Actualizado: 28 de junio de 2023
Tracking the crisis de agua in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Since the beginning of this decade, I’ve lived through a winter storm that caused cascading infrastructure failures in Austin, Texas, and a pandemic that affected the entire world. Now, I’m getting to experience a water crisis in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Like the United States, Uruguay is good at marketing. Indeed, its sustainable infrastructure and resiliency against climate change were part of what drew me to the country. Late last year, The New York Times was asking if this small South American country could be an exemplar of sustainability for others. In January, the World Economic Forum was proclaiming the country a sustainability success story. Now, Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city, in which 60 percent of Uruguayans live, is almost out of fresh water.
I, like so many others, wonder how exactly this came to be, especially in a country that shares the second-largest known aquifer in the world, the Guarani Aquifer, with its neighbors. Unfortunately, very little information has been forthcoming from the government. Further, as is to be expected, even less information is provided in English. So, I’m starting this Editor’s Note to offer a resource in English and contemporaneous critical history of the water crisis in Montevideo in 2023.
Uruguayan government officials blame the unprecedented drought affecting the country for Montevideo’s water shortage. While this is certainly a factor, by no means is it to blame. The blame for failures of critical infrastructure lies only with those leaders responsible for ensuring its operation.
The Montevideo water crisis is primarily the result of deliberate mismanagement and underinvestment in the state water company, Obras Sanitarias del Estado (OSE), which provides water to 99.7 percent of the country.
A few facts:
Fifty percent of Montevideo’s water is lost on its way to the consumer
through leaky pipes — in fact, there’s a leak marked with a flashing construction sign across from my apartment that’s been flowing for a week now (as of 26 June 2023; some repairs started 4 July 2023 but not completed). For comparison, Austin, a city of similar population size, loses less than ten percent. The average water lost in distribution for developing countries is 35 percent.
Under the law, the president has the responsibility for imposing fees for the use of public water resources by private companies. Repeated administrations have failed to do so. Failure to do so results in wasteful and unscrupulous practices by companies merely seeking to maximize their profit off a public resource.
OSE has been hobbled by governments unwilling to invest in its staff and infrastructure. Plans for improving Montevideo’s water supply have been kicked around for 50 years or more with no actual work being done.
Why would the politicians of a country seemingly devoted to sustainability and renewable sources of energy overlook their water infrastructure? It’s the usual neoliberal playbook: starve public services of resources and personnel so they begin to fail, undermining consumers’ confidence in publicly run enterprises’ operations and forcing the — at least partial — privatization of water services, a proposal that the Uruguayan people have already rejected. The population rejected proposals to allow private companies to participate in water services and even enshrined access to water as a basic constitutional right in the mid-2000s. So, conservative politicians, like those comprising the current administration of President Luis Lacalle Pou, are attempting to use this prolonged drought as a force multiplier in a flanking move to achieve those rejected privatization goals.
The same neoliberal mismanagement of government affairs can be seen in the national government’s response to the water crisis: do nothing; wait for rain.
In January, scientists recommended the government institute water-saving measures, but nothing was publicly said or done.
In April, OSE started mixing brackish water from the Rio de la Plata estuary with Montevideo’s freshwater supply from the depleted Paso Severino reservoir, causing the sodium, chlorides and trihalomethanes levels in the tap water to spike above the levels recommended by the Ministry of Public Health (MSP). “The water is not potable, but it is drinkable,” said Minister of the Environment Robert Bouvier. The MSP has temporarily increased the allowable levels of such contaminants in the drinking water.
The Ministry of Public Health recommended pregnant mothers and those with high blood pressure avoid tap water. See the ministry’s full list of recommendations here.
President Lacalle Pou finally declared a water emergency (emergencia hidrica en Montevideo y zona metropolitana) on June 19 — long after OSE started adding brackish water to its usual freshwater flow. It was even after Reuters reported we only had ten days of water left.
They sent a C-130 to Houston to pick up a desalination plant to supply hospitals with clean water, but it was too big for the plane.
They started drilling in search of water in public parks to provide water to hospitals, schools and the like.
The national government removed the usual taxes for companies producing and selling bottled water but left it up to vendors to lower the prices for the
consumer. As of yesterday morning, my nearest grocery store was selling Salus 2.25 liters for more than double its published cost (in an act of transparency, the Salus bottled water company posted its reduced prices on social media). A distributor nearby is selling it at cost. The president has also started publishing the weekly average cost of bottled water.
No reduction in the monthly fees for salty tap water is seen as necessary by OSE or the president, though.
They’ve started construction of a new reservoir that they claim will be ready in
30 60 days. (The following clearly was justified: It seems unlikely to me that anything can be done in 30 days down here — or done well anywhere — but that’s what they say.)
They also say most of the “improvements” currently being made will be washed away or have to be demolished once the rain does come.
The city of Montevideo and the national government are handing out two liters of free bottled water each day to pregnant mothers, children, pensioners, those with a doctor’s order and others at risk. (Though it should be noted the national government blocked the city from accessing a grant from the International Development Bank to provide more water.)
Argentina offered to send a desalination plant, a tanker ship with water and military personnel to run them. Initially, President Lacalle Pou formally accepted them but requested they not be sent yet. After ridicule for not actually accepting the help, Lacalle Pou again accepted but only after minimizing the contributions of Argentina.
Clearly, there’s plenty of blame to go around — this is a long-ignored issue by multiple administrations on both left and right. Former President Mujica has criticized his administration for not addressing the water issue during its time in office. But there’s one administration in power right now — and during the entirety of the drought — that hasn’t seemed to do much at all to prevent or mitigate the water crisis and its effects. Instead, President Lacalle Pou has been celebrating Google data center plans and green hydrogen factories, which require massive amounts of water. As for the water crisis, he blames the drought.
Possibly the most maddening thing, though, is that they don’t give us any idea as to when the water will go completely brackish or stop flowing. The president has started publishing daily updates of the sodium and chloride levels but made no effort to keep the population apprised of the timeline to zero water we are facing. While he publishes the latest daily usage by the city and the remaining level of water in the reservoir, there’s no indication as to when we can expect the water to stop flowing, assuming OSE turns it off to prevent further damage to the city’s water system and machinery with excessively salty water. At the current rate of loss at the reservoir, it’s clear they’re already mixing a heavy amount of salty water with the freshwater flow.
President Lacalle Pou said last week that there will come a time soon when the water will be undrinkable (that time has already come for normal people, pets and plants), likely through August. Late Saturday, OSE announced forthcoming water shortages in Montevideo and the metropolitan area as they make “maneuvers.” These were later clarified by the OSE union president as being intentional shut-offs in various parts of the city for periods of time to force conservation — essentially, rolling blackouts of water.
Update 14 July 2023: After a few days of rain that added slightly to the reservoir, it is reported OSE may stop mixing brackish water into the supply. There’s still a long way to go to normal — and even farther to go to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
My growing list of sources for this note is available on Zotero.
I will continue to update this note as the situation develops. You can add to it or comment on it by signing up for PubPub and double-clicking any line in the note.