Our Water Matters

Lessons from Uruguay: Expect the unexpected

Uruguay is a high-income country by Latin American standards that is slightly smaller than the state of Washington with a population of 3.5 million. Sandwiched between water-abundant Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is also rich in freshwater with six major watersheds, including the Santa Lucía River, which is the sole supply of drinking water for the metropolitan area of Montevideo, where more than half of the country’s citizens live.

In a New York Times opinion piece, Guillermo Garat, a journalist living in Montevideo, recently observed that “here in Uruguay, clean water is part of our national identity. Schoolchildren are taught that the country is blessed with abundant and high-quality water, thanks to many large rivers and six great aquifers. For most of our history, we could count on rain to fill these rivers and aquifers.”

All of that began to change over the past three years, when the Santa Lucía River virtually disappeared due to lack of rainfall and record-high temperatures. In order to address the shortage, OSE, the state-run water operator, began a gradual process of adding brackish water from the Rio de la Plata estuary to supplement the water supply. The city’s drinking water now has double the maximum levels of sodium and chlorides recommended by the World Health Organization, rendering the supply hazardous to human health if it’s available at all.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Drinking Water Pedro Arrojo-Agudo has told the government that it “must put human consumption at the forefront, as indicated by international human rights standards.” But the government has continued to downplay the issue and critics argue that it is giving preference to multinational corporations and agribusinesses over the needs of its citizens. 

Popular outrage received an added boost when Google announced plans to build a massive 72-acre data center that will use 2 million gallons of water a day to cool its servers. That is enough water to meet the daily needs of about 55,000 people, according to data obtained from the Ministry of Environment by Daniel Pena, a researcher at the University of the Republic in Montevideo. “Only a tiny proportion of water in Uruguay is used for human consumption,” Pena stated. “The majority is used for big agro industries, such as soya, rice, and wood pulping. Now we have Google planning to use enormous quantities of water.”

The situation exposes a serious lack of planning. “Despite obvious population and economic growth,” according to Garat, “our country did not invest in drinking water reservoirs, even when the problem started to come into view. Since March 2020, the government has declared several emergencies for agricultural producers, granting tax waivers and grace periods. But it waited until June 19 of this year to declare an emergency for the rest of the population.” Statements by Carmen Sosa of the Commission to Defend Water and Life corroborate this view: “Yes, we have had a shortage of rain, but the drought has simply shown the problems with our economic model … Water for human consumption has to come before profit.”

Raul Viñas, a meteorologist and member of the Movement for a Sustainable Uruguay, has identified four priority areas to address the drinking water supply: repair the water networks, generate more water reserves from uncontaminated areas, develop new sources of fresh water, and spread awareness about water conservation. “We have to change our way of thinking about water and understand that it is a finite, scarce and expensive resource,” Viñas emphasized.

Adrián Peña, a former environment minister under Uruguayan President Lacalle Pou, acknowledged that all political parties shared responsibility for not making investment in water management more of a priority. “Whenever anyone raised these issues,” Peña stated, “the response was: this has never happened.”

The lessons from Uruguay are clear: We must redouble our efforts and obtain available funding to strengthen our water and wastewater infrastructure, and stop taking our water for granted. Local leaders must focus not only on economic development, but also on investments in water that directly benefit all citizens as well as the economy.  “What is happening here in Montevideo can happen in any city in the world,” according to biologist and environmental expert Mariana Meerhoff. “With climate change, such scenarios are becoming more and more likely.”

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee and president of the Marfa Parks and Recreation Board. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]