The Importance of Water Security in Latin America
We never know the worth of water till the well is dry. ~Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732



Water security in Latin America is important because every person, economic system, and natural process depends on water resources. Despite an abundance of water reserves, misuse of water resources has had a significant effect on all aspects of this region. An analysis of the region's distribution and development of resources, supply of safe water and sanitation, methods of dealing with natural disasters, and human environmental impact will be conducted to ascertain the causes of this misuse. The future of Latin America's water resources depends on finding viable solutions to these issues.

The distribution of water resources in Latin America and the historical handling of these resources has been an ongoing barrier to proper utilization of water resources. According to a 2003 report published by the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) Latin America has one of the highest per capita allocations of fresh water in the world with just less than 110,500 cubic feet/(person*year) (2002). Yet these values overlook countries such as Mexico, which has a significantly lower potential supply of approximately 13,000 cubic feet/(person*year) (2002). The issue of water distribution is compounded by the geographic population distribution of Latin America. This is the case in the region of Mexico City, where much of the Mexican population is concentrated, which depletes the aquifers it depends on for 70% of its water 80 times faster than they are naturally replenished (Barlow & Clarke, 2004). In Central America the population density is concentrated on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, with two thirds of the population living in cities on the Pacific coast (San Martin, 2002). However, the distribution of water resources is not proportional to that of the population; only 30% of fresh water flows to this coast while 70% drains into the Caribbean Sea (2002). As a result of this inequitable distribution of resources, infrastructural deficiencies have significant results on the effectiveness of water resources in Latin America. Due to a lack of water pipes for distributing water, 51 million rural and 26 million urban residents lack direct access to water (Comision Nacional Del Agua, 2006). Water pollution is exacerbated by 120 million people, who lack proper sewage treatment, re-circulating effluent back into the water system untreated (2006). A lack of infrastructure is not the only barrier to proper water distribution in Latin America; improper maintenance of current water pipes has led to an estimated 50% of water in many Latin American cities being lost in pipe leakages (2006).

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Water Basins of Latin America

Latin America is exceptionally rich in water resources: the Amazon, Orinoco, São Francisco, Paraná, Paraguay and Magdalena rivers alone carry more than 30% of the world's continental surface water (Barlow & Clarke, 2004). Nevertheless, two-thirds of the region's territory is classified as arid or semi-arid include large parts of central and northern Mexico, north-eastern Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru (2004). The flow of these regions over national boundaries means the creation of trans-boundary water legislation at the basin level, which respects national dominion, has been an ongoing struggle in Latin America. Despite these struggles, in many cases South American countries have handled these issues better than their northern counterparts. Canada and the United States have yet to develop a plan to clean the Great Lakes, which suffer from contamination from decades of industrial and agricultural run-off. At the same time important agreements in the Plata Basin by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay have allowed important water resources development in the region including the formation of hydroelectric dams and trade route treatises (Comision Nacional Del Agua, 2006).

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Water Regulations in Latin American Countries

Source: San Martin, O. (2002, February). Water resources in Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues and options.

Following the Latin American economic crisis of the 1980s, many countries were forced to seek loans from the World Bank, IMF and IDB; these were often contingent on neoliberal reforms that facilitated the private acquisition of water rights throughout the region (Barlow & Clarke, 2004). Ironically, this led to combined annual revenues in 2002 of almost $160 billion for three of the largest firms: Suez and Vivendi of France, and RWE-Thames Water of Germany (2004), a larger annual revenue than many of the Latin American countries they operate in ("Gross national income", 2003). The case of Cochabamba, Bolivia and engineering giant Bechtel subsidiary Aguas del Tunari (Barlow & Clarke, 2004) provides an excellent example of the effects of these policies. Under its contract Aguas del Tunari had the right to charge citizens for water collected from their wells, as well as rainwater from their roofs (2004). Following extensive public protest the Bolivian government was forced to repeal this legislation; Aguas del Tunari is now suing Bolivia for $25 million in lost profits (2004).

