Anama Lake

Anama Lake, Brazil. (AP)

Six Things to Know about Water Resources in Latin America

By Chase Harrison and Abby Arndt

The region has an abundance of water resources, but climate change and unequal access present risks. On World Water Day, AS/COA Online checks the numbers.

Water access will be one of prominent themes of the twenty-first century, particularly as climate change and urbanization push larger populations into water insecurity. As the world looks to manage its hydro resources, smart policies in Latin America will be critical. The region is home to four of the world’s 25 longest rivers and contains some of the largest reserves of freshwater. With that, it’s no wonder Latin America has the highest water endowment per capita. And water powers the hemisphere, enabling energy generation, trade, manufacturing, and more. 

Still, access to water remains unequal; a quarter of the region’s population, or 150 million people, live in water-scarce areas. And this figure will likely only expand due to climate change. 

In light of World Water Day on March 22, AS/COA Online explores key numbers about water use in Latin America today, as well as critical regional threats.

1. 75 percent of Latin Americans have access to safely managed drinking water services.

Access to water from a source free of contamination is crucial for sustainable and healthy living. And access to safely managed drinking water services in Latin America is just about in line with the global averages

Still, that leaves a large portion of the region’s population without such access and the problem is more acute in the region’s rural areas, where 47 percent of the population does not. But progress is being made in a number of countries. Access to drinking water expanded from 36 to 98 percent in the past two decades for Paraguay’s low-income citizens while this population in Bolivia saw access expand from 43 to 82 percent over that same period. 

2. One-fifth of the planet’s freshwater is in Brazil.

With 5,116 square miles of freshwater resources, Brazil is the regional behemoth of renewable freshwater. The vast majority is concentrated in the Amazon Basin, home to only 5.1 percent of the country’s total population. 

Colombia is also a freshwater giant; it's the sixth largest source of freshwater in the world. The country has spearheaded global efforts to preserve sources and expand freshwater access. 

3. 45 percent of Latin America's electricity comes from hydropower.

Dam! Or should we say hydro dam? Latin American leverages its abundant water resources to generate energy like no other region. Hydropower is the primary source of regional electricity generation and accounts for 41 percent of supply, compared with 13 among OECD countries. Overall, hydropower capacity jumped by 30 percent in Latin America between 2010 and 2020. 

Some countries are leading the pack; hydropower accounts for nearly 100 percent of electricity generation in Paraguay thanks to the Itaipú Dam, while in Ecuador, it represented about 79 percent in 2021

4. $10.5 billion has been lost due to severe droughts in Argentina.

Latin America has been beset by frequent natural disasters related to water and weather extremes. One example is the current La Niña regional climate event, now in its unprecedented third consecutive year, which causes a decrease in rainfall and higher temperatures. Combined with general warming trends, its effects are thought to be behind the current severe droughts hitting South America—particularly in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. In all, South America received only 44 percent of its average precipitation levels in the last four months of 2022—the lowest rate for that period in 35 years. And this is hitting agri-business sectors hard

Droughts threatened economic and physical security across the region. In 2022, intense drought in Mexico affected 48 percent of the total area of the country, leaving taps running dry. Conditions in Central America’s “dry corridor” continue to worsen due to climate change. 

5. There could be 17 million climate migrants by 2050.

With increasing drought, flooding, and other climate-related disasters, the World Bank estimates that 2.6 percent of the region’s total population could become climate migrants in the next 30 years. Weather conditions are driving a destabilization of food security, health, and sanitation in many parts of Latin America. 

The problem is acute in Central America and the Caribbean. The International Red Cross estimates that climate-related disasters resulted in the displacement of around 1.5 million Central Americans in 2020. Nearby Puerto Rico and Haiti are ranked as two of the countries most vulnerable to the kind of extreme climate events that prompt migration. 

Migrants don’t always cross borders. The World Bank predicts that 17 million Latin Americas will move within their own countries due to climate conditions by 2050. Peru has been spotlighted as a country where half its territory experiences the kind of climate events that prompt internal migration.

6. 1.5 meters of sea level rise will occur in the Caribbean by 2100.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, predictions for sea level rise outpace global predictions. Rising sea levels erode shorelines, increase the risk of damage due to storms, and can contaminate freshwater storage including aquifers. 

That could spell disaster for the region. In Mexico, for example, the country would lose cities across its iconic Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, including Acapulco, Cancún, and Mazatlán. Guayaquil, Ecuador’s business capital, was rated as the most vulnerable city to sea level rise in Latin America. 

For the region, which contributes less than 10 percent of the carbon emissions that generate climate change, this has meant championing climate justice in international forums.

Chase Harrison contributed to this article.