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PARAGUAY: Clean Water Out of Reach for Native Peoples

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCION, Jun 29 2010 (IPS) - Of the many things that are not within the reach of everyone in Paraguay, safe drinking water is the one the indigenous population longs for most.

Neira Esquivel and other Sanapaná women have to walk a long way for a little water. Credit: Natalia Ruiz Díaz/IPS

Neira Esquivel and other Sanapaná women have to walk a long way for a little water. Credit: Natalia Ruiz Díaz/IPS

“The water we get from the reservoir is not fit to drink, but we drink it anyway. We have no other option; it’s not clean water, but it is water,” Neira Esquivel, a Sanapaná indigenous woman from the village of Karanda’y Puku, in the vast Paraguayan Chaco region, told IPS.

Esquivel travelled to Asunción with leaders of her community to demand water, food and formal recognition of their land rights from the National Indigenous Institute.

These journeys to the capital, more than 400 kilometres away, are a permanent feature of their lives. They go especially to voice their water needs.

Communities in the Chaco region, a semi-arid expanse of dense thorn scrubland in northern and western Paraguay, suffer most because in addition to the lack of infrastructure for water supply, droughts are common.

In the area around Karanda’y Puku, which is home to 70 families, “it hasn’t rained for seven months; our reservoir is dry and the reserve tank is empty,” said Esquivel.

Average rainfall in the Chaco — an area of over 247,000 square kilometres, covering 61 percent of the national territory — is 400 millimetres a year, and there is little surface water, while the groundwater is salty.

The sparsely populated Chaco is home to half of Paraguay’s 108,000 indigenous people, who represent just over 1.7 percent of the country’s population of 6.2 million, 75 percent of which is made up of people of mixed European and indigenous descent.

Water supply is a longstanding problem in the Chaco. Every year, there are shortages in the dry season and an emergency has to be declared to cope with the crisis, Santiago Bobadilla, an expert with the non-governmental Tierraviva organisation which works for the rights of native peoples, told IPS.

Most indigenous villages have reservoirs for rainwater catchment, created by digging hollows in the earth, but they dry out when the rains fail.

“The indigenous people are constantly asking for help. Water supplies sent by truck are only palliative, and the water is not of drinking quality,” Bobadilla said.

The Ministry of National Emergency sends the trucks, but responsibility for water distribution falls largely on local governments. According to indigenous leaders, the aid does not reach the remotest communities.

Sixty percent of indigenous households, comprising some 65,000 people, use surface water or rainwater as their sources of supply because they are not connected to piped water.

These figures are from the report “Actualización y Análisis Sectorial de Agua Potable y Saneamiento de Paraguay” (Update and Analysis of Drinking Water and Sewerage in Paraguay), published early this year by government bodies and financed by the Spain-UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Trust Fund.

Fifty percent of the rural population has little to no access to piped water, the report says. Nineteen percent of Paraguayans live in extreme poverty.

According to the Indigenous Household Survey 2008, nearly 38 percent of native families get their water from reservoirs and rivers, 21 percent from wells, 34 percent from groundwater and only six percent from piped supplies.

When there is drought in the Chaco, women have the task of trudging long distances in search of water. “We walk many kilometres, and we often have to fill our containers from other people’s properties,” said Esquivel, referring to farms belonging to Mennonite communities.

In this inhospitable region as elsewhere, development makes all the difference. The Mennonites who settled here in the late 1920s now number 30,000 people, organised in large cooperatives which control 75 percent of the national dairy industry.

They are equipped with the infrastructure needed for rainwater catchment and storage, deep-well extraction of groundwater, and desalination.

In contrast, the lack of clean water causes unending health problems among the indigenous people, especially the children, who also lack proper healthcare.

In the view of Celso Zavala, a leader of the Enxet indigenous people, one of the main problems is that health centres are so far away.

“On the one hand, we take water directly from the streams, which causes problems, especially among the children; and on the other hand, we have no access to healthcare,” Zavala told IPS.

The document analysing drinking water and sewerage in Paraguay stresses that health care provision must be urgently improved to raise indigenous people’s quality of life, and recommends that it be provided free, and in a way suitable to the customs and traditions of native people.

It also highlights the need to promote environmental and health education, to reduce the risks of contamination and water-borne diseases, like diarrhoea.

“We come to Asunción because we have needs: we have no food, we have no water,” Esquivel repeated before returning to her village.

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