When Water Becomes a Political Challenge:
Uruguay moves for a constitutional amendment declaring water to be a public right
original from portal.unesco.org
In an overwhelming majority vote, water was enshrined in Uruguay's constitution as public property - a world first. As a result, the state must now decide what will happen to private concessions that managed the supply network before the vote, and also undertake the task of monitoring water quality.
In terms of water resources, Uruguay is somewhat blessed. According to the Second United Nations World Water Development Report, published in March 2006, the country is ranked 26th for the quantity of water available per inhabitant.
224 billion cubic metres of rain water falls each year in the country. However, a third of this volume evaporates or is lost, almost 183 billion litres of water per day.
In this South American country of three million inhabitants, this resource is used unsparingly. 6,000 litres of water costs a family only six dollars per month. However, only 43% of drinking water produced by the company is billed, as shown in a report commissioned by the state-owned water utility OSE (Obras Sanitarias del Estado). Also, it is not rare for a damaged pipe to leak for days before the authorities deal with it.
Yet it is now constitutionally enshrined that water belongs to the community. The result is that only state-owned companies can supply drinking water and sewage services.
The Uruguayan voters decided this by an overwhelming majority (64.58% of the votes) in a referendum in October 2004. Since then, a delicate process of negotiation has been underway to transfer the private concessions to the public domain.
Furthermore, the constitutional reform established that drinking water and the sewage system ‘are fundamental human rights’. Working on the assumption that water is property ‘in the public domain’, according to the amendment that was passed, Uruguay must now implement a national policy based on ‘sustainable supportive management’ of this resource.
Another important new concept: this policy now requires the participation of users at ‘all levels of planning, management and monitoring’.
‘Water cannot to be considered as private property, it belongs to all, to the community ', maintained lawyer Guillermo García Duchini, who took part in the drafting of the constitutional amendment, promoted by the National Commission in Defence of Water and Life, a coalition including close to forty associations.
‘It is inconceivable that this vital resource should be subject to speculation and profit. ‘In this respect’, he continued, ‘we have had rather negative experiences in this country, both in terms of cost to users and of protection of the environment’.
The lawyer recalled that the initiative for the reform was born out of a meeting of inhabitants in the Department of Canelones, in Southern Uruguay. At that time it was a response to worries among the local population that drinking water and sewage services would be privatized in the future.
The 2004 referendum, a world first, permanently ruled out this possibility. ‘In Uruguay, the constitution can only be modified by referendum’, explained García Duchini, hence the decision to resolve this issue by a vote.
The choice of the Uruguayans is surprising, to say the least, in a country that is liberally supplied with water, not only by rainfall but also by rivers and lakes.
Waterways such as the Uruguay River and the Río de the Plata flow towards most of the costal regions, and almost half the territory of this country of 187,000 km² is situated above usable aquifer sources (the largest, the Guarani aquifer, is one of the biggest subterranean freshwater reservoirs in the world, occupying 58,000 km² of Uruguayan territory and extending into Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay).
Mario García, Professor of the Department of Soil and Water at the University of Uruguay considers that water demand is currently low due to the enormous resources in the country.
Nevertheless, ‘when a resource is abundant, little importance is attached to it, and instead of opting for integrated management of the hydrographic basin, an individual strategy is applied’, he affirms.
Those in favour of the new legal framework wish to avoid this pitfall by creating specially designated organizations to administer the basins, comprised of the authorities, technicians and users.
However, according to Professor García, the main ‘risk of vulnerability’ that Uruguay faces today is the deterioration of water quality due to the use of agricultural chemical products. Preserving the quality and not only the quantity of water is now a public concern in Uruguay.
Mauricio Rabuffetti in Montevideo