Donato and I set out yesterday with a mission: follow the water from its source in the mountains all the way down to the coastal deserts, and see what happens to it along the way.
The deserts of Peru are unbelievable – and unbelievably vast. When I make the Circle movie or any other post-apocalyptic romp, I’m definitely coming back here. Our road took us along the rocky river canyon, punching through the mountains in long, jagged tunnels, through clouds of choking dust and into the yellow wastes beyond.
The riverbed was a tiny ribbon of green in an immensity of sand and rock. Villages sprouted up here and there, along with huge construction projects, dams, and irrigation infrastructure. Fields of green crops lay in stark alien contrast to the dead landscape, where the occasional cactus was the only other living thing to be seen.
As we continued, the villages began to disappear. Bald mountains reared in the distance, bare slopes drowning into a pale blue haze.
For hours we drove through haunted adobe ruins – whole towns abandoned to dust, thatch roofs long disintegrated into the merciless sun. Huge castle-like structures of red stone, the purpose of which I could only guess, stood windblown and empty beside long-dead fields.
Passing through a security checkpoint, we explored the massive canal system bringing water from the high places to the low. The water rippled slow and colorless beneath the dust-choked sky.
It wasn’t until the second day that we finally neared the coast and saw the results of all of the damming, channeling, and rerouting of the water for agriculture. The massive river we’d started following far up in the mountain canyons was reduced to a trickling puddle, barely deep enough to flow.
Yet all along the vast coastal deserts we saw a patchwork of green: huge farming operations growing asparagus and other crops. It’s clear that a great deal of water is being pulled from one ecosystem into another dangerously incompatible one. It’s no mystery to me, having seen this with my own eyes, why Cesar’s watertable readings have been dropping since the 70s. But the draining of watersheds is nothing unique to Peru – my own San Francisco steals its water from the North, not to mention LA, which supports 17 millions people when it should only have the water resources for 4. And I’m sitting here drinking from a plastic bottle of water along with every other Gringo worried about aquatic viruses in a third world country, exacerbating the problem. Still, tracking that river from its chilly, beautiful source all the way down to its sad, muddy end has made me think hard about where my own water comes from, and the complacency with which I use it. It’s a first step.