Uruguay water crisis: how did we get here?

Uruguay has some of the most abundant water sources in the world. But the capital was told we had water supplies for just 18 days.
By Karen A Higgs
Last updated on May 26, 2023

Uruguay has some of the most abundant natural water sources in the world. And those of us who live in the capital were told there was just water for just 18 days. What went wrong?

It was a rude shock when last week, the government announced that in Metropolitan Montevideo, where over 60% of the population of Uruguay lives, there was just water in the reservoirs to supply the capital—and nearby departments of Canelones and San José—for the next 18 days. 

Unless it rained. And it didn’t rain.

The government’s response was to mix river water with water from the estuary of the Río de la Plata and convert it into drinking water. The water is drinkable, though not officially potable. And because it contains estuary water it’s salty. And this is all Uruguayans are talking about right now.

How can the inhabitants of the capital of one of the countries with some of the cleanest, most abundant water sources in the world, find ourselves with remaining water supplies sufficient for just a few weeks? And having to advise people with high blood pressure and pregnant to consume only bottled drinking water? How did we get here?

I wanted to look into this, because while I see reports in the international press, I have not read anything that looks at the factors behind why Uruguay has found itself in this position. So I talked to two experts and share some of the findings with you here.

Guru’Guay would like to thank Néstor Mazzeo PhD and Mariana Meerhoff PhD for their generosity and time in talking to us. Montevideo’s current water crisis is obviously more complex than our article is able to address. Our aim is to raise some salient points that we have not found online in either Spanish or English.

Uruguay’s abundant natural water resources

Uruguay has had an average rainfall of over 1182 mm per year. In 2002 our renewable water sources were 41,000 m³ per person—a massive five times the world’s average. Uruguay has some of the largest groundwater reserves in the world, sharing the Guaraní aquifer with Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. It has multiple major watersheds, including the River Uruguay, the Río de la Plata, the Río Negro, the Santa Lucía river and the Laguna Merín on the Brazilian border.

Montevideo was the first city to have a public sanitation system in Latin America. And Uruguay is the only country in Latin America to have pretty much universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation. So how have we found ourselves in this current crisis?

A historic drought

Uruguay is in the midst of a three and a half year drought, the worst in almost a century. Rain in Uruguay is normally the result of cold fronts in winter and frequent summer rain storms. This summer (December to February) there was very little rain. In fact there was barely a raincheck during carnival (normally rainchecks are frequent).

This is due to climate change and La Niña, which will shortly be turning into El Niño and (hopefully) be bringing more rain. 

But climate conditions are just one of the factors in the current water crisis affecting Metropolitan Montevideo.

Let’s look at some of the others.

Increased demand for water in the Santa Lucía basin

Metropolitan Montevideo receives its drinking water exclusively from one watershed—the basin of the Santa Lucía river. It is the only watershed not shared with any other country.

But the Santa Lucía doesn’t just supply water for personal consumption. A large part of the nation’s dairy and agricultural production takes place in the hinterland around Montevideo. Whereas most agriculture in the last century revolved around free-ranging cattle, in the last 15-20 years intensive production of crops including monoculture of soy and forestry for the production of paper pulp have demanded more and more water resources. Some estimates calculate up to as much as 80% of all of the current use of potable water in Uruguay as a whole is being used for agriculture.

Water management is fragmented

A 2004 water reform created a good framework for water management which was finally voted into legislation (these things take time) in 2009. However, the framework has not been adequately implemented in the Santa Lucía area. Multiple actors—multiple ministries, local and departmental entities, producers, citizens and more—have different roles and there’s a serious lack of coordination and conflicting interests. A lot of us ask ourselves: how could this crisis get so serious before any action was taken? This lack of coordination and fragmentation explains in large part the delayed and (seemingly) ad hoc response to the water crisis we’ve experienced in the last few weeks.

Dispelling the myth

As mentioned earlier, Uruguay has exceptional water resources. It’s never faced a crisis of this magnitude. There have been several serious water crises in the last 15-20 years. In fact, the commission of the Santa Lucía basin was put together after a crisis related to water quality (due to a cyanobacterial bloom) in 2013. There was a drought in 2008-9. However, in both those situations, just as the situations reached crisis point—and the government of the day would’ve been forced to advise the public that there was just water remaining to supply the metropolitan area for a matter of weeks, as happened now—each time the rains came.

Post-summer rains have not arrived this year. And we have had a rude awakening to our reality as it stands today.

[Update: Rains finally arrived on May 26 in Montevideo, a day after this article was finalised]

Lack of investment and terrible leaks

Historically, Uruguay has had very good water infrastructure, but lacks recent investment

Since the current government came into power in 2020, many high-level experts at OSE—the agency responsible for managing water nationally—reached retirement age, left and have not been replaced. The two Vázquez governments (2005-10 and 2015-2020) made some investments in infrastructure, but despite being of the same party, the Mujica government (2010-2015) did not. Former president Mujica gave a self-critique of his government’s lack of investment last week. (Lack of investment has been a cross-party issue.)

Disturbingly, official estimates have long calculated that over 50% of all potable water in Uruguay is lost in distribution—through leaking pipes.

The crisis as a window of opportunity

Uruguayans are used to seeing water crises on the international news—not on our doorstep. So the crisis has been a real wake-up call. National elections take place next year and the crisis provides a window of opportunity for change. Given the current public outcry, water quality and conservation will be firmly on the table in the next elections and political parties across the board under pressure to propose concrete solutions.

As mentioned before, a framework to protect water already exists. What needs to happen is less fragmentation and more participation in the care of essential water resources like the Santa Lucía. Water commissions in the Tacuarembó river basin and the Laguna del Sauce in Maldonado for example are working very well. So successful workable models of water management are already in existence.

It’s time for Uruguay to analyse the magnitude of the investment that is going to be necessary to rectify this situation. The current government has already proposed a new reservoir. Some loans have been solicited and approved.

And Uruguayans’ awareness around water consumption needs to change—and adopt new patterns of water use. Major changes need to occur to protect water at the sources and by massive water users. On a personal level, Uruguayans can get behind education campaigns and initiatives to change wasteful behaviour. For instance, change the way we do the dishes here—handwashing involves scrubbing crockery under a constantly running stream of water.

As statistics demonstrate, in the future, across the world, the dryer years will be drier, and the wetter years will be more wet. Uruguay hasn’t adapted yet, and this crisis has been a real wake-up call for much of society.




3 Responses

  1. Excellent article. In my opinion the water level in the Santa Lucia Reservoir, being the sole source of freshwater for Montevideo and surrounding agricultural activities, is Montevideo’s Freshwater Boundary. As such it provides a unique research opportunity to determine what is required to try and hold the water level at maximum all year round, considering that the South American continent is drying out e.g. Amazon Basin and Lake Titicaca.

  2. A very balanced view about what has gone on. Regrettably the situation is very similar in the UK too.

  3. Thank you for this insightful but disconcerting article. Isn’t it a shame that we all wait for a crisis to start to figure things out. I hope my country, Canada, will think about this too. We live in a fool’s paradise.
    I’m going to send this to the Prime Minister and our representative.
    Kind regards,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related articles

The story of the Andes plane crash survivors is one of the great human survival stories of the Twentieth Century.

Andes 1972 Museum

The museum, in Montevideo, honours the survivors of the Andes plane crash. Yes, one of the greatest survival stories of the 20th century is Uruguayan.

Copy link