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Saturday, April 19, 2014
David Vargas* - IPS/IFEJ
- Josefina Samaniego didn’t know that water could have taste and colour until she moved to the city of Limpio, about 10 kilometres from the Paraguayan capital. The liquid from the wells in this community of 73,000 people is not odourless, colourless or tasteless as most expect water to be. The water Samaniego consumes is reddish, salty and smells like fresh soil. It is the product of what the experts call salinisation of the Patiño aquifer, a natural deposit of subterranean water that supplies more than two million people.
The Patiño extends underneath 1,173 square km of southern Paraguay: below Asunción and the metropolitan area, the entire Central department and part of Paraguari department – a highly urbanised zone that is home to more than 38 percent of the country’s population of six million.
It’s the “younger brother” of the 1.2 million-square-km Guaraní aquifer, which is shared by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. The Guaraní is one of the world’s main reserves of freshwater.
Patiño’s location is both its greatest asset and worst threat, explains Elena Benítez, water resources director for Paraguay’s environment agency, SEAM. Over-extraction has resulted in reduced aquifer water levels and a substantial increase in contamination.
According to SEAM studies, the aquifer’s water level falls an average of one metre per year.
The declining water level of the aquifer makes room for the inflow of an underground current of salty water from the Chaco.
The problem is not as great in Asunción because the state water supplier, Empresa de Servicios Sanitarios, gets its water from the Paraguay River, says Féliz Villar, president of the Paraguayan Association of Hydric Resources (APRH). But the rest of the area’s municipalities get water directly from the aquifer, through community systems, private companies, or family wells.
It is estimated that in the Patiño area there are some 300 private water suppliers operating, and more than 1,500 domestic wells.
“It was hard to get used to it, but now I barely notice” the taste, says Jerónima Villalba, as she collects water from an artesian well, 14 metres deep, at her home in the Villa Flamenco neighbourhood in Limpio (which means “clean”).
Villalba is one of the few residents in the area who still has an artesian well. The rest of the nearly 200 families in Villa Flamenco get their water from a private company, whose pumping station is several kilometres inland from the river, where the water “tastes better”, says her neighbour Victoria Argaña.
The residents complain about having to pay increasingly high rates to the private water companies, which take advantage of the government’s lack of regulations and manage their business as they like.
Samaniego says her water supplier has increased the monthly rate twice in the past year, from three to five dollars. This may not seem very expensive, but the water supply is constantly being cut off – sometimes for as long as a week – and the quality of the service is poor, as water pressure can be too low to even reach a showerhead.
Salinisation is a minor issue when compared to some of the other more pressing problems, say some water experts.
“The biggest problem is contamination,” says Félix Carvallo, coordinator of underground water management policy studies for the Asunción metropolitan area, carried out by the national environmental sanitation service (SENASA) and SEAM, with financing from Japanese international cooperation.
This is the only governmental initiative to come up with a water management plan. “But despite efforts there haven’t been positive results,” admits Carvallo.
A study by the engineering department at the National University of Asunción warned in 2006 about the advancing contamination, primarily from faecal coliform bacteria. Of 100 water samples studied, 34 percent had higher than maximum levels acceptable for human consumption.
“This is due to the lack of a sanitary sewage system. The populations of the Patiño aquifer use latrines whose deposits penetrate through the soil and reach the subterranean water,” Carvallo said.
According to SENASA, just 23 percent of the homes in the aquifer area are connected to the public sanitation system.
Other sources of contamination are the 36 garbage dumps scattered across the area. Run-off from the garbage filters through the soil and reaches the aquifer water.
“The wells are an open window to contamination,” says Amado Insfrán, of the non-governmental group Sobrevivencia-Amigos de la Tierra (Survival-Friends of the Earth).
The lack of permits or other types of regulation of the wells and the growing number of companies perforating the ground are important factors in the degradation of this limited resource, in terms of both capacity and quality, he said.
The Paraguayan parliament is debating a bill on water policy that, according to experts, would pave the way to regulating water usage.
But businesses and other productive sectors oppose the law because it would establish payment for use and exploitation rights of the subterranean waters.
“The most urgent is to fight contamination and saltwater intrusion” with concrete measures like expanding the sanitation network and requiring companies to optimise the use of the water they consume, says Insfrán.
But the government doesn’t have such plans on the books. There are just a few municipalities that are studying projects for building sewage treatment plants in their districts.
Meanwhile, the days go by for people like Jerónima Villalba, whose well is becoming increasingly salty. Soon she will have to join her neighbours in paying for the services of a private water company.
“Would you like to try it?” she says, offering a glass of water from her well. The liquid has a rough taste that the palate doesn’t recognise. She adds with a laugh: “Imagine that you’re on the beach and you’re drinking a bit of sea water.”
(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ – the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)