Thirsting for Water

Even though it is a basic human right, access to water is becoming increasing limited as a result of serious environmental problems, pollution of water sources, and industrial water use.

By  Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Gómez, Javier Pinzón

The Wayúu people have always understood how to wrest a living from the Colombian region of La Guajira, a desert landscape that nonetheless traditionally enjoyed a flow of water from the vital Ranchería River for part of the year. During the rainy season, the Wayúu sowed crops to enrich their diet. During the dry season, “We dug down about ten to thirteen feet to find water,” explains Leonor Viloria, Colombian coordinator for the Binational Wayúu Women’s Organization.

In 2011, however, the Wayúu noticed that the Ranchería River was beginning to dry up. Their first reaction was to interpret it as some sort of divine punishment. Then the rains stopped coming and drought took hold. Some time afterward, they learned that the river had not dried up: the El Cercado dam had been completed to ensure water for El Cerrejón, one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the world, but the system for distributing water to the communities ―which was also part of the project― never materialized.

We Are Water

The World Bank suggests that one person needs around five gallons of potable water per day to satisfy metabolic, household, and personal hygiene needs. The World Health Organization (WHO) assumes more generous requirements of thirteen to twenty-six gallons per day.

Access to water is a recognized human right as per Resolution 64/292 of the United Nations General Assembly, dated July 28, 2010. It is so basic that all other rights essentially flow from the availability of water. Nonetheless, four out of every ten people experience water scarcity and, as the WHO emphasizes, “The situation is getting worse owing to population growth, urban development, and increased domestic and industrial water use.”

The organization suggests that this scarcity, occurring even in areas with abundant rainfall or large amounts of fresh water, is due to the way in which water is used and distributed. This affects households, but also agriculture, industry, and the environment.

Despite the already manifest scarcity of water, the United Nations 2014 World Water Development Report notes that worldwide demand for water will grow approximately 55% by the year 2050, “mainly due to increasing demand from production (400%), thermal energy generation (140%), and domestic consumption (130%).” By that same date, more than 40% of the world’s population will live in areas with serious water issues.

Water-Use Conflicts in the Americas

Most of the world’s water goes to agriculture, even though much of this activity produces material for biofuels rather than food for human consumption. Domestic consumption makes up the second largest category of water use. However, it is industry ―particularly the energy industry― that is taking an ever-larger slice of the water consumption market.

The United Nations Water and Energy report states that 90% of global electricity production requires water and any decision made in one sector, for better or worse, influences the other, since water and energy supplies are intertwined. Considering the number of regional conflicts related to the use of water in Latin America, these decisions seem to be being made without considering the needs of all users.

During the 156th session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), held in October of 2015, various civil society organizations expressed the fear that “Latin America is heading toward increasing problems of exploitation of water sources,” given the growing pressure exerted on natural resources by extractive activities, “particularly dam construction and mining.”

In Chile, for example, the Mapuches are fighting to conserve the Pichitrankura River in the Curarrehue community in Araucanía. There are plans to build a control center there for the Central Añihuarraqui hydroelectric project, but the Mapuches insist that its construction would affect “spiritually significant areas” and divide communities.

The southern country follows a system of water use rights (WUR) that allows for free exchanges of WUR in the goods and services markets and allocates a certain volume of water to be used exclusively by the holders of these rights. In short, water is a private asset for sale.

Similarly, over the last six years Panama has built twenty-three water plants to supply the needs of a market that demands 6% more energy every year, the largest percentage of which goes to cooling the shopping centers and offices of Panama City. More than half of these dams were built on three rivers in Chiriquí province, the country’s main food producing region. The rivers supply water to communities and peoples who grow potatoes, vegetables, grains, and fruit.

Complaints against the widespread construction of hydroelectric plants began to emerge in 2006. Nonetheless, with several dams already built, the current thinking is to prevent the construction of more, “since the watershed has already been overexploited,” says Damaris Sánchez Samudio, leader of the Foundation for General Community Development and Conservation of Ecosystems in Panama (FUNDICCEP).