Progress has been made in Latin American water infrastructure and protection. This has come in the form of the creation of new water regulations, restructuring of the water industry including decentralization and privatization, resource allocation, and watershed protection including cases of transnational cooperation such as the Plata Basin. Decentralization of water service through the creation of crown corporations has been relatively successful in addressing the diverse water needs of the Latin American population; nevertheless, due to a lack of resources and poor coordination these organizations have faced challenges. This has allowed for the introduction of privately funded water management, notably in Chile, Argentina, and Columbia (San Martin, 2002). These firms have the necessary resources and organizational abilities to provide a strong water service. This approach has been challenged because for-profit water corporations rely on citizens to pay for their own water installation and maintenance services. There have been attempts to subsidize these services and micro-credit approaches (2002) where people are given small loans to fund the installation. Resource allocation includes defining water as an agricultural resource and water development being focused around irrigation because farming is a more economically profitable allocation of resources than household waterlines. Resource allocation strategies can also allow for reductions in installation costs in sewage installations if the family participates in the installation (2002). Latin America contains many transnational river basins and the management and ownership of these systems is an important political issue in Latin America. Organizations, such as the Regional Action Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management, have helped to regulate the allocation of these water resources throughout the region (2002).


The Water Crisis: An analysis by the Inter-american Development Bank



Access to clean water and sanitation is a critical issue within Latin America and worldwide. Within Latin America, diseases related to lack of access to potable water are responsible for a third of childhood deaths. There are roughly 50 million people in Latin America without access to potable water, and 120 million without access to proper sanitation (Comision Nacional Del Agua, 2006). More disturbing is that these deaths and water issues are largely preventable. Providing access to safe, potable water and sanitation is a difficult task, but viable solutions exist to solve water crises in emergency situations as well as long-term provisions in the region’s rural and poor communities.

In the aftermath of an emergency, the diseases resulting from lack of potable water can cause more deaths than the disaster itself. Such emergencies could include natural disasters, such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, or humanitarian crises and internal displacement. Today, the World Health Organization recommends Point-of-Use Water Treatment (PoUWT) to provide drinking water after a disaster strikes. These measures include chlorination, disinfectant tablets, ceramic filters, as well as the old tradition of boiling water prior to consumption (Lantagne & Clasen). These have been proven to effectively reduce diarrheal disease following emergencies. Such measures include more than simply providing drinkable water by means of shipping it in from other regions, which is not sustainable in the long term, but to allow affected people to make their own water supplies drinkable using processes which are inexpensive, effective and reliable. In Haiti, PoUWT is starting to be implemented following the devastating earthquake. Haiti already had the poorest supply of drinkable water in the western hemisphere prior to the disaster, and afterwards much of that supply was damaged or lost. Many organizations are busy trying to re-consolidate the gains made before the disaster struck, but it is an ongoing effort and many people are still left without a safe supply of water. One major issue in camps for displaced people in Haiti is the disposal of waste, especially feces. Sanitation facilities need to be provided as well as potable water systems to prevent diarrheal disease. In the rainy season, the runoff water will flood the camps and whatever waste is not properly disposed of will be dispersed to unsafe places (The World). Thus, the provision of both safe water and sanitation is paramount to preventing further death and sickness following disaster.

These problems with potable water and sanitation are not limited to natural disasters. There are many areas throughout Latin America lacking access to safe water and sanitation. One of the key issues outlined in the Millennium Development Goals created by the United Nations was the number of people without access to safe water and sanitation. The goal is to “reduce by half the proportion of people living without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015” (WHO & Unicef, 2). This issue has been approached in a number of ways in the past, with the level of success varying greatly. According to some sources, up to 50% of water projects end in failure (Water 1st Intl.). Some have tried an enterprise-based approach to solve the water crisis. One such company is called The Water Initiative, whose approach is to market water purification systems to people without potable water who can afford them. The company tried this in the city of Torreon, Mexico. This city had problems with arsenic and fluoride in the water, which can cause diabetes and cancer (The Water Initiative). The company developed purification systems to remove these chemicals from the water. The problem with this approach is it is only useful for those who can afford it, not the ones for whom access to water is a major issue. Essentially, it is a form of profiteering from the crisis.


