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Hot Topic: Uruguay’s Water Crisis Switch Water Supplier

At the start of the year, a study from Oxford University’s School of Geography revealed that over 90 per cent of the world’s population is now predicted to face increased risks from both extreme heat and drought, two compound impacts that represent significantly higher risks to society and ecosystems alike than when considered independently.


Under the highest emission scenario, the frequency of these extreme compounding hazards are expected to intensify tenfold globally, thanks to the combined effects of decreases in terrestrial water storage and increasing temperatures, according to the research.


The effects of combined heat and drought are, of course, already being seen around the world, with many countries and regions experiencing prolonged and persistent drought conditions, which are wreaking havoc on water supplies and putting human life and the natural environment at very real risk.


One of the longest and largest droughts in recent decades is currently being seen in central-southern South America, which has been facing prolonged and severe drought since 2019, the negative effects of which are already plain to see on the economy, ecosystems and crop yields.


The latest report from the Global Drought Observatory indicates that this widespread drought is the result of smaller sub-events across the continent that are commonly affected by a severe lack of rainfall.


This dearth of precipitation and higher-than-normal temperatures by the end of March saw severe vegetation stress take hold across Uruguay, northern Argentina and southern Patagonia.


This has led to a serious reduction in crop yields. In Argentina, for example, this year’s soybean production forecast is 44 per cent lower than the average of the last five years, while the soy harvest is expected to be at its lowest since 1988.


But it is Uruguay that has been hitting the headlines thick and fast this week (July 10th), with a lack of rainfall since September last year driving down water access and availability across the country.


Data from the National Meteorological Institute shows that for the summer season (which runs from December to February), average rainfall was 126.4mm – 225.4mm below the average for this time of year. The current summer is the driest on record for the last 42 years, with 20.51 per cent of the region now classified as being in extreme drought.


The Royal Association of Uruguay has now stressed that losses in corn and soybean crops are irrecoverable and this will have a knock-on effect for agricultural production until 2026. Livestock will also be affected, with fewer births having an impact on the availability of animal produce until at least 2025 and 2026.


For consumers, price hikes are already being seen, with official figures showing that the cost of produce such as watermelon, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes have climbed by 40 per cent.


La Niña


A rapid attribution study carried out by the World Weather Attribution initiative, published back in February, suggested that one of the most important factors behind low rainfall in South America is La Niña, with the continent experiencing the effects of its third consecutive year in the thrall of this climatological event, which increases the risk of high temperatures and lower rainfall.


La Nina (or ‘the girl’) is the term used to describe periods of cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific and it is this that is driving the drought in South America, according to the study, more so than climate change.


Although no evidence was found that climate change had made low precipitation in the region more likely, the extreme heat we’re seeing that is attributable to the climate crisis has exacerbated the impacts of drought, which includes large failures of wheat (a particularly sensitive crop that struggles in extreme heat).


Lead author of the study Dr Friederike Otto said: “Climate change is definitely playing a role in the high temperatures that Argentina and other countries in the region are currently experiencing.


“As for the drought, our analysis suggests that natural variability and the unusual occurrence of three La Niña years in a row could explain the low rainfall, but the high temperatures exacerbate the impacts we are seeing, especially on crops.”


Water shortages


The capital of Uruguay, which is home to over 1.3 million people, has just seen its water supply reach critically low levels, with two main freshwater reservoirs (the Paso Severino and the Canelon Grande) now almost completely dry.


Come mid-June and the Uruguayan had declared a water crisis, with a state of emergency taking effect in the city. The government decree emphasised that drinking water supplies would be guaranteed for hospitals and nursing homes, as well as children and family centres, while brackish water has been added to supplies to help resources stretch further.


The government has assured members of the public that the water is drinkable, but has also advised anyone who is pregnant, who has kidney disease or who has high blood pressure to avoid tap water.


This move to introduce salty water to potable supplies has caused public outrage around the country, which was one of the first nations in the world to declare access to water as a constitutional right.


Further public outcry has also come afresh after it emerged that plans are now in place to build a Google data centre in Uruguay, which will use millions of litres of water a day – water that will most likely be taken from the public drinking water system.


According to figures from the Ministry of Environment, reported on by the Guardian, the data centre – which will stretch across 72 acres of land in Canelones – would use 7.6 million litres of water a day for server cooling, which is the equivalent to the use of 55,000 people each day.


Daniel Pena, researcher at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, responded to the plans, saying: “Only a tiny proportion of water in Uruguay is used for human consumption. The majority of it is used for big agroindustries, such as soya, rice and wood pulping. Now we have Google planning to use enormous quantities of water.”


As well as mixing brackish water into the public supply, Uruguayan president Luis Lacalle Pou has also brought in emergency measures such as cutting taxes on bottled water and distributing two litres of free water to thousands of poor and vulnerable families each day.


Recent investments have also been made in water infrastructure projects, including a nationwide sanitation plan that will see new sanitation networks set up around the country, including wastewater treatment plants, pumping stations and new connecting pipes.


But, of course, this all takes time to deliver – and unless relief is provided in the form of rain, it seems that the fortunes of the country now hang in the balance.


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