Region Suffers from Lack of Foresight and Poor Management of Water Resources

Article excerpt

[The following article by Armando Chavez is reprinted with the permission of Noticias Aliadas in Lima, Peru. It appeared in the November 5, 2003, edition of Latinamerica Press.]

Despite an enviable level of water resources, Latin America and the Caribbean is unable to provide potable water for 27% of its population, less than 10% of municipal sewage is treated, and coherent policies in the sector are scarce.

In numbers, 80 million people in the region lack potable water, while 120 million have no sanitation services, statistics of international organizations show. The overall picture is one of mediocre services and inadequate infrastructure.

In the opinion of Argentine university professor Eduardo Mario Gelati, the management problems of the sector stem from a lack of long-term vision, ignorance, negligence, and the absence of controls.

"Politicians and government officials at times have no interest in anything beyond their term in office. Policies change when governments change. Projects are begun and abandoned. Water management has to involve foresight," said Gelati, who heads the hydraulics department of the Universidad de La Plata.

Regional water resources deteriorate as a result of human activities, a decline in the efficient functioning of ecosystems, and a growing and concentrated population, a report this year by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) said.

Raul Antonio Lopardo, manager of programs and projects of Argentina's Instituto Nacional del Agua (INA), said one of the biggest problems is that responsibility for the management of the river basins and rivers is divided among different jurisdictions.

"They remain under the control of up to a dozen legal, administrative, and political institutions. It is enormously difficult to reconcile so many interests and points of view," said Lopardo, a former president of the International Association of Engineering and Hydraulic Research.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said some of the region's major problems related to water are pollution of residential water, industrial waste, mining tailings, and agricultural contamination.

The Tribunal Centroamericano del Agua, a parallel court set up to settle water disputes and cases of pollution of waterways in the region, has said that important basins and waterways in Central America are polluted and/or destroyed. Rivers and subterranean waters are used as dumps for garbage as well as for agricultural and industrial waste.

Gaining a knowledge of the dimension of the problem is difficult. The FAO's System of Information on the Use of Water in Agriculture and Rural Areas said that figures on treated waste water are only available in a few countries but that, for the most part, the percentage of those treated in plants is very low. …