Lack of public investment leaves Uruguay without drinking water

For more than 60 days the population of Montevideo and the region has been without drinking water. The freshwater reserves in Paso Severino are running out. A crisis announced by the prolonged drought, the lack of investment in infrastructure by the national government and the dismantling of the Obras Sanitarias del Estado (OSE), responsible for managing the country's water resources

At the end of March, the metropolitan region's drinking water supply system had already reached a historic low, below 20% of its capacity. Today it is at less than 1.5% of its capacity. Faced with the announced possibility of water shortages in this region, two months ago the national government decided to mix water from the Río de la Plata with fresh water, which resulted in salinized water for drinking. In other words, the water that comes out of the taps in the houses has a high content of chlorides and sodium, exceeding the norms given by the Ministry of Public Health. UN experts have expressed their deep concern about the violation of the right to water since a considerable increase in the permitted salt levels has been affecting the drinking water of 60% of Uruguay's population.

Divulgation FFOSE,  march 2023
Divulgation FFOSE, march 2023

The water crisis is much more than the consequence of a lack of rainfall, but rather the consequence of political decisions that directly impact the living conditions of most of the population. For Ismael Cortazzo, member of the executive secretariat of the Federation of OSE Officials (FFOSE), the situation that has arisen is one of negligence and mismanagement on the part of the current OSE administration, which, knowing that there was a drought crisis some time ago, did not take the necessary precautions. The government also failed to take action related to water for human consumption. "It was only in February of this year that the OSE administration began to take some kind of action, but nothing substantial enough to mitigate what was already a major water crisis. So, in that sense we see that there is significant negligence on the part of the Administration", he stressed.

The lack of personnel working in Obras Sanitarias also contributed to this situation. The leader says that since the current government took office in 2020 there has been a significant reduction in the number of civil servants. "From a universe of about 4400, we dropped about 1050 and I know that we lost 1/4 of the total number of workers," he pointed out.

Regarding the lack of personnel, Cortazzo explained that it had been proposed that for every three officials that left, up to one would be hired to cover part of the staff, but no new personnel has been hired. "On the contrary, they have opted for precariousness by hiring social cooperatives in some cases or outsourcing in others, but no genuine officials to carry out the task have been hired since the current government took office," he said.

19 companies use more water than all the inhabitants of the country"

Another problem has to do with the use of water by large companies in Uruguay. According to data from an investigation by Brecha Weekly[1], 19 companies use more water than all the inhabitants of the country, among them cellulose production companies. "It is not possible to have water in a basin committed to activities other than human consumption. There is a lot of production and industry there, so it is an issue that obviously ends up being noticed," said Cortazzo.

The role of consequences caused by climate change must be recognized, bearing in mind that the unions must and are involved in this issue. Uruguay is a significant producer of cellulose, which consumes a large amount of water. A strongly concentrated agro-export model has generated a significant consumption of water, which has changed a large part of the nature of Uruguay and is extremely affected by its consequences.

FFOSE denounces that all the money that could be invested in OSE was destined for the Neptuno project, which in reality would not solve the problem of water drought, and which would represent the privatization of water in Uruguay because it foresees contracting a company to build a water treatment plant[DB1], under a 28-year concession, and that OSE buys the water it needs from the private company.

How the unions act

It is necessary to clarify the power and influence of big business in the Uruguayan political system. It is not acceptable that the government does not take into account the interests of the people and the environment in its decision-making. Now, in the face of the crisis, bottled water multinationals gain much more. The power of Nestlé, Danone, Coca Cola and Pepsi is almost immeasurable and combined with the power of the big agribusiness companies, makes the causes of this crisis more visible.

From the union organizations, what is being done is to demand the truth from the government about the quality and safety of the water being offered to the population. "As a union, we want an income of personnel; that investments be made where investments are needed and, above all, that the truth be told about the quality of the water we are supplying to the population, in addition to the fact that we cannot be charging for a service that is not being provided. We charge to provide drinking water, we are not providing drinking water, therefore, we demand that the poorest sectors not be charged and that the bottled water market be regulated, which is what is currently supplying the lack of drinking water", emphasized the FFOSE leader.

From the management of public services, what companies like OSE do not do are connections with the communities they serve. It is necessary to have a governance structure that involves the community in a systemic way. In this sense, for Cortazzo, the government is not complying with the law. "There is a constitutional reform on water. In the subsequent laws of the same, there were Basin Councils that are consultative, that have to be working with the community that have not been given much importance in these years. This could have generated that the people who are directly involved and affected, who live in the basin, could be making proposals to mitigate the worst effects on their lives and their environment", he emphasized.