Water distribution in the Nadine Heredia settlement, in the district of San Juan de Miraflores, in Lima.Sebastián Castañeda
Lima, the world's second-largest city built on a desert after Cairo, will have no drinking water in 22 of its 43 districts starting Friday. It is a planned cut by the Drinking Water and Sewerage Service of Lima (Sedapal), but the population has been immersed in a spiral of concern for two aspects: the way the state company announces the measure and the reminder that Peru is a country where 10% (3.3 million) of its citizens do not have a public drinking water network and 23% (6.4 million) do not have Sewer connections. Conditions that will worsen before the imminent arrival of weather events such as coastal El Niño.
With two tweets on September 24, Sedapal reported succinctly that "it would soon interrupt the service in some districts of the capital" and that days later it would explain the contingency plan to "ensure the supply of users." The inaccuracy of the messages set off alarms, unleashing chaos. The supervisory body, the National Superintendence of Sanitation Services (Sunass), and other institutions urged Sedapal to explain the measure in detail. It was later learned that they had fallen short: it will not be "some districts" but just over half of Metropolitan Lima, affecting almost six million people. It will begin this Friday, October 6 and the reconnection will take two days in most areas, but in four districts it will last up to 96 hours. The reason for the suspension is to renew pipes in the southern sector, a necessity for a city where 35% of its pipes are more than 40 years old.
"I heard about this cut like everyone else," said Hania Pérez de Cuéllar, the Minister of Housing, Construction and Sanitation, an institution to which Sedapal is attached. The entity that manages the water of Lima and Callao was beheaded since September 5, after the departure of its former president Héctor Piscoya, accused of making irregular appointments and having driven while intoxicated. His replacement, Jorge Gomez Reategui, was appointed Saturday, a week after the massive cut.
As happened with the rise in the price of lemon, the authorities have tried to calm people down, but they have failed in the attempt. The most controversial statement has been that of the Minister of the Environment, Albina Ruiz: "Now we will bathe with a cup, we will save water. We're going to look at it on the bright side, which is where I always want to walk." Shortly after, to the discomfort of a sector of the population, Ruiz explained: "I brought it up, because it was part of my life (...) The meaning was to say: let's make rational use of water. Let's have these everyday practices of reusing."
According to Sunass, 635,000 Peruvians do not have drinking water in Lima and must buy it in cisterns, paying a surcharge: an average of fifteen soles (four dollars) per cubic meter when the Sedapal rate is around three soles (0.8 cents). The logic is perverse: those who have the least are the ones who pay the most. This is the case of the residents of the human settlement Vencedores de la Rinconada, in San Juan de Miraflores, who are supplied with water once every eight days or the human settlement San Genaro II, of Chorrillos, who claim to lack the service for 30 years. In addition, in some areas, such as the Señor de la Justicia neighborhood in Ventanilla, extortion occurs and there are mafias that demand a quota of 50 soles ($13.5) per family to allow tankers to climb the hills to fill the tanks.
While citizens have taken to the streets to buy buckets, rafts and plastic bins, the discussion in the political field has revolved around whether water should be privatized, an issue that spins in circles before the precariousness of access to an indispensable good. "You cannot privatize a right," warned Congresswoman Sigrid Bazán, of the Democratic Change-Together for Peru bloc. Bazán has denounced that at the end of September a law was enacted that has given legislative powers to the Executive Power, among which is "allowing the use of infrastructure (sanitation services) to provide public services", which paves the way for private companies to market water.
For Gonzalo Prialé, president of the Institute of Infrastructure, Institutionality and Management, a viable option is public-private partnerships. "The solution is not to privatize, but to hire management and long-term investments. The problem is not the money, but the management capacity, "he remarks. The Minister of Housing does not have a definite position on the matter. He has said that privatization is viable, but at the same time he has indicated that they are not thinking about it happening in the short term. "We will analyze in detail whether the solution is a privatization or a restructuring (of Sedapal)," he says.
Management is critical. According to the newspaper El Comercio, the Safe Water for Lima and Callao (Paslc) program, whose purpose is to reduce drinking water and sanitation gaps, has only executed 36.1% of its budget so far in 2023. In the regions, the picture is more compromised: on September 19, the Government declared an emergency in 544 districts of 14 departments due to imminent danger due to a water deficit as a result of the El Niño phenomenon.
On Monday, Sedapal authorities met with 16 mayors from the 22 districts affected by the massive outage. The state company assures that it will enable 102 water distribution points in Metropolitan Lima and 100 tanker trucks to reduce the impact. Nor will it charge for the hours in which the capital will run out of water.
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