Abundant Water, For a Few
By Mario Osava *
Scientists, government authorities, the business community and civil society representatives are seeking ways to resolve the problem of unequal water distribution in Latin America.
RIO DE JANEIRO - Water is abundant in the Americas, but its irregular distribution throughout the territory, contamination and waste make it a scarce resource for many people.
In Latin America, ''two worlds coexist: one in which there is a great deal of water and few people, and another where water is scarce and the population is dense,'' summarized Mexican expert Eduardo Mestre, head of the International Network of Basin Organizations (INBO).
There is a lack of water in northern Mexico and Chile, and in northeast Brazil. There are also many countries with extremely arid regions, some that are densely populated, while this natural resource is abundant in the Amazon basin, which has relatively few inhabitants.
Latin America, which had long focused its efforts to increase water distribution through infrastructure works, ''had to change paradigms,'' and begin to control demand, said Mestre, leader of a network comprising 134 water-related municipal and provincial organizations in 77 countries.
Growing concern about water supplies was evident at the fourth Inter-American Dialogue on Water Management, coordinated by the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Water Resources Network the first week of September in Foz de Iguaçú, a Brazilian city near the three-way border with Argentina and Paraguay.
The Dialogue, held every two years, this year drew 1,070 participants, including government authorities, scientists, members of the business community and delegates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), coming from 46 countries. At the first such meeting, held eight years ago in Miami, only 60 people attended. In Panama, in 1999, there were 420.
The conclusions of the Dialogue, under the theme ''In Search of Solutions'', are to be taken to the International Conference on Freshwater, slated for December in the German city of Bonn, and to the World Water Forum, in Japan in 2003.
The Foz de Iguaçú conference was an attempt to reach consensus on three points, Mestre told Tierramérica: managing water resources based on the watershed concept - instead of limiting it to administration by border-bound municipalities or states -, involving society in management efforts, and achieving solutions ''that originate from below, from local communities.''
According to the recommendations of the Dialogue participants, ''watershed committees'' should be created, made up of government officials and representatives from civil society to decide - as a team - on water usage and protection. Similar committees can already be found in many countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, with Brazil at the forefront claiming 150.
The Dialogue also discussed matters such as river basins that cover more than one country, climate-related impacts on water supplies, sanitation and aquifers.
Shared watersheds and rivers that serve as borders are today ''a factor of Latin American integration,'' which has overcome its past of disputes, stressed Raymundo Garrido, secretary of water resources at Brazil's Ministry of Environment and new president of the Inter-American Water Resources Network.
The Iguazú area is emblematic of regional integration. It as a tourist center because of the majestic Iguazú Falls, shared by Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and is home to an electrical energy center, the gigantic Itaipú hydroelectric dam, which belongs to Brazil and Paraguay.
Brazil also shares with its neighbors the immense river basins of the Amazon and the River Plate, and the Mato Grosso wetlands (Pantanal), which extend into Bolivia and Paraguay.
Similarly, the Guaraní Aquifer extends through south-central Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay, with subterranean waters sufficient to supply 170 million people for 2,400 years, says Garrido.
While Brazil is a symbol of water wealth, it is also an example of climatic vulnerability. Two years of drought have unleashed an energy crisis that has meant the majority of the population of 160 million has had to ration electricity usage since June.
The crisis has had its positive side in that the Brazilian people have become involved in the fight against wasting energy and water. Charging for use of water resources, finally approved after 18 years of debate, will reinforce awareness about the value of water and the need to save it, stated Garrido.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.