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Uruguay: a new debate on water

Uruguay: a new debate on water


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By Víctor L. Bacchetta

Uruguay has an important access to water, an example in the world, water that is taken from the tap, but on the other hand it is on the way to predation. It is unique, it is finite, it is running out, it is being wasted, and there are undertakings to transform it into capital.


The constitutional reform of 2004 in Uruguay that enshrined the human right to water and defined water as a public good allowed it to be returned almost completely to the state service of drinking water and sanitation, but other key aspects of the law such as the comprehensive management of water resources are advancing slowly and, apparently, require a greater discussion on what productive model is intended for the country.

Adriana Marquisio, president for the second term of the Federation of Officials of OSE (State Sanitary Works, public service of drinking water and sanitation), coordinator together with other organizations of the National Commission in Defense of Water and Life (CNDAV), promoter of the constitutional reform, he referred to the progress and pending issues in this regard, pointing out both the shortcomings within the current government of the Broad Front and the difficulties faced by social movements.

What is your assessment of what happened since the approval of the reform?

- Our balance is very positive with respect to the recovery of the water and sanitation services that had been privatized, despite the fact that some issues remain in dispute, such as the mixed economy company that provides service east of the Maldonado stream , where private capital continues to unconstitutionally own 40% of the company. But the most important transnational companies that were operating in the country, such as Aguas de Barcelona and Aguas de Bilbao, which operated in the department of Maldonado, withdrew as a result of the constitutional reform.

And what about the management of water resources?

- Having included this article in the Constitution had more impact outside of Uruguay than inside, because there is no similar international regulation. However, here the afforestation model was deepened and, if we take stock of the last four or five years, the waters of our basins and the rainwater that are deposited in Uruguayan territory have been highly compromised by this type of development.

Another privatization of water

We are extremely concerned that this is progressing. At first it was handled that it was an inheritance of agreements already signed, as something that could not be reversed. But this is no longer the case, rather it is a policy to move the country forward economically with this type of investment. So, the reform is not being used or has not been able to stop this new form of privatization of water, which is to carry the water in the logs, in the production processes, the water that is carried in the product, with that added value. In a world with a great shortage of fresh water, it is wasteful or crazy not to value the water resource of our territory that is being provided free of charge.

In the specific case of Botnia, the data speak of a consumption of 80 million liters of water per day to produce one million tons of cellulose and we know perfectly well that the company does not pay a peso for that water. So that there is a reference, on a hot day, to supply 1,800,000 people, OSE produces 500 million liters of water. In other words, we are saying that about a fifth of the fresh water needed to supply the population is delivered free of charge to a pulp mill.

What other experiences exist in countries where water for industrial use is not charged and in countries where other rules apply?

- Unfortunately I know and it is a practice especially in the underdeveloped world that uses large water potentials. The clearest example is Chile, which, unlike Uruguay, is authorized by constitutional provision, the right to use and exploit water in perpetuity and free of charge. Also in the Andean region is the case of Peru, where the use of water for mining has generated enormous depredation.

In developed countries that do not have large reserves of fresh water, the rules that apply are different. For example, in the United States, privatization does not reach 10% of public services in the entire country, neither in energy nor in water. In England the same and apply heavy penalties for environmental degradation. In Europe, massive afforestation with eucalyptus and other species that are being promoted here is prohibited. It is a logic that does not apply in their countries but is promoted in ours.

- The third major issue of the reform was the management concept, based on the water basin model and supported by the participation of the population.

- The government had to regulate this new article of the Constitution. It was very important to concentrate all the uses of water in a single entity because today Uruguay has more than seven ministries with competence in water matters. Each ministry has its own policy, but we are talking about a single hydrological cycle and there should be a national water policy with a comprehensive approach, not a biased management, with several fairly impenetrable centers of power, which has led to failure to advance in important aspects .

Dispersion of plans and policies

There is no political consensus to bring everything together in one ministry the government creates the National Directorate of Water and Sanitation (DINASA), within the orbit of the Ministry of Housing, Land Management and Environment. A space is being created to discuss all water issues and the CNDAV proposes to include participation. For us, participation is a new way of seeing the State and governing, of inverting the relationship with the State and putting it at the service of the individual.

Seen from a watershed perspective, the issue of water has to do with all areas of life, with productive development, land, water, energy, services, everything. This is where the discussion on the use of the Guaraní Aquifer, the Uruguay River, the Merim Lagoon, and the Río de la Plata is registered, in which very little progress has been made. It is a central issue on Mercosur's agenda: see how we are going to prevent possible watershed conflicts.

We already have a conflict, we have not been able to deal with it and, obviously, the peoples, the people, have been injured. Why? Because we did not give ourselves the opportunity to debate something that will continue to happen. Faced with a scarce resource, everything that is installed on basins of the importance of the Uruguay River will generate conflicts between countries and that is the reality in the Middle East and throughout the planet. Talking about reform leads us to talk about the geopolitical reality and how mature we are to discuss these things.

What has happened in the field of DINASA with respect to this issue?

- Together with the management, the Water and Sanitation Advisory Commission (COASA) is created, which would come to be similar to the Technical Advisory Commission for Environmental Protection (COTAMA) existing in MVOTMA. COASA is made up of delegates from public and private organizations, representatives of civil society and users.

