Latin American countries are running out of water

Nov 23, 2023 | 0 comments

By Grant Burrier

Traffic through the Panama Canal is nearly half-capacity these days. Normally, 40 ships take the world’s greatest shortcut through its locks each day. Last week, the Canal Authority reduced daily passages to 25, while predicting further cuts to 18 by February. The immediate cause is Panama’s driest October since recordkeeping began in 1950.

Most international news coverage of Panama’s drought focuses on shipping delays through the Panama Canal. Locals are more worried about its impact on potable water. More worrying is the fact that Panama is not the only Latin American country currently facing water scarcity. 

Most international coverage of the drought focuses on shipping delays, increasing supply-chain costs and the potential for increased inflation, while showing worrying images of Lago Gatun, which acts as the principal reservoir for the canal. Nevertheless, locals are more worried about the reservoir upstream, Lago Alajuela, which not only feeds the Lago Gatun, but provides 90 percent of Panama City’s potable water.

More worrying still, however, is the fact that Panama is not the only Latin American country currently facing water scarcity. To the contrary, the entire region is in the grips of a dry spell. A historic drought is ravaging the Amazon, with a record 3,858 fires ripping through the state of Amazonas this month. With their “river highway” drained, riverine communities face emergency-level shortages in food, medicine and drinking water, while endangered river dolphins and other species are dying en masse.

Meanwhile, farmers from the Dominican Republic to Argentina are reporting millions of dollars in crop losses. The Dominican Republic sealed its border with Haiti over a water dispute. Mexico City is rationing water due to reservoirs at historic lows at the end of what is supposed to be its rainy season. Water supplies stored in the glaciers of the Andes are receding, reducing their ability to replenish drainage basins and aquifers with meltwater during warmer, drier months, leading western Bolivia to ration water. Central Chile is buckling under 14 years of consecutive drought, which analysts have taken to calling a “mega drought.”

Of course, Latin America is a vast, heterogeneous region with varied hydrologic conditions. Nevertheless, data collected by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts paints a bleak picture. Across the region, only a few pockets of territory have escaped exceptionally severe droughts.

On one hand, these drought conditions are the natural result of recurring climate patterns like El Nino, in which, every two to seven years, the Eastern Pacific Ocean warms 2-3 degrees C around the equator. Coastal communities across the Pacific experience the phenomenon in two ways.

Warmer surface waters block upwelling of nutrient-rich, cold waters from the ocean’s depths. Fewer nitrates and phosphates reach the surface, reducing the phytoplankton population. That in turn ripples up the food chain. Fish stocks plummet as species die or migrate, wreaking havoc on communities that depend on them for their livelihoods.

At the same time, when surface waters warm, air pressure and wind speeds change, pushing the jet stream south. These shifts then hamper raincloud formation, creating drought-like conditions. Warmer surface temperature variations, which the region is now experiencing, also cause stronger El Nino effects.

That said, most scientists agree that the currently observed decrease in precipitation is not solely related to El Nino. The region is facing one of its longest, most severe droughts in decades. Researchers have measured persistent declines in rainfall, snow accumulation and glacial formation. And as the impact of climate change continues to intensify, the region can expect even more prolonged droughts, severe heat waves and reduced river flows, as well as rising sea levels that intrude on freshwater aquifers, extending salinization.

The net effect is that the water stress and water scarcity on display today is in fact Latin America’s new normal. For the world’s most water-rich region — 30 percent of global freshwater flows through the Amazon, Parana-Plata and Orinoco watershed — that means a new era of uncertainty, with alarming social, economic and environmental consequences.

Universal access to clean water is a human right recognized by the United Nations. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, only the Southern Cone countries—Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil—as well as Costa Rica and several wealthier Caribbean island states cross the threshold of providing 80 percent of their populations with safely managed drinking water. But that still leaves one-in-five citizens without access. And with growing populations requiring greater water infrastructure, regional governments still struggle to provide access in marginalized rural and urban communities. For too many, this basic human right is still a luxury.

Beyond social needs, water systems are further taxed by agriculture, manufacturing and energy production. Latin American economies largely depend on primary commodity exports, namely agriculture and mining, both of which are incredibly thirsty relative to industry or domestic consumption. Agriculture alone accounts for 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals. Agriculture and mining also cause most of the contamination to water supplies.

