Torrent of problems: water challenges of Latin America
When we consider the troubling, often tragic problem of global water shortages, our minds naturally pivot to regions of the world typified by parched, landlocked terrain.
We might think of Africa, with its perennial media images of malnourished and dehydrated communities. We might think, too, of the Middle East, with its sun-scorched climate, which recently experienced its worst drought in nine centuries.
We wouldn’t necessarily consider, at least not without some time or prompting, Latin America. However, in water terms Latin America falls foul of a grim irony – it is a region with abundant water sources but is also a region where some 36 million people lack access to drinking water.
Water does more than keep us hydrated. It grows our crops, powers our industries and cleanses our homes. Yet up to 100 million people in Latin America lack access to sanitation, according to international think tank the World Water Council (WWC); factor in those reliant on latrines or septic tanks and that figure rises to 256 million. Untreated sewage goes on to pollute underground aquifers, rivers and lakes.
With depressing predictability, inequality rears its head to exacerbate these issues. WWC figures show that poorer sectors of the population pay between 1.5 and 2.8 times more for their water than wealthier families – all for a lower quality of water more likely to harbor diarrheal diseases.
Nor do the problems end there. The region’s ground water suffers from relentless exploitation. In Mexico, for example, 102 of the nation’s 653 aquifers – or underground water sources – are classed as over-used, threatening the main water source for two-thirds of the population. Across South America, around half of all water comes from aquifers subject to increasing pollution from commercial uses.
For those seeking to address some of these dangers the clock is ticking, because mankind’s impact upon the natural world means today’s problems could be tomorrow’s calamities.
Global warming and drought: a climate of fear
The passage of time, coupled with the march of climate change, is only serving to compound Latin America’s growing water crisis.
Glaciers, one of the region’s key sources of fresh water, are melting due to global warming. In areas such as the Real Range in Bolivia or the White Range in Peru, the area widely covered by glaciers has shrunk by around one-third since the mid-19th century.
Chile is a case in point. It has one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water outside the north and south poles, but its abundant glaciers – 80% of South America’s glaciers are in Chile – are melting fast. More than 7 million people living in and around the capital, Santiago, rely on the glaciers to feed most of their water supply in times of drought. But a toxic combination of rising temperatures, a 10-year mega-drought and increasing exploitation, is proving lethal and the ice mass is now retreating one meter per year on average.
Less than two decades from now, some glaciers will have disappeared, while the total volume of all glaciers in Chile will have shrunk by half by the end of the century.
Hurricanes, their frequency and intensity strongly linked to climate change, will further imperil water supplies in the region. Recent history contains a stark precedent, with Hurricane Mitch in 1998 killing 9,000 people in Central America and dislocating 75% of Hondurans.
Further south, changes in the behavior of the El Niño ocean current could affect weather patterns and bring even more severe droughts to communities.
The UN reports that since 2013 South America’s largest city (Sao Paulo, Brazil: population 11 million) has been caught in its most severe drought for 80 years.
All of these changes, all of these challenges, must also be seen in the context of rising population numbers. The UN estimates the population of Latin America (including the Caribbean) increased from 287 million to 648 million between 1970 and 2019. Since 2010 the region has experienced population growth of around 10%. The WWC notes that “many major lakes and river basins from North to South America are under great strain from growing populations and resulting accumulated agricultural and industrial run-off”. 
A generation from now the outlook could be even more fraught – and the problem is hardly unique to Latin America.
Estimates suggest that by 2030 global water basin supplies could decrease by 10%, or 25% by 2050. Worldwide, water use has increased by approximately 1% each year for the last 30 years, with more than two billion people now living in countries experiencing high water stress.
Water challenges converge in perfect storm
While acknowledged as a region-wide problem, the characteristics of Latin America’s water challenges differ on a nation-by-nation basis. They are dictated by factors as diverse as politics, economics, topography, culture and history.
Chile, again, exemplifies many of the water difficulties faced by South America.
Its north is overwhelmingly, almost uniquely, arid. The 100,000 square kilometer Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth.
