“No es sequía - Es saqueo!”: Reclaiming water as a common good
Uruguay is suffering an unprecedented water crisis, with 60% of the population now receiving tapwater with extreme levels of sodium and chlorine. Since the 10. of May, people have been gathering in the streets of Montevideo to stress their right to drinking water. The demonstrators demand that the state prioritises the people over the multinationals: "The water we lack - donate it to UPM". In Uruguay, pulp production is also depleting fresh water reserves and exacerbating the water crisis. Cellulose production consumes ten times more water than the total amount used for drinking water in the country. Local scientists are calling for the forest industry to stop planting eucalyptus plantations in the areas, where water use is contributing to drinking water shortages.
Uruguay has declared an emergency due to the lack of drinking water in the country’s capital, within a country with one of the largest freshwater reserves in the world. Currently citizens have taken to the streets of the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, for 11 consecutive days to defend the right to water. “No es sequía, Es saqueo!” “It is not drought, it is plunder!” echoes the chants of protestors in the streets. The droughts themselves are not new, but have been present for the past three years. However, the severity with which the nation has felt its consequences this year are unprecedented. The self-organized protesters have aimed to politicize the lack of drinking water in the midst of the drought, highlighting the complicity of the nation's intensive agribusiness sector that is geared for export. Every day for the past week, self-convened people have demonstrated in front of the Executive Tower, the Legislative Palace, the headquarters of the Ministry of Public Health and OSE (The National water utilities company) demanding answers and solutions from the state.
Witnessing an unprecedented shortage of drinking water in the nation’s capital and southern areas, more than 60% of the nation’s population is currently lacking access to drinking water. Due to a lack of freshwater reserves, most importantly in the Santa Lucia waterbasin, the capital's tap water now contains too high of a portion of saltwater from Rio de la Plata, leading to tapwater with extreme levels of sodium. Since the beginning of May citizens of the areas have been advised to not consume tap water and have seen the extreme presence of sodium and chlorine in the water. The citizens have been advised to consume bottled water and to change their daily consumption patterns to save water.
The protestors are resisting the state’s attempts to place responsibility on the citizens. Seeking to politicize the issue and bring to forth the intense privatization and free use of freshwater reserves for the use of multinationals and agribusiness, they are demanding the state to re-evaluate its priorities and highlight that the lack of drinking water cannot be blamed on the drought alone, but on political choices and concessions made in the face of multinationals.
In November last year, a group of 12 researchers from the University of the Republic warned on the risk of jeopardizing national sovereignty in the use of and access to drinking water and demanded broad analysis of the situation of the functioning of the environmental, natural and productive system as a whole.
As one of its advice it called to take precautionary measures when considering agricultural intensification and increase in forest crops. UPM, a forestry multinational headquartered in Finland, has steadily increased its hectarage of eucalyptus plantations in the country. This is particularly risky near the headwaters of the Santa Lucia and provides the capital's primary drinking water supply. UPM has steadily increased the number of hectares of eucalyptus plantations in the country. Forestal Oriental, the plantation operator owned by UPM, also operates plantations in the regions where the water of Santa Lucia, and thus the drinking water of the capital Montevideo, originates. Montes del Plata, owned by Stora Enso and Chilean ARAUCO, also owns plantations in the country. No studies have yet been conducted on the direct link between UPM's plantations and the drought, however researchers are certain of the industry's role as a whole.
“We must really discuss the requalification of forest priority land in the headwaters of the Santa Lucía. Not a single hectare should be allowed to increase in the area. Afforestation played a role in the drought; it is more than proven that it reduces the water production of a basin between 25% and 40%. It has been found that, in drought situations, it reduces [the water production] up to 80%. We do not agree among all the researchers on the magnitude of the percentages, but no one denies that it reduces water yield” states Marcel Achkar, one of the researchers behind the manifesto, to the national newspaper la diaria.
Currently, no royalties are being charged from private companies in their use of public waters for irrigation or other uses. Carlos Santos together with other researchers from the University of the Republic has argued that water has been placed as an environmental subsidy for agribusiness in Uruguay. The Uruguayan grasslands have been identified to have played an important role in the purification of the water basins, but this has been threatened due to the continuing land change due to cellulose production together with other intensive agricultural products like soy. According to calculations made by the researchers in 2019 cellulose production used ten times more water than the total used as drinking water in the country. This is still significantly less than the total used to produce beef and soy in the country. Cellulose’s share is however expected to increase as the new pulp mill begins its operations.
“The water that we lack – is gifted to UPM” reads a banner and signals the presence of the Finnish forestry giant as one of the targets of the demonstrations. Amid a national drinking water crisis, UPM has opened the largest pulp mill of its kind in the nation, consuming approx. 1,5 m3 of water per second without additional costs. The protesters are calling for environmental justice and that water supply should be understood as a common good and not as a condition for private foreign investment. At present, "multinational producers consume the highest quantity and quality of water, while the population gets water with too much sodium and chloride", Marcel Achkar summarises. The protesters are thus calling for a structural reform of the nation's extractive production model based on export-led intensive agriculture.
Santos, C., González, M. N. & Sanguinetti, M. (2021) El agua como subsidio ambiental del agronegocio en Uruguay.