Deep Drought Punishes Latin American Clean Water Pioneer

Via Bloomberg, a look at how extreme weather has caught Uruguay – a standout for its history of investing in safe drinking water – flat-footed as it faces the safety risks of prolonged drought:

Uruguay is suffering an unprecedented water crisis as a record drought threatens supplies of piped drinking water used by more than half of its 3.5 million people.

In the South American country wedged between Argentina and Brazil, state-run water utility OSE is mixing brackish water from the Rio de la Plata estuary with its dwindling fresh water supplies to avoid service cuts in the capital Montevideo and neighboring communities. That extreme measure has given the tap water in the country’s largest urban area an unpleasant salty taste since late April.

The authorities are providing extra welfare payments and bottled water to the poor in Montevideo and warning high-risk groups such as pregnant women to avoid drinking the sodium-laced tap water. It’s a stark reminder that even a wealthy developing country with a reputation for good governance can be caught off guard by extreme weather events. 

Uruguay — a nation about the size of Missouri that has one of the region’s highest per capita incomes — is bordered and crisscrossed by rivers with annual rainfall averaging a hefty 52 inches. However, more than three consecutive years of drought have depleted the watershed serving the capital. Montevideo’s main reservoir, Paso Severino, now holds about 7% of its approximately 67 million cubic meter capacity.

The upshot is that people are shunning tap water in one of the first capital cities in Latin America to receive piped drinking water when service started in 1871. Today, Uruguay is an outlier in Latin America for providing almost universal safe drinking-water coverage in urban areas. 

Francisco Gross, whose engineering firm Seinco has worked on water and waste projects across South America, attributes that to more than a century of state investment in basic services by governments that assigned a high priority to public health. Those investments helped spare Uruguay from a cholera epidemic that swept Latin America in the early 1990s.

“Governments were concerned about improving infrastructure and the quality of life of the population. Safe drinking water is indispensable for adequate public health,” he said. 

But even that stellar record didn’t protect the country from the safety risks of a prolonged drought.

Successive governments since the 1990s postponed new water projects for the capital because the timely arrival of rains during previous droughts created a false sense of security, Gross said. 

“That was the big mistake we made. We have an expression in Uruguay, which is to kick the ball down the road,” Gross said. “This water scare has to be put to good use.”

A recent survey by pollster Opcion Consultores found that 56% of Montevideo residents have stopped drinking tap water, while 14% are consuming less.

Taxi driver Paula Ghirardi started drinking and cooking with water from her grandfather’s private well when the tap water became salty. The crisis has shaken her confidence in the city’s water supply.

“It worries me because I don’t know if the water will go back to like it was before, which even then wasn’t that great,” she said.

Sales of bottled water by volume more than tripled in the first half of May, with consumers spending an extra 30% on water during that period, according to retail data analytics firm Scanntech.

“I make my coffee and mate tea with bottled water now. I’ll have spent 2,500 pesos ($65) on water in a month. That’s just for me and my dog. Imagine a family with children and pets,” said Claudio Guedes, who has been selling semi-precious stones at a stand in Montevideo’s historic old city for 23 years.

Waiting for Rain

The only short-term solution to Montevideo’s woes is rain. The recent arrival of the El Nino weather phenomenon — which tends to bring wet, warm weather to the bottom half of South America — should lead to abundant rainfall towards the end of the year, said Juan Luis Perez, a meteorologist and director of Nimbus Weather.

“The water crisis still has a couple more months until we note a change,” Perez said.

The government says there is enough water to supply Montevideo until the winter rains arrive. The single water treatment plant serving the capital draws most of its water from the Santa Lucia River and Paso Severino. The reservoir was last at full capacity with three and a half months of water in late November. But heavy summer demand amid scorching heat and scant rain forced OSE to start using increasing volumes of brackish water.

“If it hadn’t been for that decision we would have run out of water in February,” OSE general manager Arturo Castagnino told broadcaster Canal 10.

The health ministry more than doubled the maximum allowable levels of sodium and chloride permitted in tap water to 440 milligrams per liter and 720 milligrams per liter, respectively. The high sodium content isn’t just a problem for households. State-run oil company Ancap is barging in fresh water from the Uruguay River to avoid damaging the country’s only refinery by using salty water.

Political Liability

The crisis has become a political headache for President Luis Lacalle Pou whose administration won international praise for its handling of the pandemic. Montevideo residents have protested in front of government offices to voice their discontent over water quality.

A recent poll gave the opposition left-wing Broad Front party a six-percentage point lead over the president’s center-right coalition ahead of general elections in October 2024. Lacalle Pou is constitutionally barred from seeking immediate reelection.

The Broad Front has criticized the government for eschewing the construction of a new $80 million reservoir on the Santa Lucia River in favor of a $250 million aqueduct and water treatment plant on the Rio de la Plata. The government is scheduled to open bids for that project this month.

Ex-president Jose Mujica, who was in office from 2010 to 2015, admitted that many governments including his own didn’t invest enough in drinking water.

“Sometimes we make a mistake when it comes to priorities. We should have addressed the water issue much earlier,” Mujica said in televised comments.

This entry was posted on Friday, June 9th, 2023 at 7:43 pm and is filed under Uruguay.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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