Porto Alegre and Island in Clean Water
By Marwaan Macan-Markar *
Except for this southern Brazilian city, most Latin American cities fail to meet the needs of their millions of residents for clean water and sanitation services, despite possessing water resources. The problem lies in distribution and quality.
KYOTO, Japan - Porto Alegre, the southern Brazilian city that has become a by-word for social justice after having hosted the World Social Forum, attracted the gaze of Latin American eyes during the Third World Water Forum held in this Japanese city.
''Porto Alegre is a good role model for Latin American cities to follow,'' Alvaro Umana, head of the environmentally sustainable group at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) says of the city where 98 percent of the 1.3 million residents have access to safe water and an equal number benefit from sound sanitation.
But Porto Alegre seems to be an island in the region as most Latin American cities fail to meet the basic needs for water and sanitation.
''Overall, Latin American cities are rich in water and most cities on average have over 80 percent water coverage,'' says Juan Valdes, professor of civil engineering at the Tucson-based University of Arizona.
This, in fact, makes the region the envy of the developing world, where the majority of the world's water poor live. It is a distinction brought home by a newly developed Water Poverty Index, in which no Latin American country was ranked among the countries with the worst water record.
Yet Valdes and other Latin American water experts say that such an impressive average conceals two glaring problems that plague cities: the irregular flow of water and its poor quality. In some neighborhoods, people encounter dry taps, whether for few hours every day or for several days during the week.
But it is in sanitation, including treatment of waste water, that the celebrated Porto Alegre towers above the rest, more so since the city's water and sanitation services are managed by public authorities.
''Close to 80 percent of waste water is not treated in Latin American cities, and this makes the sanitation issue a much bigger challenge for the region,'' says Umana.
Water experts told participants at the World Water Forum that the rapid growth of Latin American cities makes the challenge all the more daunting.
The Latin American urban population has expanded from 226 million people in 1980 to 403 million in 2000, reports Camilo Garzon of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).
''Treating the over 20,000 tons of waste a day that is discharged into rivers is a problem that must be faced,'' he said. ''Ignoring it could lead to cases like the spread of cholera in Peru.''
Garzon estimates that the region will need about 20 billion dollars to build efficient waste water treatment networks as part of its sanitation program, an intimidating sum.
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