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Canadian students working on a water project in Olancho province, Honduras

Many non-government organizations have taken a different approach, with the underlying ideology the best way is to find “a solution tailored to the needs of each community, instead of a technological fix the community has no way of maintaining” (Water.org). The community takes ownership and responsibility of the project and community members take an active role in the planning, building, financing, and maintenance of the water and sanitation systems. Organizations find partners within the country that understand the needs of individual communities. The community must organize and form a water council that will address all aspects of the project, from the initial planning stages to the upkeep and running of the system once the project is completed. This committee should have women well-represented, since it is women in Latin America who are disproportionally tasked with the collection of potable water for household use (Water.org). Another important part of the project is the promotion of hygiene and sanitation, since the benefits of a water project can be undermined if such standards are not followed. Basic sanitation includes hand washing and the use of proper toilets. The appointment of a woman as hygiene promoter can create a commitment to sustain hygiene, as well as give a woman valuable skills and confidence (Water 1st Intl.).

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The benefits of a developing community having sustainable access to water are widespread. Not only are there great health benefits leading to a reduction in sickness and death, but also economic benefits as less. Money goes toward providing health care and fewer missed days of work. There is also potential for greater productivity, as fewer hours are spent collecting water to drink (Water 1st Intl.).

Poor farming practices, unregulated industrialization and urban poverty have negatively affected Latin America's water resources, forcing officials to seek out increasingly distant sources. Throughout the region, water basins and aquatic habitats are routine dumpsites for garbage, mining effluent, and industrial and agricultural waste. Most of Latin America's wastewater still flows untreated back into its rivers, lakes and canals.
The region's heaviest polluter is Brazil - the country with the most water. Only parts of Eastern Europe and China exceed Brazil's levels of waterway contamination. São Paulo is relying on sources farther and farther away, threatening residents with water rationing and increasing the cost of delivery beyond many peoples' ability to pay. All other Latin American countries face similar challenges with pollution and not enough is being done to solve the problems.

Mechanical and chemical processes used to extract the desired ore from a mine produce unrecoverable and uneconomic metals, minerals, chemicals, and process water as wastes, called tailings. Tailings are generally stored on the surface in retaining structures such as dams and embankments. Acid and metal bi-products eventually find their way into the surrounding environment through runoff, seepage, or being carried by the wind. Environmental regulations are advancing, particularly with this problem, but the growing need of Latin American countries to quickly become industrialized means these regulations are not as strongly enforced. Brazil allows massive chemical and industrial pollution of the water sources, including mercury dumping from its gold mining industry. In 2008, Peru's government feared the coming rainy season. The rains could cause the destabilisation of tailing ponds near the Rimac River (water source of Lima) containing about 744,000 metric tonnes of tailings to run into the Pacific Ocean. The rains could cause disastrous seepage on the hillside, resulting in tailings reaching the river and contaminating it. Gold Hawk Resources of Canada, a tiny metals company, stopped production in May at the processing plant for its Coricancha mine as a preventative measure. The company waited for a permit from the government allowing it to open a new tailing facility in a safe location, 30 km away from the plant, which sits 90 km east of Lima. Peru's civil defence agency also recommended the contents of the existing tailing ponds be emptied to "avoid a possible collapse that could result in the loss of lives" (Aquino, Cespedes & Wade, 2008)


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Mine tailing at 4,700 meters near La Oroya, Peru.



A fertilizer may contain nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium to enhance plant growth. These elements occur naturally in the environment, and their balance is finely tuned. Addition through fertilizers unbalances water composition. For example, phosphorus may be inert in soils and rocks but an increase in phosphorus can encourage the growth of invasive and non-native plant species, which crowd out native ones, removing important food sources for aquatic life. Runoff or spilled pesticides into waterways kill fish and plants. As the plants die, decomposition removes oxygen from the water, increasing the likelihood of fish deaths. Many of the most commonly used pesticides are classified as carcinogens. While pests cost land managers, pesticide application is not a long term solution. Alternative strategies are available. Organic farming and integrated pest management (the use of natural solutions to pest problems such as using predators and parasites of pests) are two alternatives. Best practices in land management can negate the need for fertilizers and pesticides which unnaturally alter the landscape. Unfortunately, in most Latin American countries, the focus is on industrialization, therefore not enough is invested in seeking long term solutions for sustainable land and water management.

