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Published on Dec 19, 2013 in Featured Articles, Latin America, News

Water problems in Latin America

Nearly 36 million people in Latin America, according to the United Nations, live without clean, safe drinking water. This figure, however, is actually deceiving as, by United Nations standards, water that’s being piped into people’s homes is regarded as clean, safe drinking water. However, this assumption is not entirely true. Millions of Latin Americans with piped water don’t drink their tap water because it contains pollutants which can cause illness. Take, for example, portions of Mexico City. According to the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American studies at Harvard University, in Mexico City pipes that carry drinking water, and those that carry sewage, were laid long ago side by side in a single trench. As the pipes began to corrode, the water became intermingled. The result is that tap water in some areas of Mexico City became undrinkable. Yet, according to United Nations standards, it’s considered clean, safe drinking water.

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In the 1990s many Latin American governments thought that they had a solution to their water problems. At that time many city municipal water works required extensive maintenance, and cities lacked the necessary funds to both maintain and expand their water systems. The World Bank, as well as many governments, subsequently agreed to sell or lease their water works to private companies. These private companies, in turn, would provide the required maintenance and also expand clean tap water to new areas within a country. However, what both the World Bank and some Latin American governments didn’t take into account was that private companies needed to make a profit after maintenance and system expansion. Therefore, it wasn’t long before private companies raised their rates to such an extent that poor families could no longer afford water. As protests increased, some countries, such as Argentina and Bolivia, withdrew their contracts. However, this process had some inherent problems. For example, the World Bank, as a condition of financing, required the use of private companies.

Latin American countries face many diverse problems in providing clean water to their citizenry. Ecuador, for example, has much of its water polluted because the country’s clay and glass industries empties their waste water into the nation’s rivers. In Peru, rural populations depend on local rivers, lakes, and streams for their water. However, with inadequate sanitation and wastewater treatment systems, unrefined sewage is one of Peru’s biggest sources of water pollution. Bolivia has a problem with access to water as the country is land-locked and has, in the past decade, experienced severe water shortages.

Overall, agriculture is the biggest user of water in Latin America. However, as a corresponding result, many Latin American countries experience agricultural runoff into their streams and rivers. This runoff often contains insecticides and fertilizers which severely pollute the nation’s water resources. Human sewage, eutrophication (such as fertilizer runoff), and industrial pollution all contribute to Latin America’s water pollution problems. In addition, deforestation produces erosion which means that soil enters the water supply.

However, in the last four decades substantial progress has been made. Twenty years ago 65 million Latin Americans didn’t have access to clean drinking water, almost twice as many as today. In Latin America the issue is not always access to water, but how safe the water is. Latin America, according to the North American Congress on Latin America, has one highest per capita allocations of fresh water in the world – more than 110,000 cubic feet per person per year. It contains 13 percent of the world’s water supplies. Brazil, by itself, has more water than any other country, with nearly one-fifth of the globe’s water resources.

As urbanization within Latin America increases, and with 80 percent of the population living in towns and cities, water management will become the defining issue for addressing Latin America’s water problems. Without proper water management there will be an inability to respond to water allocation issues, water depletion, aquifer depletion, and other problems which impact a nation’s water supplies. Poor water management also creates conflict over scare resources. Rules which are insufficient or not enforced, fragile institutional frameworks, and corruption all affect water management. However, many countries have implemented efficient water management structures. Brazil, for example, according to Caridad Canales Davila, has adopted a new water legislation and a national water policy. New water management laws have also been adopted in Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela. Chile has adopted new sanitation standards and implemented laws on the use of its water resources. Mexico has reformed its water legislation and established river basin councils. Argentina, Bolivia, and Colombia have also established significant water management reforms. Latin America’s water problems, as a result, are significantly improving.

Alan Refkin

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