By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Peru’s desert capital is thirsty for change

by in Environment.

worker with a pipe fills a tank with drinking water on the dusty hillside of Pachacútec, a desert suburb, on January 21, 2015 in Lima Peru. Jan Sochor/CON/LatinContent/Getty Images

Filling a tank with drinking water in a desert suburb of Lima, Peru, 1/21/15. Jan Sochor/CON/LatinContent/Getty Images

On Saturday, Peru announced $66 million in projects to chlorinate water in 2,000 poor rural communities, where access to safe water is a chronic problem. Lima, the desert capital of 9 million people, is also facing major water shortages. 11 of its municipal districts experienced water cuts lasting 36 hours or more last week. All this comes from an unfortunate combination of declining supply and inefficient (or incompetent, as many residents say) distribution by the state water company Sedapal.

There is a popular lament in Peru that aptly describes Lima’s expansion: “In any part of the world, real estate development follows water, but in Peru water follows real estate development.” While the city is nine times bigger than it was in 1950, it still only receives 1 inch of rainfall per year. And the Rimac River, which flows from Andean glaciers to provide 75% of Lima’s water, is slowing due to climate change. (Glacial coverage in Peru shrank by 40% in the past 40 years.)

Nearly one million people in Lima lack access to potable water, and Sedapal estimates that the investment necessary to meet the demand for water and drainage would be nearly $19 billion. (To this end, the company recently raised water tariffs by 6% this year.) And the poor are hit hardest by the current status quo. Those without a water connection pay much more for water to be trucked in — an extra $228 per year, an amount that almost equals the national monthly minimum wage.

But Sedapal plans to invest only about $880 million between 2015 and 2021, and increasing its budget won’t automatically translate to better results on the ground; in the last two years, the company didn’t even fully spend its allocated funds. And yet, despite this and its unreliability in supplying promised water to new developments, it faces no consequences.

There are some novel measures that could make a difference for Lima’s water supply. A $100 million desalination plant is being built to provide water for 100,000 people in the south of Lima, and a wastewater treatment plant is also under construction to supply a mine’s operations (instead of using valuable freshwater). The city is even reusing ancient Incan canals in the mountains.

These are commendable, and should be scaled up. Simultaneously, another approach can unlock greater efficiency in water distribution — allowing the private sector to participate. This is not unheard of in other parts of the world, such as in Britain and Chile, where private firms are contracted to handle water distribution and the quality is much higher than that of Peru. Even in Peru, most electric companies are private, and many even have a mix of Peruvian and foreign capital. Sedapal needs to follow suit.