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Image: DW/Naomi Conrad

Water for a dry city

Naomi Conrad, Lima, Peru
December 17, 2012

Close to one million people don't have access to safe drinking water in Lima. The government is trying to bring water to the slums. But it's a battle against climate change and migration.


Not long ago, the mafia ruled supreme over Huayacan's water supplies. Every couple of days, their trucks would trundle along Huayacan's dusty dirt roads and stop at the wooden and stone huts huddled in the valley on the outskirts of Peru's capital, Lima. Maria would take her bucket, gingerly pick her way around the many potholes and make her way down to the trucks.

Water was expensive: 10 soles per cubic liter (almost three euros or four dollars), Maria, who is in her twenties, says. For water is scare in Lima, one of the driest capitals in the world. Almost 40 percent of its inhabitants lack access to clean, safe drinking water and a functioning sewage system.

Close to one million people depend on the water mafia - or makeshift wells. "The wells attract rats and flies, and that in turns attracts diseases. In summer, children and old people get sick and you spend more looking after them than you would in building a proper sanitation system," explains Eduardo Cascon, who heads the governmental water agency SEDAPAL.

Water for all?

It's thanks to SEDAPAL and funding from the German development bank KfW that each house in Huayacan has its own water supply. Even Maria's tiny hut clinging to the barren mountainside has a tap. A cubic liter of water costs about three soles.

Maria holds a baby wrapped in a blanket
Residents try not to waste too much waterImage: DW/Naomi Conrad

Some five years ago, the Peruvian government launched the program "Agua para todos." Water for all: in only three years the wiry and energetic Cascon wants to supply every Limeno, as Lima's inhabitants are called, with clean drinking water. It's a rather daunting task: "Lima is situated in the desert. So this is a zone with extreme water shortages," Cascon, who took over the agency a year ago, says.

He points to the Egyptian capital. "Cairo has 15 million inhabitants and lies in the desert, but it has the Nile River, with some 2,840 cubic meters of water flowing through it every second." Lima, on the other hand, has 9 million inhabitants, but "our river, at the most extreme, has only 10 cubic meters per second." And, he adds, Lima doesn't have many water supplies.

'Water is too cheap'

Cascon smiles, but it's a weary smile. He spends his days fighting with ministers for more funds and trying to weed out the corruption in his agency. Sometimes, when he gets home late at night, Cascon dreams of the private university where he used to head the engineering department. Just thinking about how much water is simply wasted makes him feel tired.

In Lima, the average water consumption is about 240 liters (63 gallons) a day, Cascon says. In Germany, he is quick to point out, it's only half of that.

A child peers over a wooden fence in Huayacan
Hoping for water and development: children in HuayacanImage: DW/Naomi Conrad

"Water is so cheap, that's just not right," he explains. There is no incentive for most people to save water. SEDAPAL pays some 20, sometimes even 30 soles a cubic liter to supply isolated communities with water. The consumers only pay some three soles. Cascon would like to increase the price, but he can't. Water in Peru is too political. Increase the rates, he says wryly, and people protest.

The pressure of climate change

But the pressure on Cascon and SEDAPAL is increasing. Cascon says climate change is making Lima even drier: "Our reservoirs are running low, it's not raining enough any more and our lagoons are drying out. Most people aren't even aware of the danger Lima's in."

Maria's precious water is running into a blue bucket, brimming with soapy dishwater. It's dripping over the rim, turning the dusty ground into frothy mud. "Sometimes, I forget to pay my bills," Maria shrugs and rocks her crying baby. It's swaddled in a dusty-brown blanket, despite the dry midday heat.

When she doesn't pay, SEDAPAL turns the water off within three days. Her neighbor, who is tightly clutching her grandson's hand, nods emphatically. "You have to ask your neighbors for water. We share whatever we have."

A cactus in Huayacan
Climate change is drying out Lima's scarce water resourcesImage: DW/Naomi Conrad

It's expensive to reconnect the water, Maria says, almost 100 soles (30 euros). Can she afford it? Maria shrugs. She's standing outside her tiny one-room shop. A few bars of soap and faded packets of biscuits are haphazardly stacked along the dusty counter.

"We need to be careful, turn the lights off," her neighbor, who used to work as a maid in Lima, explains. When her husband and son are at work, she turns the TV off.

But, the two women agree, they make do.

And, in part, the water has helped the small community. When SEDAPAL laid the pipes, its workers also filled up the many potholes and evened out the dirt tracks, Carmela Gabonal, a social worker from Lima, says.

Ever more people drawn to the city

On the way back to Lima, Cascon points to a row of shops smelling small, wooden sheds. Your average garden shed, you might think. Turns out, they're not: rather, their ready-made huts for illegal land "invasions," often organized by mafia property developers, as one German development worker explains.

For ever more people are streaming to Lima. Entire new settlements appear overnight. Families stake out small parcels of land and soon demand water and electricity for their wooden sheds - water that is increasingly turning into a rare commodity, despite Cascon's efforts.

Naomi Conrad's trip to Peru was financed by KfW.

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