One issue could dominate upcoming elections in Latin America

Enrique pena nietoJuan Karita/APMexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto wipes sweat from his brow during a signing ceremony among the Pacific Alliance at the Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru.

This year, tens of millions of voters will go to the polls in several Latin American countries shaken by violence and stuttering economies.

But the issue that decides their vote may be as close as the nearest faucet.

In Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia, governments are preparing for local and national elections as water shortages, droughts, and ineffective water distribution networks compound the adversity already facing their citizens.

In Mexico, elections on June 7 will select the entire lower house of congress, nine state governors, and 17 state legislatures. The embattled president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has received widespread criticism for unpopular economic reforms and continuing violence, and faced accusations of corruption leveled against him and his administration.

Against this backdrop, millions of Mexicans have struggled to secure clean water. Residents of neighbourhoods near Mexico City have been refused water supplies, even as shopping malls around them receive a permanent supply.

Throughout Mexico, some 14 million people lack water in their homes, including those near the capital in Mexico state as well as residents of Guerrero state, which has been the scene deadly violence over the last year.

A constitutional measure in 2012 declared water to be a human right in Mexico. Yet the public and the government continue to struggle over how water is apportioned. A groundswell of criticism forced Peña Nieto’s governing party, PRI (which holds a slim majority in the lower house), to table a measure that would have raised rates, allowed the inheritance of water concessions, and allotted water for fracking.

Mexicans have also protested local and municipal governments that turn water supplies over to private groups that raise rents and prevent research into pollution, which is a common problem in Mexico and throughout the region.

Mexico water protestEdgard Garrido/ReutersFarmers remove a fence during a protest at Los Pinos presidential house in Mexico City March 18, 2015. The farmers protested against the privatization of water and demanded government policies that support the agricultural sector and housing, according to local media.

Venezuelans, too, have demonstrated against failures in government-run water networks. Residents who feel underserved by the national water company, Hidrocapital, have protested by shutting down roadways near the capital, Caracas.

Water insecurity is not new to Venezuela: Poor urban citizens, the governing PSUV party’s traditional base of support, complained last year that they went months without water. Venezuelans will vote to elect the entire 165-seat parliament in yet-to-be scheduled elections later this year.

“Many Latin American governments at the federal and local levels have known that water crises were possible or even likely, but did not make the necessary investments until the crisis was upon them,” said James Bosworth the director of analysis at Southern Pulse, an advisory firm focused on Latin America.

In Venezuela’s case, those crises have been spurred on by drought. Prolonged droughts last year caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of cattle, exacerbating food shortages. As summer approaches this year, climbing temperatures indicate that experience could be repeated. (The Brazilian city of São Paulo, home to some 20 million people, has also endured drought exacerbated by mismanagement and poor infrastructure.)

Moreover, water mismanagement in face of climate challenges could have knock-on effects for Venezuela’s infrastructure. If, as Bosworth noted, “the levels in the Guri reservoir in Venezuela fall too low, it will cut several dozen MW of power from the [hydroelectric] system and lead to a serious crisis in the country.” Failures in Venezuela’s electrical grid have already led to national rationing plans.

VenezuelaREUTERS/Carlos Garcia RawlinsAnti-government protesters are soaked by a water cannon during clashes with the police in Caracas March 12, 2014.

Colombians will vote in local elections starting in late October. Success in the country’s municipalities will be necessary for President Juan Manuel Santos if he and his governing coalition hope to maintain control over negotiations with the FARC, Colombia’s longstanding leftist rebels.

This electoral effort could be hindered in the poverty-stricken northern department of La Guajira, where 84% of the population has no access to clean water.

Contaminated water stocks have taken a heavy toll on La Guajira’s mostly indigenous population. “More people die from drought and dirty water in Colombia than from the armed conflict,” Fernando de la Hoz, National Institute of Health director, told Vice in April. “And the risk of dying from illnesses related to water is four or five times higher in La Guajira than anywhere else in the country.”

La Guajira is arid region home to many extractive industries. Emphasis on extracting natural resources, like gas and carbon, over supplying water and other goods as well as allegations that corrupt officials siphon off royalties meant for citizens could shape voting later this year.

Colombia La Guajira policeReuters/John VizcainoPolice search a car for smuggled petrol at a road block in Cuestecitas, near La Guajira, August 15, 2012.

La Guajira is just one department in Colombia, but Bolivia’s recent history shows that a local dispute over water can upend the political order of an entire country. In 1999, Bolivia’s government agreed to give water rights in Cochabamba, the third-largest city, to a foreign consortium.

The poorly implemented privatization plan and the government’s harsh crackdown on protests that followed sparked a social movement that forced the country’s traditional political class out and replaced it with current president Evo Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party.

Water-related tensions have yet to reach the level of conflict, but have arisen elsewhere in the region.

“Nicaragua and Costa Rica have sparred over the use of water, dredging and construction along the Rio San Juan. Argentina and Uruguay had some serious tensions over the potential construction of a pulp mill that could have polluted a border river,” Bosworth said in an email to Business Insider.

South America is home to one-third of the world’s renewable water resources, and the vast majority of Latin Americans can access clean water. But the population that cannot — specifically those living in poor urban areas and in rural areas beyond the reach of government services — amount to tens of millions of people who could affect drastic political change this year.

Technologies like desalinization and policies like rationing have helped the region use water more efficiently, but, as Bosworth points out, water stocks are strained by more than people’s daily use.

“Agriculture, the extractive industry and manufacturing use far more water than residential areas. The policies that governments implement on those sectors have a far greater impact than encouraging people to take shorter showers and water their lawn less.”

But in Latin America, like most of the world, government moves slowly. Until they go to the polls, many in the region may have to hope for a different kind of intervention.

“The only hope that remains for us is that God, our father, decides that it rains,” said Verónica Cañizales, an official in Vargas state, Venezuela, where municipalities are experiencing water levels 50% below normal.

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