Why water consumption in Latin America will increase almost twice the world average (and which countries are exposed to high and extreme “water stress”)

Mexico recorded its driest year on record in 2023, the Uruguayan government declared a water emergency due to low levels of its water reserves, while water reservoirs in Chile, and in cities such as Bogotá and Mexico City, are dangerously close to running out of water.

Many cities and countries are exposed to what scientists define as “water stress”: the relationship between demand and supply of water in an area.

Global demand for water has doubled since 1960 and available water resources are becoming increasingly scarce.

Projections indicate that in 25 years, half of the world’s population will live in areas with water scarcity.

In Latin America, water demand is expected to increase by 43% by 2050, almost double the global average growth, which is projected to increase by between 20 and 25%.

Why is consumption increasing so much in the region?

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) identifies three major causes: population growth (and migration flows), agricultural expansion and industrial activities.

While similar circumstances are repeated in other parts of the world, in Latin America they are occurring at an accelerated pace.

“What is happening is extremely worrying“, Michelle Muschett, head of the Latin America and Caribbean Directorate of the international organization, told BBC Mundo.

On the one hand, water consumption is increasing and, on the other, the amount of water available is decreasing as extreme events related to climate change increase, with a progressive rise in temperatures and droughts.

Emergency and rationing

Water stress, Muschett explains, is not just an environmental problem.

Water scarcity increases inequalities and has a serious impact on nutrition, as food can become scarce and more expensive.

It also affects health, as it can encourage the consumption of contaminated water and cause hygiene problems, as well as damaging the livelihoods of many families when the land dries out.

Last year alone, some crops suffered losses of around 30% in Argentina and 80% in Peru.

Unprecedented droughts also disrupted ship traffic through the Panama Canal, affecting the country’s economic growth and a significant portion of global maritime trade.

Another consequence of water scarcity is its impact on energy.

Over the past two decades, more than half of the energy produced in the region has come from hydroelectric plants, marking a growing trend.

While hydropower is a renewable energy source considered “green,” the problem is that water scarcity has made it less reliable.

This was made evident in Ecuador, when in April of this year the country, which depends on hydroelectric plants for more than three-quarters of its electricity, declared a state of emergency and began rationing electricity due to low rainfall.

25 countries in the world are under extreme water stress*

Source: World Resources Institute *Baseline water stress until 2019, based on total and sectoral water demand

/ BBC News World

But the lack of rain is only one side of the coin. Scientific projections indicate that some countries will have shorter rainy seasons and, at the same time, precipitation will be more extreme.

In these circumstances, since aquifers and soils cannot absorb the excess water, a significant part of the water resource is lost.

The most affected countries in Latin America

Currently, 25 countries in the world suffer from extreme water stress. In Latin America, Chile is the only one in this category.according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute.

The other countries most affected by water shortages in the region are Mexico and Peru, both with a high level of water stress.

The projections are not very encouraging. By 2050, Chile will continue to lead the Latin American ranking with extreme water stress, while Mexico and Peru will continue to be exposed to a high level.

These levels were calculated using the intermediate scenario, that is, if the efforts currently being made to mitigate the effects of climate change are neither increased nor reduced.

But by 2080, Mexico and Chile will be the two countries in the region affected by extreme water stress, while Peru and El Salvador will be at a high level, if current environmental policies are maintained.

Water stress in Chile

Although water shortages affect the entire region, the situation is critical in Chile.

The South American country concentrates several of the driest areas in the world and A significant part of its economy depends on both mining and agriculture..

Chile is the only country in Latin America with extreme water stress.

/ Getty

“Both of these activities require large amounts of water. And to this we must add the enormous impact of climate change,” argues Muschett.

To address the problem, he added, the country should continue to make progress in its efforts so that activities that generate greater water stress can be carried out in a planned manner.

One of the keys to addressing the problem, says the specialist, is to have integrated water management that ensures human consumption and the country’s economic activities, with the participation of both the public and private sectors.

And another fundamental element, Muschett adds, is that planning is done with the communities.

Efforts, ultimately, should aim to “a balance between economic aspirations and environmental aspirations”.

The water crisis in the rest of the world

The 25 countries that are affected by extreme water stress are home to a quarter of the world’s population, says the Water Risk Atlas Prepared by the World Resources Institute, located in Washington DC, United States.

Living with such high levels of water scarcity endangers people’s lives, jobs, food and energy security, the study said.

The countries with the greatest water shortage in the world are Bahrain, Cyprus, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and Qatar.

/ Getty

Without more profound intervention (such as investment in water infrastructure and better water governance), the research centre argues, water stress will continue to worsen, especially in places with rapidly growing populations and economies.

The countries with the greatest water shortage in the world are Bahrain, Cyprus, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and Qatar. Water stress in these countries is mainly due to low supply and high demand for domestic, agricultural and industrial use.

And the regions with the highest water stress are the Middle East and North Africa, where 83% of the population is exposed to extremely high water stress.

By 2050, one billion more people are expected to be living with extremely high water stress.

Despite this scenario, water stress does not necessarily lead to a water crisis, the researchers argue.

For example, places like Singapore and the American city of Las Vegas They demonstrate that societies can thrive even under the most water-scarce conditions by employing techniques such as intensive grazing, desalination, and wastewater treatment and reuse.

The Water Risk Atlas points out that “solving global water challenges is cheaper than one might think.”

He added: “What is lacking is the political will and financial backing to make these profitable solutions a reality.”

By Editor

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