MONTEVIDEO – Federico Hartig of Uruguay has always prepared his compote with tap water, but 10 days ago he began to notice a salty taste that was unknown to him.
The 40-year-old cook, who has been feeding a hundred children for a decade at a dining room in the Tres Ombues neighborhood on the outskirts of Montevideo, now makes infusions from bottled water that he also uses to cook after-kids. were clear. : “We don’t want to drink that ugly water,” Hartig told The Associated Press.
For more than a week, nearly two million Uruguayans – out of a total population of 3.4 million – have had to choose between buying bottled water or consuming a saline solution that is impossible to swallow. “The water is not potable (but) it is potable,” Environment Minister Robert Bouvier told reporters.
The reason for the high salinity in the tap water is the depletion of the two reservoirs of the Santa Lucia River, which supplies 60% of the population.
The lack of liquid has forced authorities to use water from an area in Santa Lucia close to the Río de la Plata, which registers high salinity, with sodium levels rising.
The World Health Organization recommends no more than 200 milligrams of sodium per liter of water to make it drinkable, but Uruguayan officials say that value has now reached 440 milligrams.
The crisis is the legacy of “a negligence that comes from afar” and that Santa Lucia’s flow and quality failed to provide drinking water, Daniel Panario, director of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, explained to The Associated Press. He has been studying the soil and water resources of the country for many years. “At this point, without taking any prior measures, there was no other option but to purify the brackish water,” he said.
However, this is a short term solution. Raul Monteiro, president of Obras Sanitarias del Estado (OSE), recently warned that there are only reserves for about 18 days. Montero did not specify what might happen after that period.
The Ministry of Public Health recommends that pregnant women and people with kidney disease or heart problems should avoid drinking tap water. “We don’t know whether tomorrow or in a week we will continue with the same sodium values,” Health Minister Karina Rando told a press conference.
This is not the first water crisis in Uruguay. In 2013 the water acquired an unpleasant odor and taste from algae breeding due to high levels of phosphorus in the river basin. Livestock and intensive agriculture contributed excessive amounts of minerals and nitrogen to the river, which became cloudy in many areas and reduced in volume due to lack of planning.
“We are facing a more severe drought than usual. But the crisis in Santa Lucia is an accumulation of mismanagement: deforestation in springs, degradation of resources, agricultural intensification, buffer zones and degraded wetlands, over-consumption and unplanned consumption,” explained Marcel Achkar, a researcher at the Institute of Ecology and Environment of the University of the Republic of Engineering Faculty of Science.
Achkar and other researchers surveyed 486 private water bodies from the source of the river. When rain comes, which is forecast to be less abundant than usual, the reservoirs will fill before the river supplies the metropolitan population. The Santa Lucia originates in the high mountains of the Lavalleja Department, a forested region prone to prolonged drought, located 150 kilometers northeast of Montevideo.
“Mountains store water. When it stops raining, water seeps out through cracks for a long time, but eucalyptus trees eat up a good portion of that water,” Panario explained.
According to academic research, eucalyptus trees absorb 50% of the water from springs in the Lavalleja Mountains, which were declared a priority for reforestation.
Last year, timber was the third export product for Uruguay, which has two large pulp mills and another that will come on stream this year. According to the Uruguayan XXII government agency, it is estimated that in 2023 it will be the country’s main export. The second is soybeans, which have taken over most of the country’s fertile land over the past 15 years.
“The invasion of soybeans has fundamentally affected the quality of water bodies. Afforestation also affects the quantity and quality of water, which drastically reduces the amount of water in rivers and reduces their self-purification capacity,” Panario warned.
In the next few days the government will confirm construction companies for the Neptuno project, a water treatment plant in the Rio de la Plata at a cost of $210 million. It is also studying drilling wells in the Santa Lucia Basin and has announced the construction of a new temporary dam.
But these proposals do not convince academics, who prefer to preserve Santa Lucia to prevent deterioration. “We are on time to reverse the processes, prohibit afforestation in the headwaters of the basin, regulate intensive land use, irrigation systems, private dams, improve dairy farm water treatment, feed coral to livestock and speed up the cleanup. There is a big mess”, Achkar summed up.
Although “there are many points to work on in the medium term,” he assured, the situation is uncertain. Foresight and lack of investment compromise Santa Lucia, while the country’s most populous region drinks salt water and is once again at the mercy of climate change to have fresh water on tap.