal in the reservoir, each farm gets access to water every 12 days on average.
But when the level of water in the reservoir is too low, irrigation is way less frequent. In that case, the tomeros cut the flow of water in the irrigation system for a week every two weeks.
Sometimes such a time lapse can endanger the plant.
Luis, a peach farmer, told me that once his orchard did not see water for 28 days. It was so harsh on the plants that he decided not to cultivate one part of his property.
Carlos the tomero confesses that when he started working 20 years ago, the water was never cut. It was always circulating in some part of the system, except for the Christmas holidays.
“But now the cuts are very frequent“.
According to him, there is fundamentally less water and many small farmers that have no access to wellls have abandoned farming in the last years and sold their property to real estate agents.
In this harsh context, I ask him if people were sometimes so desperate that they would steal water from others. He laughs and adds :
“Sometimes, no. All the time. Being neighbors. Can you imagine the conflicts over water ?”
“People use a lot of little tricks to steal the water“ he adds. like putting sticks below the sluice gates to prevent them from closing entirely. With pressure, they get a very nice flow of water”.
When you catch someone doing that, what do you do ? I ask him. He replies wisely that he doesn’ t get too involved.
“You can’t do much, They even break padlocks. They are terrible. Here you know, if we don’t have water, it’s complicated, and people do things out of desperation”.
The next neighboring farmer who gets less water because of theft can report it.
“When it is his turn, he is the owner of the water, so it is his responsibility to report if he is being robbed.”
A little amused, he adds :
“It is considered a serious crime. People reported for stealing water can get a criminal record. If they do it again, they can theoretically get into serious trouble. But in reality, nothing happens. This is Argentina. You need to report an offence, to bring witnesses and then not much happens”.
The tomero is offered lots of bribes. People regularly give him peaches, aubergines, spinach for a minute more of water.
In the past, the tomero wasn’t paid by the DGI, each farmer would pay him.
”Can you imagine how it worked ? Men would meet him at the sluice gates with a shotgun ”
There is no doubt, Water is definitely a question of power in the Province.
The DGI even wanted at some point to give to the tomeros the tittle of Water Police.
Carlos doesn’t approve of the name. He prefers I call him the Water Judge.
Crisis! What Crisis?
The scarcity of water is worrying people. Last summer, bill boards that have since been covered by political propaganda, were warning the population that Mendoza was in a “Hydric Emergency”, and it was quite common to have the water cut in your house and hotel between 10 am and 10 pm
Eduardo Sosa, founder of the Mendocinian environmental NGO OIKOS, explains to me that since the foundation of the city up until 20 years ago, there was enough water for domestic, industrial and agricultural use. Since then Mendoza has expanded in population, and has required more land for agriculture and urban development. That requires more water. Currently the oasis does not entirely satisfy the demand for water.
He states. ”We lack investment in water distribution and a purification network . For that reason there is a poor efficiency. There is water but the system has collapsed ”.
According to the INA, two thirds of the water distributed for irrigation and domestic use is lost because of overflows or leakage. Only about 5 % of the network has been waterproofed and it’s not rare to find Mendocinian streets full of water due to big waste blocking the acequias. Carlos the tomero told me that people get rid of “everything you can imagine” in the acequias. One day he even found a mattress blocking an acequia.
There is also a lot of waste and contamination in the use of water both in the agro-industrial and domestic sectors.
“In general, the typical Mendocinian winery requires 3 litres of effluent for 1 litre of wine. It is way above what is practiced in other countries. In France, they use half a litre of effluent for 1 litre of wine”, says Eduardo, “ The DGI says that seven out of ten wineries have problems with the treatment of effluents. ´
According to him, the majority of the traditional wineries in Mendoza are more focused in selling than thinking about sustainability. Unless consumers show interest in the water print of wine, probably little is going to change.
As for the domestic consumption of water, the price of potable water has no relation to what is actually consumed. The bill is calculated by the size of the house and the number of people in the household. This creates little concern about unnecessary waste. Consuming more or less water does not impact your wallet.
From a social perspective, the contamination of water increases inequality and tension. As Eduardo explained to me, the underground reserves of water have been contaminated little by little and nowadays, only people or companies with good financial backing can have deeper wells and access to good quality water. The small producer who doesn’t have access to copious amounts of water must decrease his production. He gets poorer and eventually sells up to richer owners, concentrating the land in few hands”.
Apart from the lack of efficiency in the water system, global warming studies show that the scarcity of snow in the high mountains is an even bigger threat.
In her thesis, French doctor in geography Emilie Lavie explains that 95 % of the water in the oasis of Mendoza comes from snowfall in the Andes. 85 % comes from the yearly snows and 15% from direct rain or glaciers
Her concern is that with climate change, there will be less mountain snow to feed the river. Mendoza is living on its reserves, the glaciers, which according to many different scientific studies are rapidly losing their volume. One of the two main glaciers that provides water – the Juncal glacier – is said to have retreated 7 km, losing 25 km2 of its surface and 33% of its volume in a century. That’s 1200 millions square meters of water.
Experts expect the total disappearance of the glaciers in this area by 2100 and more alarmist studies predict this will happen by 2040.
The relationship between Mendocinians and water used to be very intertwined. That closeness has been lost with the fast urbanization of the city. The survival of the oasis will depend on people thinking long term and reconnecting with Cippoletti’s idea that water is fundamental for the future.
I leave the last words to Eduardo.
“In 20 years, I imagine there will be more conflicts concerning access to water. If we make good decisions such as promoting a change of crops that better protect the soils and improving the use of the water resource, we will diminish our vulnerability to climate change, Everything will be played out in the next few years. We must start to think in ecological terms, and that starts with oneself. “