Running Dry: The Battle for Water Security in Uruguay and Why It Foreshadows a Greater Issue

Running Dry: The Battle for Water Security in Uruguay and Why It Foreshadows a Greater Issue

. 8 min read

On June 22, Uruguay’s Archbishop, Daniel Sturla, tweeted: “Our God, we ask You to give us the necessary rain.” He was responding to the water crisis the South American nation has faced for the past three years, the worst in over half a century. While some thanked the Archbishop for his efforts, others pointed out that God is probably not very active on Twitter.

Home to just over 3.5 million people—less than the Greater Boston Area—Uruguay has been overshadowed by neighboring giants Argentina and Brazil for most of its history. However, it boasts one of the highest human development indices and GDP per capita in the region. In 2004, Uruguay also became the first country in the world to recognize access to drinking water as a constitutional right, a pledge it is currently struggling to uphold.

Since 2020, Uruguay has suffered a series of droughts that have led to billions in losses in the agricultural sector, the country’s biggest industry. Most alarmingly, the droughts have threatened access to safe drinking water for the capital of Montevideo’s Metropolitan Area, where 60 percent of the population—approximately 1.9 million people—live. Montevideo’s main water source, the Paso Severino Reservoir, currently holds nine percent of its normal capacity, a figure that reached an all-time low of 1.7 percent in early July. This drop prompted the Uruguayan government, led by center-right president Luis Lacalle Pou, to declare a water emergency on June 19.

Step 1: Add 440mg of Salt

In order to meet demand, the State Sanitary Works Administration (OSE), the body in charge of the country’s water supply, decided to gather water from sources closer to the River Plate. This solution, however, posed a new problem. The river’s proximity to the Atlantic causes it to have greater salinity, which spread to the entire network. The World Health Organization recommends that sodium levels in drinking water not go above 200 mg/L; in Montevideo, current values are twice that.

“Of course, lack of water is worse, but drinking saltwater for a prolonged period can have devastating cardiovascular consequences,” said cardiologist Álvaro Niggemeyer. The Health Ministry informed the public that, while the water is technically potable, pregnant women, infants, and people suffering from cardiovascular and other health issues should minimize their tap water intake and take additional precautions.

The rest of the population quickly followed suit. A poll from June found that six percent of Uruguayans continue to drink tap water, compared to over 66 percent last year. Conversely, bottled water sales have skyrocketed by 573 percent from 2022. Retailers were forced to implement purchase quantity restrictions, but scarcity prevails—in large part due to hoarding levels not seen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We receive over 200 bottles a day, and they don’t even last two hours on shelves,” one grocery store manager said. Suppliers nationwide have been working at maximum capacity, and the government is considering removing taxes from imported bottled water.

“We’re in a complex situation, one which unfortunately requires us to wait for it to rain. But rest assured that anything we can do to ease the crisis we will do,” said President Lacalle Pou.

It Wasn’t Always Like This

Having clean and abundant water has become ingrained in Uruguay’s national identity. Children are taught early about the country having one of the largest renewable water reserves per capita—five times the world average—and how Uruguay is (or was) the only South American nation with universal access to safe drinking water.

In normal years, Uruguay receives approximately 1300mm of rain, a value currently at 300mm. Montevideo was one of the first capital cities in Latin America to install piped water systems, yet it is now scrambling to find water to pump—but why?

A Historic Dry Spell

For three and a half years, Uruguay has faced its worst drought in 74 years, caused by the weather phenomenon of La Niña–which cools the Pacific Ocean’s surface and leads to dry periods–and further aggravated by increased temperatures.

Rainfall in Uruguay usually results from the movement of cold fronts in winter (June to August) and regular thunderstorms during summer (December to February). This year, however pleasant to beachgoers, the latter never came, with certain regions experiencing the hottest temperatures in over 40 years.

Many were quick to point the finger at climate change, which exacerbated the issue but was not the sole culprit. The World Weather Attribution, a group of independent scientists studying the impacts of climate change on extreme weather events, concluded in a February report that “reduced rainfall is within the natural variability,” but the “consequences of drought are becoming more severe due to the strong increase in extreme heat.” In any given year, La Niña has a five percent chance of developing, yet 2023 marks the third consecutive period it has formed—an anomaly which experts agree is in large part due to global warming. Therefore, although the dry spell falls within expected climatic variations, extreme weather conditions have enabled it to have more drastic effects. In addition to Uruguay, neighboring Argentina and Brazil have been facing similar issues.

The situation is predicted to improve in the spring (September to December) once the El Niño phenomenon reaches the region, which, opposite to La Niña, brings high levels of precipitation. However, some are skeptical that it will not be enough. “We’re relying on rain as the only answer, but completely neglecting the political and cultural change needed about how we view water,” said geographer Marcel Achkar.

Historical Mismanagement of Environmental Resources and Normalcy Bias

Never has Uruguay faced a water crisis of this magnitude, undermining a popular misconception that water resources were virtually inexhaustible. “We tend to think nothing could ever happen here,” joked Daniel Panario, Director of the Ecology Institute within the University of the Republic. In many ways, Uruguay won the geographic lottery: well-defined, temperate seasons; arable lands; and minimal propensity to natural disasters. But the current crisis highlights the flaws in Uruguay’s management of environmental resources.

