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Uruguay, amid severe drought, adds salt water to public drinking water supply

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — When the headaches started, María Sosa thought back to breakfast a few days earlier.

She had boiled eggs in their kitchen. Her husband, drinking water, asked her if she thought it tasted bad.

“A looked at the pot and it was white, stained with salt,” said Sosa, 62. “I knew straight away: this was going to be a problem.”

Uruguay, plagued by high temperatures and drought, lacks fresh water. Montevideo, the capital, only has a few days supply left.

This small, wealthy South American nation is not alone in suffering. Historically hot and dry conditions are hurting crops and shaking up Southern Cone economies. In the context of global climate change, the region is warming faster than the rest of the world. Rainfall in the last four months of 2022 fell to half the average, the lowest level in 35 years.

Crops dying, energy bills soaring, showers once a week. In South America, the climate future has arrived.

Andean glaciers have lost more than 30% of their surface area since the 1980s, according to the United Nations World Meteorological Organization. Central Chile has been experiencing its longest drought in at least a millennium for 13 years. Argentina’s agricultural exports are expected to fall by 28% in 2023.

But in Uruguay, extreme weather conditions have prompted authorities to an extreme response.

The Paso Severino Reservoir, which provides fresh water to more than half of the country’s 3.4 million people, is down to 5% of its capacity. Thus, the National Administration of Sanitary Works obtained this month the authorization to exceed the legal limits of sodium and chloride in public drinking water and began to add the supply of the Río de la Plata, the estuary where the fresh water of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers meets the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean.

Result: the amount of sodium in tap water has reached 421 milligrams per litre, the government announced last week. This is more than double the World Health Organization recommendation, 50% higher than Uruguay’s previous limit and 10 times the system’s historical levels.

Chloride reached 686 milligrams per liter of chloride, also 50% higher than the previous allowed limit.

In addition, the water tastes distinctly salty.

“For the general population, it is not a health problem,” Public Health Minister Karina Rando told reporters when the measure was announced. But his ministry issued a warning: “For people with hypertension, kidney disease and people who have a medical recommendation for a low sodium diet, extreme blood pressure checks are recommended. , not to neglect their medical checks and, if possible, consume bottled water.

Sosa is among those affected. She suffers from high blood pressure; it took him a year to get his blood pressure under control.

Since her tap water became salty, she has greatly reduced her consumption. “I used to drink about 30 or 60 ounces of water a day, and now I only drink two glasses,” she said. “I find myself saving the water left over from my husband’s tea, and we only have a mate or two a day. Our whole lives have changed.

In Barrio Nuevo Amanecer, the Sosa neighborhood on the outskirts of Montevideo, the problem is widespread. In a country where drinking water is recognized as one of the purest in the world, the cost of buying bottled water is exploding family budgets.

Opposition politicians and some Uruguayans blame President Luis Lacalle Pou for what they say is incompetence or corruption. Protesters chanted, “It’s not drought, it’s looting.”

“The crisis itself could have had a much more anticipated communication plan. Since last year there was a warning that the drought was going to continue,” said former environment minister Carlos Colacce. “Overnight, we discover that the water must start coming out salty.”

Lacalle Pou said the crisis did not take his government by surprise. “I don’t want to focus on what hasn’t been done,” he told reporters, but on new projects: a sewage treatment plant, a dam and a desalination plant imported from the United States. United.

What surprised Lacalle Pou was the boy who asked him about water while visiting an elementary school. “A question,” said the boy. “What’s wrong? Why is the water so salty?

The national government has suspended taxes on imported bottled water, and the city of Montevideo subsidizes the purchases of vulnerable residents.

Through the city’s network of polyclinics, Montevideo Mayor Carolina Cosse said, health workers identify those at risk and doctors give vulnerable patients “prescriptions” to redeem for bottles at local businesses. At least 70% of people who visited polyclinics in the past week had high blood pressure, officials said.

“I haven’t used my prescription for water yet,” Sosa said. “I helped an 80-year-old neighbor get hers because I could still buy water. But now I have to. I need.”

Opposition parties have called on health and environment ministers to testify about the crisis. “A water management error has been made,” said opposition leader senator Enrique Rubio. “They ignored the problem.”

“We called for an interpellation not to discuss the projects but the management of the water crisis,” he said. “We come to a limit situation if it does not rain.”

Soledad Furtado is co-owner of Parque Congelados, a supermarket in the Pardo district of Montevideo.

“The only question people ask us these days is about water,” she said. “They want to know if we heard anything.”

“We limit purchases to 12 liters [about 3.2 gallons] per day, because we want to make sure there is enough for everyone. Nowadays, people use bottled water for almost everything.

After months of little rain, any drop is cause for celebration. “Luckily we started the day with rainGerman Ambassador Eugen Wollfarth tweeted on Friday. “Very grateful to get wet.”

Herrero reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and Fernández Simon from Washington.


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