Opinion. Why do we have to take water scarcity as a real crisis?
In recent years, climate change has generated both in Argentina and throughout the Southern Cone, scarcity in the supply and availability of water. This is due to climatic phenomena that occur on different time scales. And it causes that in several regions there is already competition for its use between different productions, limitations in crop yields or even difficulties in accessing water in quantity and quality for numerous populations.
The crisis due to water scarcity is the greatest natural threat that our territory is suffering. The entire West of our country is highly dependent on water for the development of productive agricultural valleys. For almost two decades we have had a gradual and continuous deficit of snow cover in the mountains, a source of water for the population, irrigation and mining.
In Chile, the concept of mega drought has been installed for this regional phenomenon that continues to worsen. The Argentine humid and sub-humid center is subject to high climatic variability, with extreme situations of excesses and deficits, favored by interannual events generated by oceanic forcing such as El Niño and La Niña.
In recent years, this area of the country has gone through a dry cycle with annual rainfall below the historical average. A decrease in the bodies of water on the surface and a greater depth of the water table are also visualized.
In Patagonian territories there are exhausted ecosystems on the verge of desertification. The lack of water limits initiatives to avoid degradation and to promote restoration processes. On the east of the country, in the Plata Basin, the Paraná River presents an abrupt change in its water regime.
A pronounced and prolonged drop for the third consecutive year affects the logistics efficiency of our main exporting node and reduces the area of wetlands and reservoirs in five countries. Scientific references usually indicate that these extreme situations have already occurred, that they are cyclical, that there were other historical records. But the phenomena of nature, we must above all measure them by their socioeconomic impacts. In this dimension, risk and vulnerability, dependence on water increases year after year due to the higher population density and the intensification of production systems.
Water is today the limiting factor for agricultural production. It defines the productive ceilings in each campaign, and even more, it is to a large extent what ensures foreign exchange earnings for the Argentine macroeconomy. The cyclical behavior of the climate will once again bring us years with abundant rains, as occurs in El Niño years.
Because, managing water in years of excess, storing it, is for the agricultural sector equivalent to keeping foreign currency in the Central Bankl. Adapting to the effects of climate is something we have been doing for a long time, developing varieties resistant to water stress, improving irrigation efficiency, creating new tillage systems, rotations with grasses, including cover crops, and even promoting the design of a satellite, SAOCOM, to provide information on soil moisture, among other applications.
So why are we in an alert situation? In general, it is because changes are occurring faster and more abruptly than innovations for efficient water use, the adoption of new technologies, or investments in surface water management.. We tend to look at what happens on small scales, at the level of a plot, in a reservoir, a landscape.
However, if we look at the entire southern region of South America, it is observed that the impact of water scarcity is repeated in many regions and manifests itself with different modalities, frequencies and periods of time. A strategic view is necessary that promotes more robust and comprehensive public and private institutional actions. Actions ranging from improving the storage of water in the soil pores to the comprehensive management of basins.
No less important is generating more knowledge and strengthening measurement networks to analyze the evolution of this vital element and to prepare future projections.
Water drives sustainable development. It is our greatest natural asset, which is why we must think in terms of precise water management and not use. Ensuring its availability in quantity and quality, with territorial equity, dignifies our lifestyle and that of future generations.
The author is director of the INTA Natural Resources Research Center