One thing a lot of folks take for granted is the ability to go to their faucet, turn their tap on, and not think twice about the ability to have access to clean, safe water. This doesn’t stop the U.S. and other from large consumers of bottled water, but it’s a matter of preference and not one of necessity.
Latin America, however, is a much different story. I created a roughly-drawn map showing the grim reality of clean water access for some of the region’s most populous countries. Many of the places with high marks won’t come as a surprise to many outside observers. Generally, countries that show higher levels of development also have potable tap water. Some countries like Colombia and those in southern Central America outperform their relatively low income levels. While this is by no means a scientific study, the baseline of my analysis is whether Latin Americans in each country’s large cities buy bottled water when they can afford to do so (demonstrating a lack of trust in the water system).
With the exception of the Southern Cone, that’s to say Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, nowhere in Latin America boasts universal access to clean, safe drinking water. In some countries, water is potable in major cities but off-limits in smaller town and rural areas. But in most of the region, including in Brazil and Mexico, most people that can afford to buy bottled water do so – making the two countries the world’s first and second-largest consumers of the plastic gold.
It’s particularly damning that Latin America’s two largest countries are also its two worst culprits when it comes to providing clean, safe sources of tap water to the residents of its biggest cities. Sure, many Mexicans claim that the water in Mexico City is perfectly safe when it comes out of the treatment plant. But those same Mexicans will also admit the amount of contaminants that the water passes through in the old, rusty pipe system buried under the city makes them blanche. Anyone who can afford to buy water in Mexico City does and will continue to do so for some time.
In Brazil, where water scarcity isn’t an issue the way it is in Mexico, the situation is particularly grim. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, two of the world’s richest cities, still do not provide their residents with water safe enough to drink. And, unlike in Mexico, Brazil has abundant resources, with the country estimated to hold nearly 20% of the world’s underground freshwater reserves.
While liquid gold rushes are taking place across the continent, and major domestic and multinational companies are looking to differentiate their offerings and capture new markets, governments have been slow to put in the necessary investments to fill this gap. With all the exciting talk of improved infrastructure, sustainable growth, and middle-class development, when will those talking about tap water stop being seen as drips?