Uruguay Wasn’t Supposed to Run Out of Water

Uruguayans have been drinking, cooking and bathing with salty water for months. The longest drought the country has ever recorded left its capital, Montevideo, almost completely dry, forcing the city to add brackish water to its supplies.

The crisis is striking for a country that was seemingly blessed with bountiful fresh water, and that appeared to be ahead of the climate change curve, as The Times Magazine reported last year. But the three-year drought brought the country to its knees.

Water stress is a major concern all over the globe. A similar crisis is happening now in parts of Iran, and you may remember the 2018 drought in Cape Town, and another one in São Paulo, Brazil, in 2015.

Climate change didn’t directly cause the drought in Uruguay and neighboring Argentina, as we reported last year. But global warming was a factor in extreme heat that made the drought worse, scientists said, by increasing the loss of moisture from soil and plants. Deforestation in the Amazon may have also played a role.

Whatever the extent of climate change’s role, the drought has underscored that the side effects and unexpected consequences of a warming planet can disrupt just about any place on earth.

The Paso Severino reservoir in Uruguay, which supplies water for over half of the country’s 3.4 million people, was at only 2.4 percent capacity in late June. So officials started adding water to the supply from the Río de la Plata, an estuary where the fresh water from two major rivers mixes with salt water from the Atlantic Ocean.

The influx of salty water raised levels of sodium and chloride to more than double the levels considered safe under international guidelines. The government told toddlers, seniors, pregnant women, and people with chronic kidney and heart diseases to avoid tap water.

Routines have been upended for everyone. Those who can afford bottled water use it for everything. “We cook pasta, wash lettuce and make coffee with it,” the Uruguayan journalist Guillermo Garat wrote last month in a Times Opinion essay. Using water from the tap, he said, “dishwashers leave salty streaks on glasses and plates. Brushing your teeth tastes like taking a gulp of pool water.”

Many residents have tried to drill their own wells in hopes of finding potable water, but there are few short-term solutions except to wait for rain. The drought has eased a bit in recent weeks: The Paso Severino reservoir is currently at about 15 percent capacity. But while salt levels are down from the height of the crisis, the government’s health recommendations still stand.

This wasn’t supposed to happen in Uruguay. The country has demonstrated an ability to act decisively and with foresight to address climate change.

A series of blackouts in the early 2000s prompted the country to revolutionize its energy infrastructure. After a government-led plan and billions of dollars in private investment, 98 percent of Uruguay’s electricity comes from renewable sources. (You can read more about it in the Times Magazine article.)

The drought has been an especially tough blow for the country, the first in the world to make access to water a fundamental right.

“Here in Uruguay, clean water is part of our national identity,” Garat wrote. “Schoolchildren are taught that the country is blessed with abundant and high-quality water, thanks to many large rivers and six great aquifers.”

I asked Ramón Méndez, a former national director of energy, what went wrong this time around. He said Uruguay was caught by surprise because its people thought it would never run out of fresh water. After all, it had so much.

“We were too late to have a vision of strategic planning about water,” he said. Critics have said mismanagement by a series of governments — one leaning to the left, another to the right — is largely to blame. Former President José Mujica apologized to the Uruguayan people last month, sharing the blame with his successor.

“We should have done this before,” Mujica said about the need to increase the country’s fresh water supply. “People will be mad at me, but we all fell asleep.”

Irate Uruguayans have demonstrated in the streets throughout the crisis.

They are angry at the country’s huge beef sector, because a typical cow drinks 40 liters of water a day. They are angry at Google for planning a data center in the country that will need millions of liters of water a day to cool down servers. They are angry at a green hydrogen project because it will use vast amounts of groundwater.

“People have been left with a feeling of rejection against everything that uses water that is not human consumption,” Méndez told me.

Reuters reported that graffiti painted on the wall of the state-owned water utility said: “There is no drought, just looting.”

The crisis took place just as Uruguay was trying to build a strategy for the future of its economy, beyond beef and soy bean exports.

“Everything is up for debate at the moment,” Méndez said, “and it’s welcome because it’s right when one has to build a strategic vision for the future, put on the table what’s the water bill, the environmental bill of the country.”

I asked Carmen Sosa, an activist who has been leading protests about water for decades, what she thought the consequence of this moment could be for Uruguay. Though she is concerned about projects like Google’s, she is also glad water and climate change have become important topics of debate among Uruguayans.

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