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PERU: President Garcia Floats Hope for Waterless City Dwellers

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Sep 22 2006 (IPS) - Seventy percent of residents in the Peruvian capital’s northwestern Carabayllo district lack drinking water – but they represent only a fraction of the seven million people in this South American country of 27 million with no piped water.

To address this alarming deficit, President Alan García this month launched the “Water for All” programme, which aims to bring running water to an additional 2.5 million people between 2005 and 2011.

A truck passes through the dusty roads of the Las Mercedes neighbourhood in Carabayllo three times a week to supply residents with water. Customers pay these private companies up to 50 soles (15 dollars) per month – that is, 10 times more than what Lima residents on the public water grid pay. They also run health risks, because the tanker trucks are not regulated.

“This water contains rust that accumulates in the tanks,” said Edgardo Cárdenas, a home-owner whose land also lacks sewer services.

“During the summer, babies often get stomach problems from drinking this water,” added Magdalena Alfaro, another Las Mercedes resident and a mother of two.

“Over the last 14 years I’ve had to replace the silo four times,” says María Victoria Canto, referring to the septic tank she has instead of a sewer system. Her two-storey brick and cement house has no potable water or sewage system.

Metropolitan Lima is made up of more than 40 districts, including Carabayllo, where a mere 30 percent of the 200,000 residents have access to drinking water and sewage services.

Figures from the Peruvians Without Water Movement show that two million of the 7.9 million inhabitants of the province of Lima are in the same boat, while in the rest of the country the total climbs to five million.

Similar figures are cited in the report “Citizens Without Water: Analysis of a Right that Has Been Violated,” prepared by the ombudsperson’s office in July 2005. The document states that 6.8 million Peruvians (25.3 percent) lack drinking water and 11.5 million (42.9 percent) have no sewage services.

“Millions of Peruvians are living in sub-standard conditions, and we’re drinking water that’s not fit for human consumption. Even though we have repeatedly asked that the State, through its representatives, take action, they rarely listen to us,” Abel Cruz, president of the Peruvians Without Water Movement, told IPS.

The Movement links 1,600 leaders of shantytowns and neighbourhoods without services throughout the city of Lima.

García, who launched the drinking-water programme Sep. 2, pledged 69 million soles (approximately 21.2 million dollars) to address the needs of 160,000 Carabayllo residents – approximately 90 percent of the people in the district who currently do not have access to piped water.

The first stage of the initiative focuses on metropolitan Lima, implementing nine major projects that over five years will benefit 600,000 of the waterless residents. This comprehensive coverage, however, will not be replicated on the same scale in the rest of the country.

A representative of the Housing Ministry press office told IPS that an estimated 400 million soles (some 123 million dollars) are earmarked for the Lima projects. But the total nationwide investment for the initiative has not been defined.

In 2003, Vice Minister of Construction and Sanitation Jorge Villacorta calculated that the State would have to spend 4.47 billion dollars to meet by 2015 the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) that calls for reducing by half the number of people without access to drinking water.

The eight MDGs were adopted by the United Nations member countries in 2000 as a platform for drastically reducing global poverty and inequality by 2015.

But in Peru, according to the ombudsperson’s office, investment plans for the sector amount to a mere 1.2 million dollars for the 2001-2008 period.

“We are nowhere near reaching the goal, because for years the shortage of water has been absent from government policies, let alone being addressed as a human rights problem. Now President García has made a significant commitment, especially en Lima, but it isn’t enough – huge gaps in service still remain in the rest of the country,” Carlos Alza, assistant ombudsman for public services and the environment, told IPS.

The State’s previous failure to recognise a citizen’s right to access to drinking water means that the issue did not make the political agenda, so funds were not allocated to improving coverage.

According to Villacorta’s 2003 calculations, to meet the MDG, drinking water coverage must be increased from 75 to 82 percent, and sewage system coverage increased from 57 to 77 percent.

The most serious problems are found in the rural areas. The ombudsperson’s office revealed that 70 percent of rural residents throughout the country – that is, 6.3 million Peruvians – do not have proper sewage systems.

As if that were not enough, sewage-treatment figures are even more extreme.

Only 16 percent of sewage is treated to minimise the impact on the environment – a proportion that must be increased to 97 percent. “In this respect, we are practically starting from zero,” added Alza.

Despite the urgency of the situation, the “Water for All” programme does not include projects to address this issue. “One reason is because taking action on sewage treatment issues doesn’t score political points. It doesn’t increase popularity,” Congressman Carlos Bruce, who up until six weeks ago was housing minister in the outgoing Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) administration, told IPS.

Last July, municipalities were ordered to issue ownership certificates to residents who did not hold title to their property, allowing them to request water and sewage services, in accordance with the General Sanitation law.

To be able to offer a quality service, the García administration must also harmonise Peruvian legislation with international drinking-water standards.

The Peruvian regulation on water purity dates back to 1946. It establishes maximum allowable lead limits of 0.1 milligrams per litre, while World Health Organisation limits are 0.01 mg/l – 10 times stricter.

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