Meanwhile, despite increasing wind and solar capacity, hydropower remains the region’s largest source of renewable energy, with only Mexico and Nicaragua deriving less than one-fifth of their renewable supply from it among states in continental Latin America. Yet, dwindling rivers provide less force to push turbines and generate electricity. And in a bitter irony, it is the newer run-of-river dams that are the most compromised. Having adopted smaller reservoirs to mitigate social and environmental disruptions, they have little excess storage to operate when waterflow slows.

Finally, nature itself requires water to protect the health of productive ecosystems. Riparian zones are hotspots of biodiversity. Wetlands are highly effective carbon sinks and represent natural barriers during storm surges and excess precipitation. Severe droughts create existential threats to these sensitive areas.

The problem is only exacerbated by greater water demand, which has doubled globally since 1960. Faced with numerous, competing pressures, something must give, and it is increasingly water availability.

New data from the World Resources Institute finds 25 countries comprising one-quarter of the global population currently experience extreme water stress, meaning they withdraw more than 80 percent of their available supplies. In Latin America, Chile, Mexico and Peru face the most daunting challenges. However, elevated drought risks in the fertile Pampas, much of Central America and the Caribbean, which faces additional pressures from saltwater intrusion, mean few countries are spared.

Environmental problems with longer time horizons, such as water scarcity, notoriously fall off the political radar. But today’s alarming conditions across the region could and should catalyze urgent action and a greater commitment to adaptation and resilience.

Political will is crucial, and the good news is that water scarcity can be mitigated by better policy and governance. The bad news is that performance varies dramatically, and whether judging from campaign promises or party platforms, most politicians do not articulate, let alone prioritize a vision for enhanced water management.

For starters, too many citizens lack access to potable water. But scholars estimate that more than 50 percent of urban water supply is lost to leakage. New infrastructure as well as upgrades for leaky waterways and outdated plants is therefore needed to achieve sustainable water management regimes, something the World Resource Institute estimates many countries could achieve for less than 2 percent of GDP.  To enhance water security, governments can also promote better wastewater treatment and recycling, coupled with desalination plants. Mexico and Chile lead the way on these, and Peru is starting to catch up.

Yet, investments for all these upgrades require financing, and most water utilities in the region are deeply indebted and lack access to credit.

Public-private partnerships with different blended financial models is one option. They can “improve the enabling environment” and have had a positive impact on operational efficiency, technical capacity, financial sustainability and capital investment.

Official Development Assistance can provide additional relief and encourage technological transfers. But developing economies know well that waiting on rich countries to do their part is a mug’s game. Climate assistance, for example, falls short of agreed targets every year.

Lacking these sources of financing, for governments to recoup costs, water needs to be fairly priced and governments must become more agile at collecting fees for it. But it is tone-deaf and unjust to focus these fiscal demands on vulnerable populations that are already barely meeting their basic needs. Instead, these users can be sufficiently subsidized at minimal costs with the associated benefits vastly exceeding costs.

While exact solutions will vary based on local conditions, a primary focus should be on rationalizing water usage, particularly in agriculture. In dry areas, drip irrigation and water recycling should become standard operating procedure. In addition, some countries facing acute water stress have large extractive industries, leading to reasonable questions about the wisdom of relaxing regulation, providing subsidies and incentivizing water-intensive economic activities in these areas. To encourage greater efficiencies, commercial interests in both the agriculture and mining sectors must be charged the fair value of a diminishing resource. Additionally, governments must empower bureaucracies to monitor water usage, enforce regulations and punish transgressors.

Above all, governments should develop an integrated, multisector approach to water management. Too often, planning and governance are fragmented, with various agencies promoting divergent visions. By coordinating policy between public environmental and economic agencies, at both the national and subnational levels, governments can formulate more coherent water management schemes. And by including more participatory mechanisms for citizens and scientists, in addition to corporate interests, they can make policy over contentious issues more inclusive, informed and transparent, creating greater institutional space for stakeholders to meaningfully contribute to the process and hold decision-makers accountable.

What this all means is that, despite the current alarmist headlines, opportunities for mitigating water scarcity are there. It’s now up to governments to act.

Grant Burrier is an associate professor in the Global School and the Department of Social Science and Policy Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He writes extensively on Latin American politics, political economy and environmental policy.


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