Soil salination is when soil becomes more salty as a result of water movement in the soil usually as a result of irrigation. Soil salination results in desertification because it impedes the growth of vegetation. In South America, human-induced salination is causing desertification in significant parts of Peru, Bolivia and north-western Argentina. In total - factoring in the large natural deserts of Patagonia southern Argentina and the Atacama in northern Chile - about 25% of Latin America is now arid or semi-arid.

Booming, concentrated populations in Latin America's mega-cities are devouring and contaminating their water supplies. In most large cities, over 50% of the water supply is lost through infrastructure leakage. Some cities lose almost 90% through leaky pipes. Everyday household chemicals such as sunscreen, birth control pills, and cleaning solutions contaminate the water. Freshwater is also the end point for biological waste, in the form of human sewage and animal excrement and not all of it is being treated before it goes back to the sources.

Deforestation is clearing the Amazon's forests on a massive scale, often resulting in damage to the quality of the land. Forests still cover about 30% of the world’s land area, but swaths the size of Panama are lost every year. At this rate the world’s rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years. Reasons for deforestation are agriculture and logging. These produce lands for plantations and grazing, and the world’s wood and paper products. Forests are also cut as a result of growing urban sprawl. Deforestation has many negative effects on the environment. It drives climate change and it results in the contamination and disappearance of water sources. Emissions and wastes from trucks and other machinery, as well as from forestry, result in the contamination of the trees, soil, and water sources. Removing trees deprives the forest of portions of its canopy, and without its sun-blocking protection, the forest’s moist soils quickly dry out. Ultimately, the water sources irrigating the drying soil dry out as well. Trees also help perpetuate the water cycle by returning water vapour back into the atmosphere. Without trees to fill these roles, many former forest lands quickly become barren deserts. All this disruption of the natural cycle results in extreme temperature changes that are harmful to the water sources and anything surrounding them. The most workable solution is to carefully manage forest resources by balancing the cutting with planting of enough young trees to replace the older ones that have fallen. 70% of Earth’s land, animals, and plants live in forests, and many cannot survive the deforestation that destroys their homes.



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Aerial photo of Amazon Rainforest shows lands heavily deforested areas around human populations.


All this contamination finds its way through river systems into seas, sometimes creating coastal ocean zones void of oxygen, and therefore aquatic life, and making the connection between land and sea painfully obvious. In parts of the developing world, like in Latin America, there are poor political, economical, and technical infrastructures to deal with the pollution threats facing freshwater and all of the species relying on it. The destruction of water sources, combined with inequitable access, has left most Latin Americans "water poor" and millions live without access to clean water at all. While the region's available resources could provide each person with close to 110,500 cubic feet of water every year, the average resident has access to only 1,010 cubic feet per year.

The security of a nation’s water supply is vital to its continued existence but in the case of a natural disaster many nations in Latin America can be blindsided as to the destabilizing effects the disaster wreaks on society and infrastructure. Many people are familiar with the types of natural disasters that can affect their community but having the appropriate measures in place for the protection and allocation of fresh water can save lives. The setup of man-made water control includes the construction of dams and reservoirs to hold supplies of freshwater. This water can become contaminated by the poor planning of the structure itself; the result of many cities trying to expand has increased the deforestation to make way for agriculture and the use of grazing animals (Joyce, 1997). This has also adversely affected the dams as animals are able to graze and thus drink and release excrement near the dams, contaminating the supplies of fresh water (Joyce, 1997, pp.1052-1053). This has also increased rates of erosion which can fill the dams with extra runoff of nutrient filled soil, which also lessens the amount of water held in the dam. (Joyce, 1997) Droughts in areas such as the Amazon rainforest in Brazil are perpetuated by the deforestation as without the protection of the trees to shield plants from the natural elements, sensitive plants die. With some droughts caused by El Nino, as occurred in the whole Amazon Basin in 1997-1998 can later lead to extensive fires as everything is already so dry. (Laurance & Williamson, 2001, p.1530) Drought, as experienced in Argentina in 2009 affected the growth and therefore harvesting of crops as many staple crops such as corn and even cotton were stunted, attacked by insects or did not grow at all (NASA).The people in Argentina therefore faced not only the economic repercussions of not being able to harvest the same amount of corn as the year previous, but also faced lack of water across the country. In contrast, countries on the Pacific coast including Peru, Ecuador and even Bolivia faced the opposite, receiving high levels of rainfall. In 2008 Bolivia reached a record of 600 millimeters of rain, which also causes massive flooding (NASA). The heavy rainfall can also lead to huge landslides as the soil is already eroded from deforestation as well as housing, therefore, there is nothing to hold all the soil back.

