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LATIN AMERICA / THE CARIBBEAN
Unequal access
Elsa Chanduví Jaña
11/4/2007
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Poverty destined to continue in region with unequal access to water.

“Poverty, power and inequality are at the heart” of the water crisis, says the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report 2006, and this is no exception in Latin America and the Caribbean, the world’s most unequal region.

The region holds 30 percent of the world’s water, but its distribution is far from equal. The Amazon basin in Peru, Colombia and Brazil is water-rich, but the area has a very low population density.

Arid and semi-arid areas in Mexico or the Peruvian coast, the countries’ economic motors and also home to most of the population, are suffering from constant water shortages because of the scarcity of the resource and its rampant contamination.

It is the region’s poor — 40 percent of the close to 570 million Latin Americans and Caribbeans — who feel the effects of the water and sanitation crisis the most, suffering significant health repercussions.

Only 40 percent of the 5 poorest percent of the region’s population has sanitation service, while the 5 richest percent has almost complete coverage, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

Sometimes, residents in some of the region’s poorest neighborhoods pay between five to 10 times more for a liter of water than wealthier residents in the same city. For example, in the Puerto Principe slum in Haiti, water consumption represents an average of 20 percent of household expenses.

Along with water shortages and contaminated water, the resource is still on the path to becoming privatized. The worldwide price of bottled water is more than oil by 300 percent, and its sale generates some US$22 billion a year.

In Peru, for example, a liter of bottled water costs $0.50, while the average rate for drinking water in urban areas is $0.43 per cubic meter, meaning Peruvians pay the same for a bottle of water as they would for 1,000 liters of drinking water, a common scenario throughout the region.

Under threat
Urban growth has put even more stress on water demands, putting pressure on river basins and estuaries, as well as the hard-to-treat liquid waste, which ends up contaminating the basins themselves.

Less than 13 percent of the waste water in the region’s cities is treated before being dumped in rivers, lakes or the ocean.

The bodies of water in Latin America are under serious threat: rivers are used as garbage dumps for human, industrial and agricultural waste; the construction of hydroelectric dams cause irreversible damage to river basins; the export-oriented agricultural industry uses vast quantities of water with inefficient techniques as well as a high volume of chemicals that contaminate subsoil waters.

“Latin America is increasingly loosing the sustainability of its water. You only have to go out to the cities to see that the rivers are turning into dunghills because of poor management,” warned Javier Bogantes Díaz, director of the Latin American Water Tribunal at the end of the Oct. 8-11 hearing in Jalisco, Mexico.

It was the fourth hearing of the tribunal — an alternative environmental court that issues non-binding rulings. The tribunal reviewed seven cases of threats to water resources in the region from Chile, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, based on contamination from farming chemicals, mining and real estate development.

“This is an ethical court and its rulings, written by legal, health and environmental experts, aiming to alert authorities about the urgent issue of water and the fact that we cannot continue enjoying nature if we continue to put water sustainability in danger for future generations,” Bogantes said to the La Jornada newspaper.

Sustainable management
What can be done to ensure quality water at fair prices to the entire population? What can be done to conserve water resources and protect them from degradation and even disappearing?

Some international bodies have promoted a new way of thinking about water. They say that we all need to be conscious about a growing lack of water because of contamination, climate change and squandering, and the fact that the vital resource is increasingly more expensive.

Social organizations that consider water a common good, community property say access to safe drinking water should be a basic human right. They promote the concept that water should be treated as a public resource managed for the common good, not for merchandise.

If governments consider water a fundamental human right they would not allow corporations to harvest this resource as if it were common merchandise. This forces the region’s poorest citizens to pay far more for less water than the amount those with more resources enjoy at lower prices.

To conserve water resources is truly to end conditions of inequality; failing to do this is to feed conflicts that have increased in intensity.

Considering water is a basic human right is to demand that local, national and international public institutions and the many different consumers agree to promote the use of water in a rational, equal and sustainable way.


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