Politics of Water

NEW AQ: Latin America's Invisible Crisis

Droughts and other water-related challenges pose a rising threat to millions of Latin Americans. But some governments and companies are pointing the way forward.
Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty; Gen Z: Ricardo Ceppi/Getty

This article is adapted from AQ's latest issue on the politics of water in Latin America | Leer in español | Ler em português

In theory, Latin America really shouldn’t be facing a water crisis – it’s home to 30% of the world’s fresh water, and just 8% of its population.

But a scan of headlines around the region reveals a different, and rapidly changing, reality. Drought in Central America is a main reason for the exodus of migrants to the United States and elsewhere. Taps in and around Mexico City sometimes go dry for weeks at a time. High prices for water were a main rallying cry during violent protests in Chile in mid-October. Meanwhile, water is not just scarce but often of poor quality – less than 40% of wastewater in Latin America is treated, befouling the region’s lakes, rivers and oceans and imposing a huge cost to public health. 

As the climate changes, many expect things to get worse. While water is indeed plentiful in the region, it is concentrated in areas like the Amazon and the glaciers of Patagonia, where few people live. Unfortunately, forecasters say the biggest risks are centered in precisely the biggest centers of population and economic activity, especially along and near the Pacific coast. According to The Nature Conservancy, 16 of Latin America’s 20 largest cities are now under water-related “stress,” and three are in danger of running out of water entirely: São Paulo, Lima and Mexico City.

For this issue of AQ, we sent journalists to those three cities to better understand what’s driving the crisis and explore realistic solutions. Why the emphasis on “realistic?” Because the most obvious solution – to spend billions of dollars retrofitting houses with pipes and building new treatment plants – is neither economically viable in an age of austerity nor a silver bullet. The bigger challenge lies in conserving and strengthening water sources themselves. So, the search is on for creative, cost-effective solutions that can make a difference.

Yes, they exist. From new technologies like solar-powered desalinization to centuries-old techniques borrowed from the Incas, there is reason for optimism. Recent progress in Medellín, perhaps Latin America’s biggest water success story, shows what’s possible when governments take the problem seriously, invest, and find innovative ways to bridge both geographic and class barriers.    

More is needed. One executive we spoke to called it an “invisible crisis” – slow-moving, not always occupying the front pages, but sinister just the same. The biggest change may involve mentality – recognizing that even in the region of Iguazú Falls, the Perito Moreno glacier and Lake Atitlán, water can no longer be considered an abundant resource, but an increasingly endangered one. 

Medellín's Other Success Story: How the City Cleaned Up Its Water

Inside the dramatic turnaround that made Colombia's second city a model for water management.

Modern Lima Needs More Water. A Pre-Incan Technology Could Keep Taps On.

To prevent a crisis in the future, Latin America's largest desert city is looking to the past.

In Mexico City, a Black Market for Life's Most Basic Commodity

Scarcity is fueling an underground water market – and even theft – in the metropolis.

In Brazil, Two Corporate Giants, a Drought and an Unexpected Partnership

When a 250-year drought hit São Paulo, established rivals moved from competition to collaboration.

The Rush to Save Argentina's Malbec

Climate change is making water scarce in wine country - putting the Argentine staple at risk.

How Latin America Manages Water

With 30% of global freshwater resources, Latin America’s biggest challenge when it comes to water isn’t supply – it’s governance.

How to Stop Drought from Becoming Famine

The former chief of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on how agribusiness can preserve vital water resources.

How Chile's Environment Policy Is Good for Fish, and for Business

The country's science-based approach shows fishing can be environmentally sustainable.

Four Strategies to Protect Latin America's Water

It's not too late for the region to take action on climate change and its toll on water.

Oil, Sewage, Heavy Metals: The Pollution Plaguing Latin America's Water

AQ looks at four rivers and one infamous bay that underscore Latin America's water crisis.

Crisis, Meet Opportunity: Latin America's Innovative Solutions for Clean Water

Latin America is turning to new technologies to address multiple water crises.
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: New AQ, Special Report, Water crisis, Drinking water, sustainability, Infrastructure

Like what you're reading?

Subscribe to Americas Quarterly's free Week in Review newsletter and stay up-to-date on politics, business and culture in the Americas.