The Andes mountains to the east causes clouds to rise and condense before reaching the desert basin, while the Pacific Ocean to the west is too cold to allow on-shore winds to collect moisture; hence the Atacama generally experiences measurable rainfall just once a century. The nearby coastal city of Antofagasta (population: 350,000) records an average precipitation of just 1mm per year.
Further to the south, climate change was blamed for destructive unseasonal rainfall in 2017. The resulting floods deprived more than a million people in the Chilean capital of Santiago of piped water. Santiago is also tipped to experience severely reduced water supplies in the future.
That deluge arguably brought to an end Central Chile’s ‘mega-drought’, during which the Royal Meteorological Society noted the region (and its 10 million+ inhabitants) had experienced “an uninterrupted sequence of dry years since 2010 with mean rainfall deficits of 20 – 40%”.
Against this backdrop lies another challenge: in some parts of Chile more than 80% of water is privately controlled and earmarked for industry and agriculture. This, according to charity the Latin American Bureau, leaves many Chileans facing a shortage of drinking water, while also contaminating sources with industrial waste.
In the same year Santiago was hit by freak flooding, Bolivia experienced months of drought which led to empty reservoirs, water rationing in major cities and protests in the streets. A state of emergency was declared across the country – a country which according to the UN has already lost 40% of its glaciers to melting in the last two decades. While climate change is at least partly culpable, government policies shared some of the blame, thanks to a huge increase in water-intensive industries such as soya growth, along with intensive deforestation.
In Peru, grassroots environmental groups have accused international mining companies of commandeering water resources, cutting supplies to farmers, and polluting rivers. Unrest is growing, and in 2016 strikes and clashes over claims of water hijacking saw two provinces declare martial law.
It is a similar story in Ecuador, where farmers are suffering as agribusinesses and mining companies capitalize on a 2015 law allowing further water privatization and exploitation of scarce supplies. The Ecuadorian constitution is unique in enshrining water as a human right, but farmers and environmentalists have been compelled to march on the capital, Quito, demanding equal access. Academic Manuela Picq has stated that Ecuador’s wealthiest 1% control 64% of fresh water and says “a single mine can use more water in a day than an entire family in 22 years”.
In Guatemala, meanwhile, evidence is mounting that water shortages are driving internal migration. Communities are abandoning areas left dry by corporations sucking up freshwater resources and diverting rivers. The corporations are often immune from prosecution due to weak governance – an example, says the country’s ex-vice-president Eduardo Stein, of the state working ‘in the interests of a chosen few’ and causing widespread anger.
Partnerships, expertise and long-term thinking
Such poor resource management is thrown into sharp relief elsewhere in Latin America, where interventions to improve distribution are having tangible impacts on daily lives.
In communities in Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, for instance, thousands of schemes have been funded to improve the network of clean water supplies in long-neglected rural areas.
Women in particular have benefited. No longer expected to walk many miles for water daily, they can now devote more time to farming – with dramatic results. Women’s input has increased agricultural income and food security on a home-by-home, village-by-village basis, leading to an average 30% rise in family incomes.
Brazil is increasingly regarded as a standard-bearer for positive action to improve water access. Favoring a multi-stakeholder approach, the rights of all interested parties (supply companies, energy providers, irrigators and civil groups) to partake in policy decisions has for more than two decades been enshrined in both federal and state law.
In fact, enormous progress has been noted across the Latin American region in extending water access over the past decade, with the World Bank recognizing “70 million more people served in the urban centers than at the turn of the millennium”.
Cross-border collaboration has been at the forefront of many notable advances. The Guarani Aquifer System (SAG), one of the world’s largest ground water reservoirs, holds some 37,000 cubic kilometers of water in its 1,190,000 square kilometer area spanning Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. A competitive attitude to this invaluable resource could have led to depletion and pollution, but the four countries united in 2001 on an environmental protection and sustainable development plan to safeguard the SAG in the long-term.
The US$ 26.7 million plan has successfully orchestrated several key policies: gathering together scientific and technical understanding of the SAG; improving groundwater management; promoting public involvement and better communication; and assessing the SAG’s potential for geothermal energy.
As a result of this unique international partnership, it is hoped the SAG will continue to provide people and businesses with freshwater supplies for generations to come and may even serve as a model for elsewhere in the region.