Noel Trejos, director of General Watershed Management for MiAmbiente, the Ministry responsible for environmental matters in Panama, admitted in an interview that the fifteen dams built on the Chiriquí, Chiriquí Viejo, and Chico Rivers since 2010 had fragmented the rivers to such an extent that even though hydroelectric plants are considered “clean technology,” the cascade technique used with these dams (one built right behind the other) hinders regeneration of the river and limits the availability of water for other uses.

Félix Wing Solís, Secretary General of MiAmbiente, likewise acknowledged in a forum held last January in Panama City that the basins of the aforementioned rivers are already “saturated with hydroelectric plants…and that many were approved without any knowledge of the rivers’ volume of flow.” Despite this, construction of a seventh dam on the Chico River has already begun.

In México, fracking (hydraulic fracturing), a technique used to extract oil and natural gas, has emerged as a new environmental threat. The internet portal of the Alianza Mexicana contra el Fracking (Mexican Anti-Fracking Alliance) reports that since 2003, 924 wells have been drilled in several states: Veracruz (349), Puebla (233), Nuevo León (182), Tamaulipas (100), Coahuila (47), and Tabasco (13). Each one of these wells requires from around a quarter of a million to more than three quarters of a million gallons of water, since water is what “fractures” the ground, allowing the gas to escape.

Alliance member Claudia Campero explains that in places like Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, exploration and use permits continue to be handed out even though problems of water availability have already arisen. In fact, the country’s relatively recent energy reforms “eased access to the land for companies that explore and extract hydrocarbons,” said Campero, whereas the local communities were not consulted, “even though they were supposed to be.”

The situation in Honduras is even more dire. Activist and human rights defender Berta Cáceres, co-founder of the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and a leader in the fight against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in the departments of Santa Bárbara and Intibucá, was assassinated in early March. The Lenca indigenous peoples of the region are opposed to the project because it affects a river they consider important to their survival and spiritual well-being.

In April 2015, her environmental activism earned Cáceres the famed Goldman Prize, but this also made her the target of threats that ceased on the morning of March 3, when a number of men broke into her home and shot her. Agua Zarca is one of seventeen hydroelectric projects planned in Lenca territory after the passage of the August 2009 General Water Law that set forth conditions for water exploitation.

Environmental proceedings place greater and greater emphasis on Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development’s three main pillars, which mandate that each individual shall have: access to information held by the authorities; the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes; and access to environmental judicial proceedings to remedy damage or solve disputes.

In the report presented to the IACHR last October titled Impact of the Implementation of Extractive Projects in the Region on the Right to Water, organizations reported that there is a regional pattern of “widespread implementation of so-called development projects, including dam construction and mining,” and this “has resulted in serious violations of human rights, ranging from forced displacement of people and communities to the systematic violation of the right of indigenous peoples and rural communities to be consulted beforehand.”

According to organizations such as the Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), Justicia Global, Tierra Digna, and the Environmental Advocacy Center (CIAM), among others, this occurs because the regional pattern includes the approval of legal frameworks that favor expropriation of water resources for extractive projects, pollution of water sources, and a lack of free and informed prior consent.

The reality of the Wayúu in La Guajira better illustrates the situation. Just settling coal dust by wetting the roads on which dump trucks travel, each day El Cerrejón uses nearly 4.5 million gallons of water, which is extracted from the Ranchería River. By contrast, a resident of Alta Guajira consumes an average of 1.5 pints of untreated water per day, according to data from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). A document sent by the Wayúu people to the IACHR in February 2015 attests that the lack of access to potable water and food has caused the deaths of 4,770 children in La Guajira over the last eight years.

With this reality setting the stage, signatories of the Rio Declaration are in talks to decide whether Principle 10 ―which up to now has carried only moral force― could be made legally binding, making public consultations obligatory before any type of project is carried out. As CIAM environmental attorney María Soledad Porcel says: “If the talks succeed, these consultations would need to be held in the native language of the communities, the period for filing objections would be extended, and developers and consultants would bear greater responsibility, since breaches would entail legal consequences.” In sum, “democracy and good environmental governance would be strengthened, which is essential to sustainable development,” added fellow CIAM attorney Susana Serracín.

What is happening in La Guajira would never happen again. At least that is the hope. “Water is being retained for commercial and industrial uses and not for the people,” insisted Viloria, as the city of Riohacha rumbled in the background, “because now we dig down as far as 200 to 230 feet without finding any water.”