The Montevideo Water Crisis is a wake-up call to the rest of the world
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The drought in Uruguay results from a combination of factors, including low levels of precipitation, rising temperatures, and the La Niña phenomenon. The new abnormal is that Uruguay will have to deal with more droughts in the future as climate heating continues. The situation is particularly challenging in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, where the city relies on a dam, the only drinking water source for the area. With more and more of this saltwater coming in, tap water has reached a point where it has become undrinkable. The government has exempted all bottled water from taxes and provides free bottled water to over half a million people, but the scenes in Montevideo are now unimaginable. Someone or something is to blame for the drought.
According to El Pais, “crews of workers are looking for underground water in the city’s main parks” and demonstrations against large companies that people perceive as “water looters”. Google is one such company taking the heat because it plans to open a data centre in Uruguay. The centre would use the equivalent of the domestic daily use of 55,000 people. Currently, however, much of Uruguay’s water goes to other businesses. Daniel Pena, a researcher at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, told The Guardian that only a tiny proportion of the water in Uruguay is used for human consumption.
Meanwhile, others are blaming authorities for not investing in critical infrastructure sooner. Building new dams now takes time and won’t alleviate the problem quickly. Given that the situation has been unfolding for a couple of years already, the water infrastructure in Uruguay has been particularly underfunded. Some researchers also blame the government for only implementing solutions that scientists recommended.
This is all the more surprising because, in Uruguay, water rights are enshrined in the constitution. In fact, Uruguay, the South American country with the highest GDP per capita, was the first country in the world to declare access to water a constitutional right.
Climate Heating and Water Shortage
The situation in Uruguay is complicated. There’s no simple and clear cause of why this is happening. The country is experiencing one of the lowest precipitation levels in the past century. It’s also affected by three years of La Niña, a dominant climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean that can affect weather worldwide. It’s also unfortunate that water infrastructure investments were not more proactive and that industries take such a large claim of the country’s water.
But ultimately, it’s precisely the type of event you expect to see more with climate heating. Friederike Otto, climate scientist and co-author of a 2023 study on the South American drought, said, “Climate change is playing a role in the high temperatures that Argentina and other countries in the region are currently experiencing.” Otto’s research suggests climate change isn’t the main driver of this drought, but it’s exacerbating the events and fueling worse impacts. Extreme drought events existed before man-made climate change and will continue to exist — the problem is that man-made climate change is making them worse and more common.
For now, the Uruguayan water supply is guaranteed in key infrastructure areas, the country’s president says. But for millions, drinking tap water is simply not an option — and bottled water may be unaffordable for many.
The Uruguayan water crisis is a warning of a world that is unprepared for the challenges of climate change. The crisis highlights the need for all countries to take decisive action to ensure access to clean, drinkable water for all.
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