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Latin America and the Caribbean: building water security

About the blog

Luís Alejandro Padrino
Agricultural Engineer specialized in Environment, Water Resources and Hydrographic Basins.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: building water security

With water resources that amount to more than 20,000 mᶟ per person per year, Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the regions in the world with the largest water reserves, water resource availability being three fold the global average. However, the region faces huge challenges for the water sector: more than 40 million people do not have proper access to drinking water and sanitation services, about 80% of the waste water is discharged directly into rivers, and the distribution of water resources is very uneven, something exacerbated by the lack of water infrastructure and limited, inefficient coordination between governments, managers and communities.

Concerning the social context, the region has experienced great population growth, exceeding 650 million inhabitants, with 85% of the population living in cities. This leads to increased pressures on natural resources and river basins, with a significant increase in the demand for water and for efficient mechanisms to address the needs of the population.

Water is a strategic resource for sustainable development in Latin America and the Caribbean, a tool to bridge social gaps

From a different point of view, changes in hydrological processes resulting from climate change exacerbate vulnerability factors and threat communities with floods and droughts. The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon has a higher incidence, while in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean we observe a considerable increase in higher category hurricanes. The latter cause natural disasters, human losses and economic losses, that according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) could exceed 5% of the region's GDP in 2050. Similarly, the loss of 40% of the volume and area of glaciers in the Andes in the last half a century entails an important decrease in water availability for millions of people, particularly in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

A large number of professionals, scholars and researchers form the public and private sector have proposed greater water security as an objective of the region. They consider these challenges as great opportunities to innovate and develop technologies that improve water efficiency and productivity, in order to achieve social, environmental and economic sustainability. Agriculture, the primary user of water resources, contributes more than 10% of the GDP in several countries in the region, according to data from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). Therefore, considering the availability of water and of extensive areas of fertile land to grow crops, Latin America and the Caribbean appears as an important global food producer.

Water is a strategic resource for sustainable development in Latin America and the Caribbean, a tool to bridge social gaps and obtain significant advances in food and energy security (Water-Food-Energy Nexus). Therefore, most countries are implementing schemes to improve water governance and integrated water resource management, using a river basin approach. However, the implementation of those public policies has encountered multiple barriers, and maybe the largest of these barriers is that they are imposed as top-down initiatives, without taking into account the views of communities, users and their customs when designing the policies. One of the countries in the region that can boast great advances in this regard is Peru, where they are implementing projects that incorporate traditional knowledge in symbiosis with new techniques and technologies.

Different factors lead us to think that the good news for the water sector in Latin America and the Caribbean are yet to come: the potential is there, and the human talent as well. It is just a matter of ideas coming to fruition.

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