Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

To Tackle CO2, Start with H2O: How Latin America's Water Problems Could Affect Climate Change Negotiations

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

To Tackle CO2, Start with H2O: How Latin America's Water Problems Could Affect Climate Change Negotiations

Article excerpt

Ask the mayor of a city in the Andes Mountains about the outcome of the December 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen and you may be met with a shrug. Ask about the drought that has left parts of his city without drinking water, and you will almost certainly get an earful.

The notion that climate change and local water supplies may be connected comes as no surprise to mayors, governors, and presidents in Latin America. But like politicians everywhere, they must respond to immediate problems while keeping an eye on the polls. Not surprisingly, the plummeting level of a local freshwater reservoir can seem like a higher priority than rising concentrations of atmospheric CO^sub 2^.

This perennial tension between immediate and long-term priorities was one of several factors that prevented a more ambitious agreement out of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The tasks of negotiating an emissions-reduction framework and finding ways to finance mitigation and adaptation measures were daunting in and of themselves. But delegates from developing countries faced an additional challenge. Simply put, they had to persuade their citizens that the abstract risks of climate change were just as important as the tangible imperatives of health, food, education, jobs, and safety in countries where millions of people still lack these essentials.

Very few leaders were willing or able to make that argument last December, but this may be starting to change. In Latin America, water issues may soon bring climate change policy into municipal politics and local elections. Moreover, the intersection of water and climate could help to reconcile some of the disagreements that emerged in Copenhagen, opening a new path towards North-South collaboration on climate issues.


Water is more tightly linked to human potential and economic competitiveness in Latin America than almost anywhere else. If water were petroleum, Latin America would be considered a hydrological Middle East. While holding only 8 percent of the world's population, Latin America and the Caribbean control roughly 31 percent of the planet's freshwater resources.

This vast water advantage has yielded benefits on several fronts. Latin America as a whole gets around 68 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric sources, compared to a global average of less than 17 percent. The steady expansion of this clean, renewable, and comparatively inexpensive energy source has been crucial to the region's economic expansion over the past half century.

Latin America's lucrative commodity exports-primarily in mining and agriculture-depend on extraordinary quantities of water. The region exported nearly $68 billion worth of metals and minerals in 2008, including more than one-third of the world's copper. As mining executives in Chile's copper-producing northern region are quick to point out, their industry could not exist without the millions of cubic meters of water that are used to process ores and to refine metals.

Latin America has cemented its role as a global breadbasket over the last decade, with the value of its agricultural exports doubling to more than $100 billion in 2008. Millions of people in Asia, Europe, and Africa now depend on Latin American food imports. The region dominates the production of crops like soybean (60 percent of global exports in 2008), sugar (51 percent), and coffee (52 percent) that require vast quantities of predictable rainfall. And Latin America has become the leading exporter of animal protein, such as beef (50 percent of global exports) and poultry (36 percent), partly because countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have abundant rain-fed grass and can cheaply grow the grains needed for animal feed.

In contrast to geographic regions where land and water for agriculture are severely constrained, Latin America has the potential to vastly expand food production. …

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