With such success stories to spur momentum, the door is open to the private sector to play a greater leading role in overcoming the region’s persistent water challenges.
Contract demonstrates scalability of Almar model
Almar Water Solutions, part of Abdul Latif Jameel Energy, is at the forefront of efforts to tackle water adversity across Latin America, particularly in its driest areas, such as Chile.
Almar is rapidly expanding its footprint in the region through its 2019 acquisition of water treatment company Osmoflo SpA. In August 2020, Almar, via Osmoflo, won a three-year water services operation and maintenance contract for Chilean mining company Mantos Copper.
Almar will operate a water treatment plant for the client’s Mantos Blancos project in northern Chile, just 45 kilometers north of that notorious dry-spot, Antofagasta. The desalination plant will use reverse osmosis to produce water suitable for the kind of mining activity which can bring more jobs and prosperity to the region.
Almar’s purchase of Osmoflo SpA marked the company’s first major foray into the Latin American water services market and offers new potential for solving the region’s urgent water challenges. Along with operation and maintenance contracts comes a fleet of multi-capability mobile water treatment units providing clients with short-term or emergency purification solutions.
“Almar can use this experience in Chile as a springboard for other Latin American projects,” said Carlos Cosin, CEO of Almar Water Solutions. “Indeed, a further contract is set to be announced soon, effectively doubling the size and value of our acquisition. The deal, which supplements our portfolio of desalination, drinking water treatment, wastewater purification and industrial water operations, demonstrates our ambitious plans for the future.”
Worldwide problem demands visionary response
To achieve great things, to bring about real change, it is imperative to aim high.
If we can improve the water regime of a supremely water-challenged country like Chile, we can tackle the water challenges of the whole of Latin America. And if we can offset the environmental, technical and historical water hurdles of Latin America, we can widen our scope to other emerging markets around the world with equally pressing needs.
As such, since its foundation, Almar has also been combating water scarcity and contamination across the Middle East and Africa.
Late 2018 saw it secure a deal to produce the first-ever large-scale desalination plant in Kenya, delivering 100,000 cubic meters of drinking water to more than one million people in Mombasa.
In Saudi Arabia, it won a contract in January 2019 to develop Shuqaiq 3 IWP near the Red Sea city of Al Shuqaiq. One of the world’s largest desalination plants, the US$ 600 million Shuqaiq 3 will deliver 450,000 cubic meters of clean water each day to more than 1.8 million people and create 700 associated jobs.
Then in May 2019, Almar acquired a major stake in the Muharraq plant in Bahrain, with a 29-year contract to operate the 100,000 cubic meter/day wastewater treatment plant and sewerage system. The canalization system includes the first 16.5 km deep main gravity collector in the Gulf region, along with a sewage collection network.
Most recently, Almar Water entered into a joint venture with Hassan Allam Utilities in Egypt to form AA Water Developments, to help revitalize the country’s water infrastructure. This led to the acquisition of Ridgewood Group, Egypt, a major desalination services company. Ridgewood operates 58 desalination plants throughout the country, with a focus on industry and tourism – a critical sector for Egypt’s economy. This network of facilities has the capacity to provide 82,440 cubic meters of safe, clean drinking water every single day. The acquisition continues Almar’s strategy to expand rapidly beyond its portfolio of new greenfield projects with desalination, water treatment plants and other existing (or so-called brownfield) water infrastructure assets which are already in operation, to drive efficiency and growth in access to sustainable water solutions.
These groundbreaking collaborations, together with rapid expansions of operations in Chile, demonstrate Almar’s deep commitment to securing for future generations a more equitable ‘water world’. A world in which everyone, whether their needs are domestic, agricultural or industrial, has access to sustainable resources necessary to improve their quality of life.
“It is ironic that in our world, a planet of vast water resources from oceans to ice caps, only a tiny fraction is available to support life, including us, while huge parts of the planet’s inhabitants lack enough water to live on, much of the time due to our own mismanagement of resources” commented Fady Jameel, Deputy President and Vice Chairman of Abdul Latif Jameel.
“It is clear that a considered and cohesive approach across business and governments, together with swift action is needed to tackle this issue – and the sooner the better.”