The aforementioned constitutional reform in 2004 was a landmark decision in ensuring equitable access to water, but many have said the Uruguayan government has since dropped the ball. This decision established the basis for public water resource management, emphasizing social participation and sustainability. While it is praised for enabling the country to achieve almost universal access to water, subsequent utilization suggests that the pledged focus on human consumption has not been fully realized.

Carmen Sosa, a member of the National Commission in Defense of Water and Life—which led the fight for reform in 2004—said in an interview that “our water resources have been looted by agribusiness and multinationals.” She continued: “The rice industry consumes four times more water than the population, wood pulp 10 times more, soybeans 17 times more, and livestock 20 times more.” The top 19 most water-demanding companies consume more than the entire population, the latter comprising only five percent of the overall usage. Finnish cellulose giant UPM alone, which has operations in the country’s North, consumes more water than half of the Uruguayan population combined.

These businesses extract water from the same sources as the general public but are not bound by the same rules. As a consequence of the crisis, OSE imposed fines on excessive water consumption for individuals, yet no restrictions were implemented for the industrial sector. Researchers have warned for years that this business model was unsustainable, but resources continued to be depleted despite what was pledged in 2004.

Poor planning and constant postponement of infrastructure projects are also to blame. The last major reform to Uruguay’s water network was in 1987 with the inauguration of the Paso Severino reservoir. Since then, projects were proposed—and quickly left behind—by administrations across the political spectrum. Most notably, former president José Mujica initiated the Casupá Project back in 2013, which would have been able to fulfill 70 percent of Montevideo’s demand; however, 10 years and three administrations later, it is nothing but an idea. “We all fell asleep,” admitted Mujica.

Severe underfunding of OSE has also undermined efforts to maintain existing infrastructure, particularly pipes. OSE’s investment budget in relation to GDP was 0.1 percent in 2022—a value that has seen a downward trend since the early 2000s. It is estimated that 50 percent of water is lost in the distribution process because of leakages, but insufficient funds and attempts to reduce OSE’s workforce have slowed efforts to fix them.

The current situation broke the normalcy bias (the idea that because something did not happen in the past, it will not happen in the future) mentality that much of the population—and the government—employed to justify the misuse of resources and downplay the severity of the crisis. Preventive investments and cultural changes are necessary to prevent these sorts of disasters from increasing in frequency and magnitude. However, many politicians have deferred such actions because the benefits are seen far later than their political mandates end, proven by Lacalle Pou’s middle-to-short-term solutions for the long-term crisis.

Thirsting for Solutions

Lacalle Pou’s administration was praised internationally and domestically for its swift and humane approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, yet many Uruguayans question Pou’s strategy regarding the water crisis. “We acted thinking that it was a temporary matter and that the rains were going to come," acknowledged Vice Minister of the Environment Gerardo Amarilla. About 63 percent of Uruguayans disapprove of the administration’s drought management, a recent poll found.

In the short term, the government has addressed the issue of the growing demand for bottled water. Parliament recently approved a temporary tax relief on bottled products, which would make them 30 percent cheaper, and began distributing two liters of water a day to more than 500,000 citizens of the Montevideo Metropolitan Area living in low-income households. Both efforts combined are set to cost US$22 million and will last a month unless extended by Parliament.

Middle-to-long-term solutions have fallen victim to political discourse. Lacalle Pou’s right-wing coalition proposed a new initiative, the Neptune Project, which would create a privately-owned potabilization plant on the River Plate that would be loaned to OSE for US$40 million annually. The left-wing Broad Front opposes the move and defends going forward with the Casupá Reservoir instead. A spokesperson for the party said Neptune would be “a highly inconvenient privately managed project, with an enormous cost that will defund OSE.” The Head of State clarified the Casupá Project “was not discarded.”

As the debate continues, finding a sustainable approach to tackle the water crisis remains a pressing task for the Uruguayan government, especially given growing concerns from social and international groups.

“It’s Not Drought, It’s Pillage”

Activists took to the streets on May 31 to protest the crisis’ mismanagement. Their slogan can still be seen across Montevideo’s walls: It’s not drought, it’s pillage. “We just want the government to respect our Constitution, to keep businesses like Google under control,” a demonstrator explained. They alluded to the search giant’s recently announced plans to open a data center in Uruguay, which sparked outrage after sources estimated it would consume two million gallons of water daily—equivalent to the daily consumption of 55,000 people combined.

The international community shares these concerns. A recent UN report feared “risk of de facto water privatisation” and condemned the prioritization of industrial usage. “Uruguay must put human consumption at the forefront, as indicated by international human rights standards," the report said. In response, the Uruguayan government issued a statement highlighting the report's “inaccuracies.”

Looking Forward

If anything beneficial comes out of this crisis, it should be a wake-up call to Uruguayans that water is not infinite, that natural resources must be used and regulated responsibly by everyone, from individuals to Big Agro. Deemed the most democratic nation in the Americas by The Economist, Uruguay must once again grant people equitable access to drinking water, a recognized constitutional right since 2004.

Uruguay’s present may be the future for several nations. They should look at Montevideo’s crisis and learn from its successes—and its failures.

The cover photo, titled "Represa de Canelon Grande seca durante la sequia," was taken by Enxuta and is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.