Andres Verzijl / Carolina Dominguez / Margreet Zwarteveen (Utrecht)

Building with Nature, Yaku Uway

Enacting Wetlands in Deltas and Headwaters

Building with nature is an approach that mobilizes natural processes and materials as alternative to established and often less flexible water engineering solutions. The idea is that nature cannot be fully controlled but allows to be fruitfully worked with. Coined in the early 1990s, it is largely applied by water experts working on coastal and deltaic environments. Creating wetlands are often considered, like the salt marches in the Dutch delta. The approach enjoys new popularity in light of recent climate adaption interventions.

Far from coast and delta, the Andean headwater case in this paper could be described as building with nature. Only what nature is, is different. Here community authorities have made and implemented plans to construct cochas (the quechua word for lakes) in Andean headwaters in order to recharge groundwater and restore peatlands. We follow the community of Quispillacta, their notion of 'yaku uyway', or nurturing water, and rapprochement to the regional government of Ayacucho. Our aim with this paper is not to introduce or use a scientific concept to improve upon a case of creating wetlands in Peru. Instead, we engage with two water worlds – one in the Dutch delta, the other in the Peruvian Andes – to show that 'nature' and 'building' and 'with' is something else entirely in each. We hope it gives water professionals food for thought to consider other ways to a universal understanding of water that offer promising pathways for sustainable futures.


Further explanation of the research

Coined by Dutch politician and engineer Ronald Waterman in the early 1990s, building with nature was a response to the inflexible, and often costly, large infrastructures like dams, dykes and Delta Works and instead deploy more fluid measures using materials and processes in nature without disruption; for example, river outflow, tides, waves or currents; but also, gravity, rain and vegetation (roots) characteristics. The approach contributed to the ecological turn in Dutch water management and, in light of climate adaption policies and SDGs, has become more popular during the last years. It is used predominantly in deltas and coastal zones to deal with floods and sediments, protect coastlines or land, restore ecosystems and tidal functions, and create wetlands, marshes and mangroves. The main principles of building with nature are system thinking, a thorough (holistic & interdisciplinary) understanding of nature and participation of relevant stakeholders. Approaches with similar principles can be found in climate adaptation interventions in the Andes, only these are referred to as ecological infrastructure or ecosystem services. The idea here is also to use materials and processes in nature in favor of more engineered – less flexible – infrastructure.

As part of our work – we study different delta knowledges and practices – we often collaborate and think along with those involved in building with nature initiatives, such as tidal river management, sand engines or retention polders. Often in these interventions, there is room for stakeholder interests and different disciplinary views, however what nature is, ontologically, and how humans relate to it differently, remains an adamant assumption and undiscussed.

In the term 'yaku uyway' the word yaku means water. Uyway on the other hand is an organizing principle in the community of Quispillacta and throughout the Andes. It is concept best described as 'to nurture and let yourself be nurtured'. Reciprocity and relationality are embedded in the term; the word itself. In the early 1990s community members in Quispillacta noticed changes in glaciers and snowcapped mountain as well as in their bofedales and water sources. They came to the conclusions they had not been taking care of mountains and water sources and were therefore no longer nurtured by these. In response they created over 100 lakes in the headwater areas for their own and neighboring communities, by creating earthen dykes in topographically suitable places to capture and store rain and runoff. However, to the community members these were not natural materials and processes, but other-than-human beings having needs and sense of belonging and with whom they should work and live together, mutually. In Peru, the case of Quispillacta is used as textbook example for climate change adaption. The idea of capturing and storing water in many small lakes (water harvesting) has become quite popular. Different regional governments have implemented policies similar to the practices of Quispillacta. For the outside observer, the case of Quispillacta could very well be comparable to other building with nature examples. However, instead of principles of system thinking and a holistic approach, it are the mutual needs and belonging of human and water beings that are central.

Equally acknowledging both water worlds is important to prevent the more dominant climate adaptation measures and approaches overlooking and overrunning other ways of dealing with climate change. We thus suggest a conversation or dialogue between proponents of building with nature and yaku uyway. We belief community members from Quispillacta are very open to new insights on where to store water, create dykes or stimulate vegetation – to help them nurture and let themselves be nurtured. Given that in the Netherlands (and the world over) voices are growing to recognize the rights of rivers and nature – thus to acknowledge these nonhumans as right-bearing actors with needs – it is seems prudent to learn from these community members what a caring attitude towards water and nature entails.