Water Resources Out of Control
By Gustavo González*
The wasteful practices, shortages and pollution affecting water in Latin America are the result of inadequate and often chaotic government regulation of water resources, say experts. Appropriate management requires stability, solid institutions and political will.
SANTIAGO - Latin America needs institutional and social stability, a solid legal framework and a centralized authority -- but one that is open to participation by users -- if it hopes to overcome the current problems in regulating its water resources and to achieve sustainable management, agree experts.
The management of river basins, watersheds and subterranean reservoirs is plagued with "gray zones" that lead to waste, shortages and contamination of water supplies, Axel Dourojeanni, director of the Natural Resources and Infrastructure Division at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), told Tierramérica.
"In the last 10 years, more modifications of water legislation in Latin America and the Caribbean have been proposed than in the entire last century. Goals are constantly being readjusted, the personnel change, or the institutions in charge of water management are restructured. Unfortunately, in spite of all efforts, the deterioration of water resources continues to rise," says Dourojeanni in a recent study co-authored with Andrei Jouravlev.
Frequently a river route is affected by 50 or more actors, from industries, farmers and ranchers, potable water and sewage companies, to poor populations settled along the riverbanks, says the document.
Nearly all governments in the region have an agency whose mandate is to regulate the distribution of water, but these tend to give priority to designating and monitoring water supplies used in farm irrigation.
It is thus a broad field in which state and private entities intervene -- related to mining, electric energy, public works, environment, health, sanitation services -- giving way to virtual anarchy in water management.
In this sense, the participation of private entities in water management is neither good nor bad, said another ECLAC specialist, Miguel Solanes, member of the technical advisory team of the Global Water Partnership (GWP), in a conversation with Tierramérica.
The shortage of funds and the perception that the state is by nature inefficient affected the administration of water resources in most Latin American countries, but the deregulation process was itself deficient because it mistakenly assumed there would be competition in a sector that in practice tends towards monopolization, said Solanes.
Latin America, and particularly South America, holds major freshwater resources in its lakes and rivers, which are fed by abundant rainfall, comparable only to those of Asia, according to the GWP.
Nevertheless, 25 percent of South American territory is arid or semi-arid, 20 percent of the continent's residents do not have regular access to potable water, and 30 percent lack adequate sanitation systems, says a GWP report based on figures from 2000.
The experts recommend a centralized authority in which water users can participate, one that distributes the water in a rational way and operates through the management of river basins and watersheds.
That was where Mexico was headed in 1993 when it created the Watershed Councils, whose mission is to improve water administration, develop infrastructure and preserve river basins with input for society.
A watershed encompasses the area in which water from rainfall or snowmelt flows or drains, passing through streams or creeks until it reaches a main river, and later a lake, lagoon or reservoir.
In the 25 Mexican councils participate government delegates and representatives of various sectors of users -- farming, industry, distribution firms, urban consumers -- with voice and vote, and universities and non-governmental organizations, who may not vote but can provide information.
According to Jean Francois Donzier, director general of the International Office for Water, Mexico is one of the most advanced countries in Latin America and the world when it comes to integral and efficient use of water resources.
However, a similar effort resulted in frustration in Peru, where the Autonomous Watershed Authorities were created, made up of government and user representatives.
To date, only five such entities have been formed and none is truly autonomous. Ten percent of their budgets is to come from irrigation fees, but the failure of users to pay for this service runs at 50 to 80 percent.
"A social crisis arising from poverty could lead to water service shutdowns, but it is not necessarily a crisis in governance. A governance crisis happens when there is no authority in charge of water usage," pointed out ECLAC's Dourojeanni.
Appropriate administration requires political, economic and social stability. But that is not enough if there is not a solid, permanent and articulated institutional system throughout the country.
Another requirement is political will and knowledge of the sector in governments, parliaments, businesses and the community, say the authors of the ECLAC report.
Mexico and Colombia are, in their opinion, the nations that have made greatest effort to manage their watersheds, while Chile and Brazil stand out for their institutional stability in national water administration.
On the other extreme there are countries like Guatemala, where the government as recently as May presented a legislative bill for the rational exploitation of water resources and to prevent industries and communities from continuing to pollute rivers and watersheds.
* Gustavo González is an IPS correspondent. Abraham Lama/Peru, Diego Cevallos/Mexico, and Alberto Ramírez /Guatemala contributed to this report.