Latin America’s water needs could foster collaboration to curb global warming

Ask the mayor of a city in the Andes mountains about the outcome of December’s climate negotiations in Copenhagen, and you will probably receive a perfunctory reply. Ask about the plummeting levels of local freshwater reservoirs, and you will get an earful.

The reason goes to the heart of the disagreements that split the industrialized and developing countries and prevented a long-term, binding agreement to curb global warming. But it also offers a path toward a more productive approach to north-south collaboration on climate change.

In Latin America, water is more tightly linked to human potential and economic competitiveness than in any other part of the world. The region has roughly 31% of the planet’s freshwater resources, while being home to only 8% of its population. This huge water advantage has enabled Latin America to get 68% of its electricity from hydroelectric sources, compared with a global average of less than 16%.

The region’s key commodity exports -- in agriculture and mining -- depend on extraordinary quantities of water. About half the world’s beef exports and nearly two-thirds of all soya come from Latin America, where they are produced cheaply, thanks to typically abundant rainfall.


But after the severe droughts of recent years, this water advantage has become a stark vulnerability. In 2008, Argentina lost 1.5 million head of cattle and nearly half its wheat crop to drought, while hydroelectric output in the most populous part of Chile plunged by 34%.

More recently, vast regions in Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay and Mexico have been forced to ration water, cut power or both. These strains deepen the gap between people with in-home water connections and the millions of poor Latin Americans who must resort to informal water vendors or expensive bottled water.

The latest droughts are believed to stem from cyclical weather phenomena such as El Niño. But they are also an omen, because climate scientists agree that extreme fluctuations in rainfall will be among the first and most dramatic consequences of rising temperatures in Latin America.

The intersection of water and climate could serve to reconcile the conflicting priorities that hobbled negotiations in Copenhagen. First, as they look for the best ways to spend the billions in aid that have just been pledged for climate adaptation in the developing world, industrialized countries should focus on projects that resolve near-term, climate-related problems such as water supply and sanitation.


Such pragmatism would acknowledge the pressure felt by leaders in countries where essentials such as healthcare, food and education are still not available to many citizens -- and where the goal of reducing CO2 emissions continues to seem like a luxury. It would also convince people in the developing world that rich countries are as concerned about the near-term survival of children as they are about the long-term health of the planet.

These objectives need not be mutually exclusive. Spain, for example, has become a leading international promoter of wind and solar power as part of its climate policies. But last year the Spanish government also created a $1.5-billion grant fund that is financing water and sanitation projects in the poorest communities in Latin America and the Caribbean.

These grants are helping to jump-start critically needed infrastructure projects in countries such as Haiti, Guatemala and Bolivia. They have also leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funds from the Inter-American Development Bank and other donors.

Latin American governments, for their part, must start treating water as a truly strategic resource instead of a free and limitless one. In the short term, this means prioritizing investments and reforms in basic services in order to reduce waste, closing the coverage gap and eliminating waterborne diseases among the poor. But it also requires a willingness to make concessions in pursuit of global emission reductions that, in time, could be crucial to ensuring reliable supplies of water.


The highland city of La Paz, Bolivia, is a case in point. International donors are helping to finance the expansion of water and sanitation networks to low-income neighborhoods inhabited by primarily by Aymara Indians. The glaciers that supply the city with water are melting rapidly, however, so some of the aid will be used to secure new sources of water.

As a country with large tropical forests, Bolivia may help to lower the risk of catastrophic climate change by joining programs to cut deforestation caused by CO2 emissions. But Bolivians are more likely to support such measures if they see evidence that the industrialized world is committed to helping them achieve a dignified quality of life.

Luis Alberto Moreno is president of the Inter-American Development Bank, the main source of multilateral development funding for Latin America and the Caribbean.