The effect of hurricanes on Latin American countries such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 that struck Honduras and Nicaragua left devastating effects as more than 1100 lives were lost. The intense force of the storm having gathered wind speeds of approximately 115 knots maintained over 15 hours with estimated incoming wave heights of 44 feet which would be crashing into Honduras (NCDC). The devastation from flooding and mudslides makes Hurricane Mitch the second deadliest hurricane ever to occur in -history. Hurricane Mitch also highlights the essential need for the infrastructure to be in place beforehand so safe water is accessible. Even in countries that may be prepared for such disasters, developing countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras faced destruction of whole villages destroyed and approximately 500 bodies being found in the Coco River (NCDC). The extensive devastation following the collapse of the walls of the Casita volcano and the subsequent flooding and mudslides contributed to the widespread pollution of all fresh water. Polluted water can spread disease such as yellow fever, cholera, and even Malaria (NCDC).

Hurricane Mitch 1998


Diseases such as “Coccidioidomycosis, or ‘Valley fever,’ are caused by the fungus Coccidioides”(CDC, 2009). This fungus is endemic, meaning it exists all the time in the community but only infects a small number of people. With the disruptive effect of a natural disaster it suddenly spreads to many members of the community. There is a real potential for this to occur in times of natural disasters such as drought or deforestation, where the ground has become hot and dry as this disease is spread easily through the respiratory tract in dry, windy conditions (CDC). This is particularly prevalent in many Latin American countries including but not limited to Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and even Venezuela where it is endemic (CDC). Cholera and malaria are examples of two diseases often spread after severe flooding and mudslides that often contaminate wells and water treatment facilities, to the detriment of all the inhabitants as their only source of fresh water is polluted (Tibbetts, 2000). Though water is not always as scarce in regions as it is difficult to access, many communities lack the technology and resources to get at the underground water supplies.
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Fresh water collection in Chile after February 27, 2010 earthquake


Since the means are not available in ‘peace’ times, when a natural disaster strikes the search for ‘clean’ water is one of desperation as many supplies have been contaminated by the floods, hurricanes, etc. (Tibbetts, 2000). It has also been theorized global warming is having an adverse effect as climate change is drawing more moisture into the atmosphere changing the cycles of precipitation. This would have a negative impact on countries that are already hot due to the nature of their location geographically. (Tibbetts, 2000) The earthquake experienced by Haiti in 2010 as well as the recent Chilean earthquake have caused immense problems of procuring fresh water for the people. Many developing countries in Latin America cannot afford to have their government spend large sums of money on the protection of infrastructure as it is just not available. Sadly most of the countries must rely on aid and donations from wealthier nations after the fact. Though the havoc caused by natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch are almost impossible to be prepared for on such a massive scale, governments need to enact plans for the allocation of funds to protect fresh water instead of using the nation’s money to fund infrastructure for the ‘here and now’ and instead plan for the future.

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Water Treatment Pools in Haiti 2010


There are many barriers to progress in the development of water resource sanitation and distribution. These include preventable problems, such as industrial pollution, as well as the inevitable results of natural disasters. The development of the water industry in Latin America is crucial to the health of the population as well as to providing a source of national revenue from export of this in demand commodity. The actions of current governments and private corporations in the region in the coming years will prove critical to the success of the Latin America region. This will only come with trans-national cooperation and stabilizing government reforms.




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