The heat was almost unbearable for the people who had not lived in Cachiyullo —in Central Argentina— their whole life. It was a spring afternoon marking 41C, with hardly any trees to find shelter from the scorching sun.
But even under those extreme conditions, Alberto Calderón, a community leader, walked around his property in flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt. “The sun we have here is different”, he said and explained “nothing grows under this sun without water”.
Cachiyullo is a community in Cruz del Eje, a four-hour drive from the city of Córdoba, in the middle of Argentina. To get there, you need to go through open countryside, with nothing but scattered villages on the way.
In Alberto Calderón’s home, there are only a few espinillos —a tree that developed spikes instead of leaves— and a pack of malnourished goats, the main source of income for the community. Everything else is dust.
Cachiyullo always depended on water to survive, mostly from wells and a river that flowed nearby. But in 2013, those sources which they heavily relied on, dried up.
The story of Cachiyullo is one of many in the Gran Chaco Americano, a region that includes part of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. According to the Unesco Water Report of 2021, Latin America and the Caribbean have a third of the water resources in the world, but their distribution is unequal throughout the continent.
The Covid-19 pandemic was for this rural community one more problem that worsened their situation. The restrictions imposed by the government reduced their sales, which meant less income for the families for water and food.
According to the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene, 28 million people in Latin America lack access to an improved water source.
Inequality and water problems are intensified by climate variability and extreme events, where climate change is generating economic impacts in rural communities, according to the report.
Frontline of climate change
Drought, as Alberto said, has always been there in Cruz del Eje. Lesser or greater, every year there is a drought. The community’s livelihood depends on them keeping an eye on how much water falls, which, they have noticed, seems to be a constant amount.
But rainy seasons have become shorter recently. Instead, the same amount of rain is falling over a shorter period of time each year. When the rain season ends, the sun dries everything again.
For years, Cachiyullo lived on farming and growing their own food. But since the 2000’s, lack of water forced them to adapt: now their main source of income is raising goats, leaving them to buy elsewhere all the food they consume.
The 2013 drought —the worst in years according to Alberto— made matters worse: with the wells empty, they didn’t have water for living, nor raising livestock. For the community to survive, they dug a water grid spanning 14 kilometers to the nearest water source. “The day we started working on it was the happiest I’ve ever been”, remembered Alberto.
Nicolás Avellaneda from the SedCero programme —an initiative trying to better understand the water problems in the Gran Chaco— explained these communities are extremely vulnerable to climate variability.
“They are absolutely exposed, because they depend on water to survive. If there is no water, they don’t produce, so they don’t eat”, said Avellaneda.
In a similar way, the World Water Development Report said “climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, threatening the effective enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation for potentially billions of people.”
The advances of the Cruz del Eje´s community also have their downsides: only half of the community access water with their new grid, and the other half rely on rain and buying water for consumption.
Another issue is that they don’t like drinking water from their wells because it is often salty, as they live near the Salinas Grandes, one of the biggests salt flats in Argentina.
Rodrigo Cuba, from the Human Development department at Red Cross Argentina, said that the biggest issue with salty water is that it causes dehydration, which can lead to kidney failure and other health problems.
Even as Cachiyullo rely mostly on rain for drinking, Alberto explained that their biggest issue is still the water for the animals, their livelihood. “We compete for water, cattle and humans. No community dweller is willing to let their goats die. And this situation is getting more complicated because all our wells are dry”, described Alberto.
Inequality: a cause and a consequence
Cipriano Ramos is 70 years old and lives in Iglesia Vieja, a community 20 kilometers south of Cachiyullo. On the other side of the phone, his old rusty voice tells the same story: the countless problems they face due to lack of water.
Unlike Alberto’s community, Cipriano’s family makes a living growing their own food, and drought means they can’t sow anything.
“We are in a fight for water. If it doesn’t rain, everything dies and we will get even poorer”, said Cipriano, who explained that they can’t rely on the government’s help, as they put a quota on the water available for the region and “it’s not enough”.
“The quota is not useful for sowing. With the amount they give us, the land doesn’t resist the heat. We can’t make a living that way”, said Cipriano.
