Irrigating a field, caring for the next generation

By Anna Kramer
Nilva Huilca Chuma, 13, with the sprinkler system that irrigates her grandfather's fields in high-altitude Peru. Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America

In high-altitude Peru, an irrigation system and a reservoir help a family secure their future.

With a mischievous smile, Nilva Huilca Chuma, 13, dashes beneath the sprinklers that crisscross her grandparents’ field. She’s wearing her best clothes—the wide-brimmed hat and flared skirt that are traditional in this part of the Peruvian Andes—and doesn’t want them to get wet. Although she’s quick, she can’t quite avoid the rotating jets of water that flash in the mountain sunlight.

These are no ordinary sprinklers: They’re part of an irrigation system that’s helping her family earn much-needed income. And for Nilva, who wants to study medicine someday, they’re also helping to secure a bright future.

In 2011, Nilva’s grandfather, Julio Huilca Qqhue, participated in an Oxfam America-funded project designed to help communities in the high-altitude Espinar region of Peru adapt to climate change. Farmers here say that rainfall shortages, periods of intense cold, and other extreme weather are making it harder for them grow crops and raise livestock.

Oxfam’s local partner organization worked with Huilca to build a sprinkler irrigation system for his fields, as well as a spring-fed, plastic-lined reservoir on top of a nearby hill. The sprinkler system pulls water down from the reservoir using gravity, rather than electricity, which saves on fuel costs. Since there is no municipal water here in the tiny community of Urinsaya, the reservoir also supplies water to a small primary school nearby.

Oxfam’s partners also provided training so farmers could learn how to maintain and expand the systems on their own. In two years, Huilca, 65, has quadrupled the amount of land he irrigates—from 2.5 acres to 10 acres.

“The irrigation system has been very helpful,” said Huilca. “This teaching motivates us … We can keep learning, keep working. If you know how to do it, you can expand.”

Huilca uses the irrigated land to grow potatoes and medicinal herbs for his family, and, most importantly, to cultivate cold-resistant rye grass from seeds provided by Oxfam’s partner. The grass provides a pasture for  dairy cows, which normally wouldn’t eat the dry grasses that grow here at 13,000 feet above sea level.

The cows’ milk has become a source of steady income for Huilca's family. “Every 15 days, we get paid for the milk we sell [in local markets],” he said. “We also get income from the llamas [we raise], but we can only sell a llama every six or seven months. That’s why milk cows are an advantage for us.”

The family used their earnings to weatherproof their house, which provided protection during a severe cold spell and snowstorm that struck the Peruvian highlands in August 2013. Many families lost livestock or suffered illnesses during the cold emergency, but Huilca’s family and their animals came through unharmed.

Today, Huilca uses the income he earns not only to maintain his farm, but to help pay for an education for Nilva and her two sisters.

“We reinvest the money,” said Huilca. “We want to keep growing the [pasture] and to support the family.”