Latin America is facing multiple water crises with far-reaching consequences for health, food security, renewable energy sources and export competitiveness, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) President Luis Alberto Moreno said.
“In Latin America, water is more intimately linked to development than any other region of the world,” Moreno said during a multimedia presentation, Latin American Solutions to the Water and Sanitation Crisis, made for the first time before the Development Congress of the International Water Association (IWA), which was held from Nov. 15-18, 2009.
The cross-sector importance of water in Latin America has become dramatically more evident in recent years. Droughts of historic proportions have caused electricity blackouts, crop losses, starvation and water rationing in countries as diverse as Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Venezuela and Mexico.
Nicaragua and El Salvador were reeling from the impact of Hurricane Ida [at the beginning of November 2009], underscoring the potential for damage from weather-related disasters, which scientists say may become more frequent and more severe due to global warming.
Andean glaciers, which supply 70 million persons with water, have shrunk by 30 percent over the past three decades. These glaciers are likely to disappear by 2030.
Even though Latin America is in a position to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for access to safe water, around 85 million persons in this region still lack a water connection to their homes and 110 million lack access to proper sewage. Almost 38,000 children die per year of intestinal diseases attributable to contaminated water.
Moreno’s presentation coincided with the opening of a food security summit of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, where delegates are promoting the goal of increasing food production by 50 percent over the next 15 years. In December 2009, countries will discuss ways to tackle climate change in a UN summit in Copenhagen.
“In Latin America, all these issues converge around water,” Moreno said.
While water management poses huge challenges, this resource represents a competitive advantage for the Latin American and Caribbean economies, Moreno said. The region has 8 percent of the world’s population but holds 31 percent of its fresh water reserves. Water provides a full 68 percent of the electricity generated in the region, compared 16 percent on average in other parts of the globe.
“This hydro advantage does not manifest itself solely in electricity,” Moreno said. “We all know that Latin America is one of the world’s major producers of grains. Still, few understand that we have specialized in foods that require large quantities of water.”
The region contributes 60 percent of the global exports of soybeans, 51 percent of sugar exports and 50 percent of beef exports. Latin America has an enormous untapped potential to produce even more, since only one percent of its water resources are used for agricultural production, compared with 53 percent in the Middle East and North Africa.
The IDB is working with several governments to create climate change mitigation plans and help build infrastructure that can withstand more inclement weather.
But in the short term, Moreno called for a renewed effort to close the gap in the water and sanitation coverage. “The question today is not how we are going to guarantee these services to 100 percent of the population,” he said, “but how long we are going to take to get it done.”
Moreno said cities like Monterrey in Mexico, Medellin in Colombia, Montero in Bolivia and Sao Paulo in Brazil produced successful models that showed that public, private and mixed capital operators have come up with innovative ways to improve water access sustainably.
“Some say that there are only mutually exclusive alternatives in the water debate,” Moreno said. “Private sector versus public sector. Subsidies versus market prices.”
“At the IDB we do not share that polarized and conflictive view of water,” he added. “We have learned that, in this industry, success doesn’t depend on an ideological option or a specific business model.”
Moreno recognized that the investments needed to close the coverage gap exceed $50 billion. For this, the IDB in 2007 launched its Water and Sanitation initiative “to give the sector a boost.”
Spain’s historic gesture
Over the past three years, the IDB has approved more than $4 billion in financing for water and sanitation projects that have benefited at least 30 million persons. But much more is needed, Moreno said, adding that the Bank is establishing strategic alliances “at a scale that can change the dynamics of this sector.”
Moreno praised Spain, which in 2008 pledged to donate $1.5 billion for a fund to improve water and sanitation services for the poorest communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. Moreno thanked Spain for this “historic” gesture toward the region, and for joining forces with the IDB to use the fund to co-finance projects in 12 countries. To date, the IDB and Spain have jointly announced programs in Haiti, Bolivia and Paraguay. In all, Spain and the IDB will mobilize $620 million for projects that will benefit four million persons, of which $420 million is being contributed by Spain.
Moreno also thanked Mexico’s FEMSA Foundation, which has agreed to finance a program of prizes and scholarships for water and sanitation professionals in the region. During the IWA congress, Moreno and FEMSA CEO José Antonio Fernández Carvajal presented a new prize for outstanding water and sanitation operators in Latin America.
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See also: IDB fact sheet – Water: a threatened resource in Latin America and the Caribbean, 17 Nov 2009
Source: IDB, 16 Nov 2009