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Peru: Unstable Water Supply Dries Up Desert Coast

Children at the Santa Rosita Kindergarten, in the Huaycan shantytown on the eastern outskirts of Lima, use water brought by their parents in buckets to wash their hands. Image by Simeon Tegel. Peru, 2012.

The Santa Rosita Kindergarten. The container on the right holds the water that is used by the 30 children and their teacher, Elisa Ribero Guia, for drinking, handwashing and flushing the toilet. Image by Simeon Tegel. Peru, 2012.

The view from the Santa Rosita Kindergarten, of the Lima shantytown of Huaycan, sprawling up the western slopes of the Andes. The sea mist sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean normally does not reach Huaycan. When it does, the temperature plummets and the humidity goes through the roof. It almost never rains here and there are plans afoot to extract water from the mist using giant nets. Image by Simeon Tegel. Peru, 2012.

The Peruvian state’s historical failure to offer basic services to its poorest citizens is a common theme among sociologists, political scientists and other analysts.

It was also one of the key campaign messages of Ollanta Humala during his successful run for the presidency last year as he vowed to complement economic growth with “social inclusion.”

In many remote corners of this complex country, traversed by the world’s second highest mountain range and with a vast stretch of the Amazon twice the size of California, the state is notable only by its absence.

Citizens here are supposedly guaranteed primary and secondary education, healthcare and, of course, law enforcement. Yet in practice, many poor Peruvians grow up with little or no access to these services.

In the Amazon, for example, there are many people, usually indigenous, who are born, live and die without their existence even being officially recorded.

Yet perhaps one of the most shocking examples of the Peruvian state’s failure to meet its responsibilities to look after its citizens can be found just 90 minutes from downtown Lima.

Here, at the Santa Rosita kindergarten, in the shantytown of Huaycan sprawling up the dusty slopes of the Andes’ western foothills, children routinely fall ill because of the lack of treated water.

Lima is the world’s second largest desert city, after Cairo. Yet the Rimac River, which supplies 80 percent of the water to this metropolis of 9 million people, runs at around 30 cubic meters per second–1 percent the flow of the Nile.

The city has always been water-challenged. On this stretch of the coast, it rains less than a third of an inch per year and so Lima is heavily dependent on run-off from the Andes for its water.

Yet 98 percent of that run-off flows eastward into the sparsely-populated Amazon, while two-thirds of Peruvians–roughly 20 million people–live on the desert coast.

With water demand and supply already precariously balanced–and with one million Limeños still waiting to be connected to the mains–dwindling precipitation in the Andes, probably caused by climate change, is the last thing Lima needs.

The result is that many more Peruvian children will likely grow up in similar conditions to the 30 children aged three to five at Santa Rosita.

They use water brought in buckets by their parents to drink, wash their hands and flush the toilet. Many of those parents have no connection to a water main and not all the water is treated.

The children are underweight and have to be tested every three months for parasites and anemia. One has TB and another came down with Hepatitis A two weeks before my visit.

For these children, and their families, the combination of climate change, Lima’s desert environment and the Peruvian state’s inability to attend to their basic needs now represents a perfect storm of structural poverty.

Officials at Sedapal, Lima’s state-owned municipal water company, talk confidently about being able to handle the threat of climate change to one of the world’s most hydrologically-challenged cities.

But to convince, they first need to ensure that all residents here–and especially children in kindergarten–have access to treated tapwater.