Investors pour $25 million into better water and sanitation in Latin America

A family collects clean water from a new water system in Agua Caliente. (Inter-American Foundation/Flickr)

Investors are pouring $25 million into an initiative to improve access to water and sanitation in some of the poorest countries of Latin America.

The initial investment was announced over the weekend by the FEMSA Foundation, Coca-Cola Latin America, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the One Drop Foundation – an organization founded by the creator of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberté.

“Our mission is to complement government programs with capitals of private initiative, to create social change in trying to change habits of hygiene and sanitation,” said Mariano Montero, director of the FEMSA Foundation.

The initiative aims to improve water and sanitation for 200,000 people across México, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia and Paraguay before 2021.

The investment is the second phase of the Lazos de Agua (“Water Bonds”) program, which was started in 2013 with an initial $12.3 million investment from the FEMSA Foundation, Coca-Cola Latin America and Millenium Water Alliance. The two-year plan benefited 110,000 people and invested in improved sanitary infrastructure and hygiene habits in 196 communities in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

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According to FEMSA’s website, the program also created a learning platform that helps the transfer of best practices between the implementing partners in the different countries.

The World Bank estimates that 1,800 people will live in countries or regions with total water scarcity by 2025, mainly due to the demographic explosion in urban areas and over-exploitation of groundwater.

Latin America has more water sources than any other region in the world, yet 36 million of its people – six times the total population of Nicaragua – still lack access to drinking water.

Water shortage is acute in Sao Paulo, the largest city in the Americas, which is suffering its most severe drought in 80 years. In Bolivia, melting glaciers exacerbate the effects of an ill-planned water system, which has led to the longest and deepest drought in the Andean country’s recent history.

“Cities are vulnerable to climate change but government policies are making climate change worse,” said Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the U.N. in global climate change talks, in a recent interview with the Guardian. “Water has a big impact on people and politics. People are becoming really angry. This anger feeds into politics and governments are losing popularity.”

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According to the World Bank, lack of water leads to more deaths than earthquakes and hurricanes combined.

It also hinders the economic progress of women and girls around the world, who bear the burden of fetching water and consequently miss out on opportunities for education, productive activities or leisure time. In Northeastern Brazil, a World Bank study found that improved water access allowed women to devote more time to their farms and themselves, leading to an increased family income of up to 30 percent.

“I used to struggle to do the washing up,” said one woman from the study. “Now I can do it more quickly. I have more time for other things.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com