Millions of Latin Americans lack easy access to potable water amid pandemic

By Fernando Gimeno, Emiliano Castro Saenz and Arnald Prat Barnadas

Lima/Guatemala City/Santiago, Apr 17 (efe-epa).- Lidia Montes carefully turns on the only faucet at her home on the outskirts of Peru’s capital, producing a weak stream of water that will allow her to wash her hands according to official coronavirus hygiene guidelines.

A plastic tub is in place to receive it, ensuring that none of that precious liquid flows down the dry hillside where her modest residence is located. For her, water is a resource of immeasurable value at the best of times, and even more so during the pandemic.

Just as it is for Montes, the ability to wash one’s hands with soap and water – a key prevention measure for Covid-19 – is a veritable luxury for some 600 million people on the planet who lack access to that essential liquid resource in their homes.

In Latin America, the region with the largest share of the world’s freshwater resources, some 34 million mostly poor inhabitants are not connected to a local public water network, according to recent World Bank reports.

Of these people, approximately one in 10 lives in Peru, a country that paradoxically ranks eighth worldwide and third in South America in terms of freshwater supplies.

Yet nearly 10 percent of that Andean nation’s population, roughly 3 million people, must find water by their own means and pay prices that severely stretch their limited budgets.

For the 39-year-old Montes, a single mother with two children at home and three others already in adulthood, it is essential to ration and reuse water because in the district outside Lima where she lives it costs at least four times more than in an upper-class district of that capital.

“It’s more expensive here, but … what can we do? Even if it’s just with a little water, we wash our hands to protect ourselves,” Montes told Efe, her face covered with a cloth mask to avoid infection with the novel coronavirus.

The water she uses comes from a 1,100-liter (290-gallon) tank, which is brought to her community via truck.

Filling the tank three times a month costs her more than 60 soles ($18). That same quantity of water would cost 15 soles if the water network extended to the steep hillside where she lives in one of 244 settlements in Lima’s Comas district.

Montes, who arrived in Lima four years ago from the northeastern Amazon region of Loreto, makes a living from what her neighbors pay her for managing a rudimentary distribution system and supplying water to each household via a pump and hoses.

On the outskirts of Guatemala City, Angelica and her four daughters and young son return home after waiting fruitlessly to obtain water from a municipal tank truck, which has become the lone source of water due to a lack of service via water pipes.

A woman who has not yet turned 30 yet is pregnant with her sixth child, Angelica sells tortillas a few meters from her home in the district of Santa Catarina Pinula.

She has lived in that municipality for 20 years but can not ever remember a time when water supplies were so scarce.

Sandra Hernandez lives a few meters below her with her husband and three children in a makeshift home with a dirt floor.

A few days ago, she obtained a few gallons of water to wash dishes that had accumulated in her sink, but her household’s resources are being stretched thin even as their fears about the coronavirus persist.

“My older daughter only received 500 quetzales ($65) in her last pay period (at a major phone company). My husband is an independent mechanic and his business has dried up. And my son sells auto parts near Industry Park (being used a temporary field hospital during the pandemic), but we’re all afraid about him continuing to go,” Sandra said.

Another local resident, Dora Garnilla, who has spearheaded the community’s efforts to resolve their water crisis, heads out to buy four gallons and a 20-liter jug of water from another neighbor. That supply will cost her $2.50 and allow her family of five to bathe and wash their hands for a brief period of time.

According to local authorities in Santa Catarina Pinula, 18 of the 40 wells that supply that municipality were damaged or out of service when the new administration took over in January.

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