‘It’s not drought, it’s looting’: Uruguay’s water crisis

More than a million people living in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, have been unable to access safe drinking water for the last two months as the country faces its biggest drought in 75 years. All, however, are not suffering equally; corporations’ access to and usage of fresh water is increasing.

All life on this planet requires water. But under capitalism, even this most essential of products has been turned into a commodity. The situation in Uruguay is a terrifying glimpse of what will only become more frequent as the climate crisis rages on.

Foul tastes, stomach aches and doctors’ prescriptions for bottled water are recurring complaints made by people in Montevideo.

To manage the water shortages, government officials announced in May that they would dilute public drinking water supplies with salty water from the La Plata River, increasing salt levels in tap water to more than double the previous maximum levels permitted by the state water service. According to Environment Minister Robert Bouvier, the water is “not drinkable in the perfect definition [of the word]”. Those with health conditions have been advised to avoid drinking tap water. For the more than 500,000 people who earn less than A$940 per month, government-provided bottled water only became available in mid-July.

Unionists and activists have protested the lack of drinking water throughout June and July. Protesters bang on empty water bottles, shouting “it’s not drought, it’s looting”, a chant which has featured in recent protests for water in Chile and Mexico.

The chronically underfunded public water system has been neglected for decades. Ismael Cortazzo, an official in the public water workers union, told Public Services International that “it was only in February of this year that the [public water] administration began to take some kind of action, but nothing substantial enough to mitigate what was already a major water crisis”. 

According to Cortazzo, staffing in the public water services has reduced by a quarter since 2020. Meanwhile, clean water leaks out of decrepit infrastructure onto the streets.

But the problem isn’t simply inadequate public infrastructure. Private companies in Uruguay consume extraordinary quantities of water. A 2018 investigation conducted by Uruguayan newspaper Brecha found that household water usage made up only 5 percent of the daily total. Export industries, such as soybean and rice farming and pulping mills, use up the bulk. Businesses are frequently allowed to siphon water from the Santa Lucia basin, Montevideo’s main public water supply. 

Earlier this month, the Guardian reported that a Google data centre currently under construction in southern Uruguay is expected to consume 7.6 million litres of water per day—directly from the public drinking water system—to cool its servers. This is equivalent to the normal daily water usage of 55,000 people. The World Rainforest Movement estimates that Uruguay’s third mega pulp mill, which opened in April, devours 20 million litres each day.

While ordinary Uruguayans get sick and suffer from lack of access to safe drinking water, the taps pour freely for the rich.

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