South American Megacities, Water Scarcity and the Climate Crisis

By Robert Albro*

Drinking water distribution/ MunicipioPinas/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Access to fresh water has become a regular flashpoint throughout Latin America, particularly in its largest cities, and threatens to trigger tensions and even war. Sixteen of the region’s 20 largest cities are experiencing water-related “stress,” and three of its largest – Sao Paulo, Lima, and Mexico City – are in danger of running out of water completely in the near future, according to reliable sources.

  • In 1995 World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin presciently warned that future wars would be fought over water. The 2000 Water War in Cochabamba, Bolivia, kicked off an era of social mobilization around chronic water shortages and control over access to fresh water. Protests against the privatization of water have become common – in Colombia in 2013, Ecuador in 2014, Brazil in 2015, Chile in 2016 and 2019, Peru in 2019, and Mexico in 2020, among others.

Water challenges faced by some of South America’s megacities show that the urban water crisis is a wicked problem with no straightforward solution.

Lima: Peru’s capital is the second largest “desert city” in the world, after Cairo, receiving an average of 0.3 inches of rain annually. The coastal area in which it sits has 62.5 percent of the population but only 1.8 percent of its fresh water. It depends largely on three rivers fed by rapidly shrinking Andean tropical glaciers, reduced by 40 percent since the 1970s. As the glaciers vanish, water stress is expected to become “critical” for the more than 10 million inhabitants of Peru’s capital by 2025. Peripheral barrios are already significantly affected: An estimated 1.5 million of Lima’s residents already lack access to potable water. Shrinking glaciers are expected to dramatically worsen water inequality in many Andean cities, including Quito in Ecuador; Arequipa, Huaraz and Huancayo in Peru; and La Paz-El Alto, Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosí and Sucre in Bolivia.

Sao Paulo: In 2014, the worst draught in 250 years left Latin America’s second largest city less than two weeks away from running out of water, with reserves at 3 percent of capacity. Emergency rationing led to protests, and in 2018 it almost happened again. Brazil has more fresh water than any country on earth, but half is in the Amazon, where only 4 percent of its population lives, and deforestation in the Amazon – a giant water pump – reduces rainfall in Sao Paulo. The city’s watershed is also being deforested, ecologically degraded, and contaminated with large amounts of industrial wastewater. Its freshwater infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle these multiple stressors. Other Brazilian cities, including Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, face similar problems.

Santiago de Chile: While Santiago currently has adequate water and infrastructure for storage, treatment and distribution, underground aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be replenished, and climate change has introduced a destructive cycle of floods and droughts. The city’s water availability is expected to decline as much as 40 percent this century, and the urban population continues to grow. Oversight bodies have little influence over how water is delivered, compounded by extreme administrative fragmentation and poorly managed participatory reform efforts. High prices and poor service by the city’s privatized water company were a rallying cry of protesters in 2019. Improved water governance, along the lines of what Medellín, Colombia, has achieved, is possible and can dramatically improve water access and quality. But Santiago has much work to do.

In theory Latin America should not be experiencing a water crisis because it has 30 percent of the world’s fresh water but only 8 percent of its population. But it is highly unevenly distributed and concentrated in places where few people live. Glacial melt, deforestation, and inadequate water governance are all factors in why urban water scarcity has become a wicked problem.

  • Adding to the misery, as agricultural economies throughout much of the region collapse as a result of changing climatic conditions, urban in-migration is a continuing challenge. Combine this with poor and neglected infrastructure, unregulated industrial pollution, high levels of freshwater contamination, increasing social contestation around water access and management– and the problem looks daunting. Where Latin America’s urban water crisis is concerned, climate change is neither straightforward nor a stand-alone proposition, but rather part of a complex set of urgent crises that will require especially creative and imaginative problem-solving in the years to come.

February 9, 2021

* Robert Albro is an anthropologist and Research Associate Professor at CLALS.

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