COVID-19 and the Transboundary Waters of the La Plata Basin

By Isabela Battistello Espindola

Water and sanitation are basic human rights. They are key to ensure hygiene and sanitation for any population, especially during pandemics, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. Washing hands is the first line of defense to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This simple measure has been continuously stated by international organizations and the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the most important measures that can be used to prevent COVID-19 virus. Hence, the demand for water is especially high nowadays, due to increased hand washing and general hygiene to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, there is nothing simple about washing your hands when you have extremely limited access to clean water. 

In 2019, the WHO reported that 785 million people lack even a basic drinking-water service. According to the World Resources Institute, one-third of the world’s population is living with high levels of water stress. Even the most water-abundant regions, like South America, face situations of water shortages in some areas. Water scarcity is becoming an increasing threat around the globe. So the question is how can we ensure that sufficient water of acceptable quality is available for human and ecosystem health, as well as for livelihoods and production, even during pandemics? 

This is one of the questions that countries sharing the same water resources also have in mind. When it comes to transboundary waters, the situation gets more complicated. Billions of people rely on water resources that originate across borders, thereby sharing the same water with other populations separated by national frontiers. As the water flows to a different country, so does all the contamination produced upstream in the basin. At the same time, water stress situations can happen in the upstream country and affect the downstream countries. Floods, droughts, and impaired water quality follow the same logic. If everything is so connected in a transboundary basin, it would be odd if the situation around COVID-19 was not.

The La Plata Basin is not an exception to this challenging trend. The La Plata Basin is the second largest transboundary basin in South America (fifth largest on the planet), shared between Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Extending over 3.1 million km², the La Plata houses more than 50% of the five countries’ combined population. Almost 70% of the total GNP of the five countries is produced in the basin area. At least 20 cities with more than 500 thousand inhabitants are located in the La Plata. São Paulo, one of the largest metropolises in the world is one of the cities located in the basin. 

The transboundary hydraulic interactions between the countries of the La Plata Basin are complex, and exist simultaneously between conflict and cooperation. Although the five countries are important trade partners, with a historical relationship and a series of cooperation projects (bilateral and multilateral), tensions remain. The arrival of COVID-19 complicated this dynamic and this could mean changes for future political and cooperative relations between the countries of the La Plata Basin. Currently, the La Plata basin faces a historic water crisis, a water deficit evident in the Uruguay, Paraná and Iguazú rivers. Another issue is the lack of an internationally agreed definition for hygiene, which creates challenges for reporting on and comparing hygiene data. As the number of infections in the La Plata region is growing, the messages on handwashing become more complex, highlighting the vulnerability of water resources and its services, both in the rural and urban areas.

In this sense, it is important to highlight several key areas related to water that need urgent attention in La Plata’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • First, the five countries must ensure safe, adequate and reliable access to potable water and sanitation services for vulnerable segments of their society.
  • Second, they need to prepare for increased household water demand, constantly updating the water situation in the La Plata basin.
  • Third, they should monitor all source waters and wastewater effluents, keeping in mind the need to offer clean and potable water to the population of the region.
  • Fourth, considering the Strategic Action Plan (SAP) and the projects to implement it, the countries should promote science-based decisions and prepare for the impacts from extreme climate events.
  • Fifth, with respect to SAP, the countries should be prepared to review and adapt it, considering the COVID-19 impacts on the basin.
  • Sixth, they should create a work agenda to monitor the problem from a comprehensive and periodic perspective. In this matter, CIC (Intergovernmental Committee for the Coordination of the Countries of the La Plata Basin) should be involved as the committee is the principal river basin organization in the La Plata, being an important player to promote regional cooperation and water governance. 

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