Inequality is one of the biggest issues relating to water in Argentina: the country has the 27th biggest water reservoir in the world according to the World Bank, but almost six million people still don’t have access to it.
As Nicolás Avellaneda described, in Argentina water is unevenly distributed through the territory.
“Lack of infrastructure is one of the causes, but there are other problems that worsen the situation. Who has access to our water? While some small communities have to fight to live, there are industries and agriculture that consume huge amounts of this resource,” he added.
According to FAO, in Latin America, 70% of water is consumed by agriculture. In Rodrigo Cuba´s opinion, vulnerable communities have a sort of codependent relationship with the agricultural industry, as they fight for their right to water, but at the same time, they need it as a source of income.
As Covid-19 spread during 2020 and 2021, unequal access to water and sanitation meant that the most vulnerable communities were hit harder by the virus. A study by Córdoba´s National University found that poorer neighborhoods had 70% more chances to get infected.
For Cuba, the demand for water changed during the pandemic, as handwashing became one of the biggest defenses against Coronavirus.
“With Covid-19 there was a change in people’s mindset, as they realized the importance of water for hygiene and cleanliness. This had an impact on the social customs of the most vulnerable communities. Because, how can you ask them to wash their hands when they don’t even have water to drink?”, stated Cuba.
In Cipriano’s community, during the restrictions they lost part of their crops, because they couldn’t sell it to neighboring towns. For them, it meant a waste of resources.
There was also no additional help from the government. Cipriano Ramos and Alberto Calderón both said separately that the families that couldn’t afford water were not given any help on the matter.
Climate Tracker tried to communicate with the Government of Córdoba to ask about this situation, but didn’t get any response after one month of asking for interviews.
A source of health
The Sed Cero programme and Red Cross Argentina both have asserted in their own research that there is an underlying relation between lack of water, poverty and health.
According to Rodrigo Cuba, access to water affects the nutrition, hygiene and cleanliness of a person; lack of those three pillars could disturb their well-being.
One clear example of the importance of water in health is diarrhea: Malnutrition and dehydration are a cause and a consequence of this disease, which is the second leading cause of death in children under five years of age, stated the World Health Organization (WHO).
The 2021 UNESCO Water Report revealed that 50% of malnutrition cases are related to diseases such as diarrhea, which are the direct result of poor water and sanitation.
“It´s a silent epidemic, one of the worst diagnosis we face”, expressed Rodrigo Cuba.
Both climate change and Covid-19 have exacerbated inequalities to access water and sanitation all over the world, experts have clearly said. But, in the face of drought, what needs to be done?
For Nicolás Avellaneda, from SedCero, there isn’t a single solution, but rather actions depending on the community and their natural surroundings.
He said that there is a need for an integrated plan: “We need a network of social agents, public, private, universities, each one giving their unique knowledge and perspective to create real solutions for the territories. Each community has their own problems, even in similar conditions”, stated Avellaneda.
The SedCero program´s main solution for the Gran Chaco Argentino is harvesting rain. They build water tanks of a sixteen-liter capacity to meet the primary need of water for each family. Also, they teach the community how to make their own and how to take care of the tanks so they can become independent.
Alberto Calderón stated that the community´s “definitive solution” will be to have public works to gather rain. “We need drillings and equipment like cisterns so that all families can have access to water”.
But these solutions still depend completely on rain, and so, in a warming world, there is a need for other plans. Even though water is a vital need for life, in Córdoba there isn´t long-term solutions nor adaptation plans for rural areas.
In this context Rodrigo Cuba suggested that for the cities, awareness of the water crisis in Argentina is difficult, as most people waste it everyday: “It’s hard for us to understand that someone not far from home lives without water, relying on rain to fall”.
As Cuba says this, Cipriano Ramos is in Iglesia Vieja, his home. He speaks of the countryside, and how he and his family suffer from not having water.
“I’m almost of age, but my sons and my grandsons will still be here, farming the land. This is what we do for a living. If we don’t have water, we don’t have a reason to stay”, said the 70- year-old man.
“We ask God for rain. Rain is the biggest gift Tata Dios can give us. Water is our biggest joy.”