Some NGOs have expressed that COTAMA has not served as a forum for debate or real advice to the ministry authorities.

- COASA began with the debate that it should not become a COTAMA and that the inputs that are poured into this commission serve as a contribution to the legislation that has to translate into facts the guiding principles of the reform. We proposed that we begin to discuss from the places where we can foresee conflicts, where we more or less have conflicts and where there is conflict. Perhaps not go fully into the Botnia issue, in which a smokescreen has been created that has overshadowed the underlying discussion. It has not been possible to address in a healthier way what concerns us all, which is the development model and what we are going to do with the basins.


COASA has tried to advance in the definition of a proposal to present to Parliament to enact a law that regulates everything related to water resources and social participation. What we have advanced is in seeing the difficulties that exist to advance. In other words, there is an enormous diversity of planning, in different directions depending on who is promoting it, when water policy has to be one, with the same conception, content and adapted to the situation.

The problem is who has the competence to take, for example, a status of the Uruguay river basin, in terms of quantity and quality, to later demonstrate, if this company contaminates or affects, that it was really the company . This is not there, there is no competent body that is doing it. In this is the debate and as everything is slow, meanwhile the problems we are experiencing, the urgencies, things are progressing, the investment that does not stop coming and that has nothing to do, in our opinion, with development of the productive chain.

These megaprojects continue to enter Latin America and a mark of overexploitation of natural resources remains as the only economic solution for the region. This is tied to the IIRSA project (the South American Regional Infrastructure Initiative), where the exit corridors at the river, road and rail level are foreseen for the export of our natural products.

Given that, really, this constitutional reform is not enough.

Government and social demobilization

The reform was the product of a discussion and a mobilization of society. In terms of mobilization, what are you planning today?

- It has been much more difficult to rebuild the social fabric at this stage than it was before this government. This progressive government has really demobilized the social movement. Beyond specific conflicts, demobilized in the sense of that big discussion, which country do we want, where are we going, how much is this part of a productive chain, towards which political project of real structural change we are going. And this has cost because in this time the social organizations have had to deal with what has been the ‘shock’ of having great leaderships of the union and social movement in the government.

This is not happening only in Uruguay, it is happening in Bolivia, in Ecuador, in many countries, because it is the first time in history that progressive left movements come to government with social leaders. This demobilizes because mobilization is understood in some way as an attack on that representation in the government and we are just learning to separate the responsibilities that are had at the level of a government, of the administration, from the tasks that are fulfilled at the level of a movement social or a non-governmental organization. This is taking us a lot of time and emotional wear, which we are putting in workshops, assemblies, etc. We are many, in different places, with different names, by land, by water, by sovereignty, etc., but we are seeking to define where we are going, for what and how much the government made up of former colleagues is truly following a project of change.

Are these issues that are being discussed regarding water policy being monitored by the PIT-CNT?

- Little, really little, despite the fact that we have a colleague from FFOSE, who is a member of the PIT-CNT Secretariat and who was appointed to represent it before COASA. The Agrarian Affairs Commission was also installed, which deals with water and land issues, but there is no water commission in the PIT-CNT and we are not having stable work at the programmatic level on this issue at the central level.

And related to the preparation of the People's Congress?

- There, yes, there is a central axis that has to do with land, water, energy and sovereignty. We have a very strong coordination with the Ancap Federation, with FUCVAM, and other movements. We made the march "together for water, land and public companies" from Bella Unión to Montevideo. This coordination arose naturally before these reflections together of many organizations, it is gaining more and more strength and it is being encouraged to give the debate, in the face of the People's Congress and the organic bodies of the PIT-CNT.

The central has no less debate about the sources of work, work and the productive chain, crossed with what type of work, under what conditions, for what and for what purposes. At the last PIT-CNT congress it was very clear that every debate we gave on working conditions, productive development, programmatic development, whatever it was, ran into the issue of pulp mills. I believe that the trade union movement is also making progress on this issue, it is changing its vision on this from the leadership, after we already have some concrete facts.

We lacked vision

What Botnia has been, for example, is not going to change, on the contrary, it is going to deepen. We already know what happened in Spain. Well, those new sources of work are colored mirrors, bread for today and hunger for tomorrow. The forestry model must be stopped, a law must be made that says enough, that the million hectares planted are more than enough. This issue has been going on for 30 years and in the social movement we did not have enough capacity to see the impact that this was going to have, we did not see it, nor did we see in the years 90-92 the privatizations that were talked about until we perceived the impacts.

We did not see that this is part of a very strong business movement on a global scale, which seeks to appropriate natural resources such as water to transform them into capital. The fair price of water is discussed and we argue that one thing is water for domestic use, for human consumption, and another is water to transform it into capital. We are talking about a vital liquid that has no substitute, water is unique, it is finite, it is running out, it is being wasted, and we have these ventures to transform water into capital, it is a concentration of capital. This is the debate.

Fortunately, Uruguay has access to important water, an example in the world, water that is taken from the tap, but on the other hand we are on the way to predation. You have to see the state of the Santa Lucía river basin, the Uruguay river, the Merim Lagoon, it is not for long that we will continue to have good conditions.

* Uruguayan journalist


Video: The Rights of Nature: A Global Movement - Feature Documentary (July 2022).


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