World Water Day: Latin America leads in water management but inequalities in access remain

March 22, 2013


A couple drink water from their new tap in Panama

  • 31% of world’s freshwater resources are found in Latin America
  • Region is an example for other countries in good water management
  • Heavy investment is needed to protect water supplies from climate change

From the vast Amazon Basin to the extensive Guaraní aquifer, to the frozen glaciers high in the Andes, Latin America is rich in water -a key resource in the region’s development. 

Enormous progress has been made in the last two decades in extending water access across the region, with 70 million more people served in the urban centers than at the turn of the millennium. Furthermore, many countries within the region, and especially Brazil, have become examples for managing water resources.

“There are several examples where Latin America is fairly advanced with respect to water governance and the fact is that other countries are looking towards Latin America in order to learn,” explained World Bank Water Expert Karin Kemper.  

One such example is the management of Brazil’s many river basins. Accepting that all users have an interest in how water is managed, over the past 15 years Brazil has paved the way for participatory approach to managing water supplies.

Consequently, users from across the spectrum – water supply companies, irrigators, energy providers and representatives  from both state and federal government as well as civil society - are involved in the decision making process, in order to take into consideration their differing water needs. Initially pioneered in São Paulo, this inclusive approach to water governance is particularly successful in the state of Ceará and is today enshrined in both federal and state law.

" The poorest are most affected by droughts and floods, they are the least able to organize themselves against such occurrences, and have little access to financial tools, such as savings and insurance. "

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez

World Bank Regional Director for Sustainable Development

A water-rich region, Latin America is home to nearly 31% of the world’s freshwater resources, but it also has large arid and semi-arid areas with recurring droughts common from Mexico to Chile. Water scarcity is expected to increase in several areas due to climate change, including in the Andes, where the melting glaciers will have a great effect on the water supply.

The full impact of these changes is still unknown, but experts agree that changes in water supply will be one of the first, and most dramatic, effects.

Consequently, preventing the region’s poorest and most vulnerable populations from falling back into poverty will need a regional yearly investment. Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, World Bank Regional Director for Sustainable Development, estimates that climate change adapting measures have a cost of US$15 billion to US$20 billion a year for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“The poorest are most affected by droughts and floods, they are the least able to organize themselves against such occurrences, and have little access to financial tools, such as savings and insurance," Ijjasz explained.

Access to water services is still highly unequal. Rapid urbanization in the region means water and sanitation services have been heavily weighted towards the urban populations, to the detriment of interior, rural communities. But despite enormous progress over the past 20 years, 30 million Latin Americans are still without access to safe drinking water..

Consequently, a key challenge for many Latin American countries is to further improve the way this scarce resource is managed. Infrastructure, such as storage and distribution systems, needs to be put into place, along with ways to allocate water across sectors to enable economic growth to be maintained in an environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive manner.

While the region has already met the Millennium Development Goal target for water, rural sanitation is lagging behind. Currently, 100 million people still lack access to any sanitation, with rural access at just 60%. Additionally, only 20% of waste water in Latin America is treated, leading to the pollution of rivers and coastal areas, which not only exposes the resident population to toxins and disease but also causes billions to be lost in potential tourism and real estate revenues.

By extending access to water and improving governance, Latin America has made clear progress over the past two decades. And while inequalities remain, 96% of Latin American’s now have access to a clean, safe water source. However, if water security is to be protected in the future, now is the time for the region to prepare for a changing climate.