Paraguay: Lack of drinking water in the country that holds the world’s largest freshwater reserve
Indigenous people from the Yalve Sanga Enlhet community in the Paraguayan municipality of Loma Plata in the arid Chaco region must walk several kilometres to get drinking water.
Three years ago, a significant part of the Chaco territory endured one of the most intense droughts in recent times, with temperatures that reached up to 45° Celsius. In these conditions, under a scorching sun and a fierce dry wind, water is vital to cool off, to quench thirst. In short, to survive.
Artificial water sources in the area dry up, and the aqueduct system – so often touted by the current government of Paraguay – is not fully operational. Thus, nothing seems to indicate that this situation will change in the short term.
Yalve Sanga Enlhet is 22 kilometres from the centre of Loma Plata, one of the most important cities in the heart of the Paraguayan Chaco. Osorio Losa, leader of this community, says that since approximately 2020 the drought has intensified in the region. Although rainfall occurs, it is insufficient.
He does not remember such a long period of water scarcity. Generally, periods without rain extend only for months. What the local community is experiencing nowadays is a drought that has dragged on for almost three years without significant rainfall. Perhaps one of the most notorious environmental events in the past years happened in 2016, when in the north of Boquerón, drought led to the deaths of thousands of alligators for lack of water to drink.
That calamity was not only due to climatic conditions. It had a lot to do with the mismanagement of the Pilcomayo River – which runs through Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay – at the height of the Cañada La Madrid, overseen by the Pilcomayo Commission, a Paraguayan state unit dedicated to local water management.
An intense drought was recorded in this same region in the 1990s, causing significant mortality among alligator populations and other recurrent problems.
Benigno Rojas, a leader of the nearby Enxet indigenous community of El Estribo, shows one of the last water reserves of the tajamares, the wells that collect rainwater for drinking when other sources are unavailable. Credit: Santi Carneri.
Miles to find water
The women and men of the indigenous Yalve Sanga community walk several kilometres to the nearest riverbank that still has water to drink, from where they carry the vital liquid back to their families. They are barefoot. The sun beats down on their faces. Their skin is tanned by the hot environment. All these people want is to get to the water. Although the country’s health authorities do not recommend drinking from such water points, for the indigenous people of Yalve Sanga Enlhet there is no other option.
‘We don’t have drinking water here in El Chaco, only rainwater. The problem is also that most of my people do not have aljibes [a kind of cistern that stores water], so it is always complicated for us when there is drought,’ Osorio maintains. His community alone numbers at least 2,300 inhabitants, he specifies.
In August 2022, the local authorities declared a state of emergency in Boquerón due to the prevailing drought. Back then, the National Secretariat of National Emergency (SEN) assisted affected indigenous populations and provided water tanks, which arrived at intervals of two to three days. In more remote locations, such as Santa Rosa, home to indigenous Manjui people, trucks bearing water aid simply did not arrive.
To the problem of drought we must add wildfires, which turned much of the Chaco into an inferno of smoke and heat during the past year. According to data from the National Forestry Institute (INFONA), from 2019 to the end of 2022, 700,000 hectares have been burned in the Chaco territory – an area four times larger than London.
Albertini Rojas is an indigenous communicator of the Indigenous Self Organization (OMI), composed of Enxet Sur people. Rojas lives in the village of Santa Fe, in the community of El Estribo, located in the district of Teniente Irala Fernández, in the Department of Presidente Hayes. Along with Alto Paraguay and Boquerón, this is one of three departments that make up the Chaco region of Paraguay.
Although in this community they also suffer from drought, in the last weeks of February 2023 rains were recorded, which offers hopes of a better future. ‘In Irala Fernández, we are now receiving water after a long drought that brought many problems,’ Rojas explains. He says that one of the most serious consequences of the lack of rain was that indigenous people lost their plantations, which are mostly intended for self-consumption. ‘An important part of our watermelon, melon and pumpkin plantations were lost. That is why we requested government assistance,’ Rojas says.
The climatic conditions in the Chaco have been extreme. While in the south of the department of Boquerón indigenous communities have endured drought for three years or so, in the north of the country, the situation is totally different, as continuous storms have left hundreds of indigenous families under water.
Benigno Rojas touches a carob leaf, one of the most important trees in the Chaco. The nearby Enxet community obtain gluten-free flour from the fruit of this tree. Credit: Santi Carneri.
Inaugurated but not working
On 29 September 2021, the Paraguayan government launched a water grid system that should directly benefit the communities of Yalve Sanga, Loma Plata and Villa Choferes del Chaco, all located in Boquerón. The opening of this water system is part of an ambitious project named Acueducto, an underground piping system that aims to transport water throughout the Chaco.
The launch event was lauded in the media and was attended by Paraguay’s president, Mario Abdo Benítez. Notwithstanding the public attention, indigenous communities were once again left without drinking water a few weeks after the project’s opening.
The Acueducto project has been a long time coming. The current government, which took office in August 2018, named the Ministry of Public Works and Communications (MOCP) and the Paraguayan Health Services Company (ESSAP), as the two governing institutions in charge of running the project.
In principle, the original project was intended to reach the main cities of El Chaco, where it would mainly benefit producers, ranchers and evangelical groups. However, it was later modified, allowing pipes to transport drinking water to vulnerable indigenous and other communities from the central Chaco. The goal is for the aqueduct to provide drinking water – whether there is a drought or not – to some 70,000 inhabitants of the Paraguayan Chaco, at least 40,000 of whom are indigenous.
Tekoha Guasu has been our home since ancestral times. Within a few years, it may no longer be the place where we make our life. Without water, we do not know what will become of us.
Enlhet community leader Osorio Losa points out that the Acueducto has been marred by many problems, and that, although drinking water was available through this system at first, the supply did not last long. Though taps and water pipes were installed in indigenous lands, what has not reached indigenous populations is the water itself.
The world’s largest freshwater reservoir
The Paraguay River divides the country into two regions: the western region of Chaco and the eastern region. The latter is home to the Guaraní aquifer. Specialists consider this to be one of the most important freshwater reservoirs on the planet. The aquifer also covers regions of Argentina, Brazil and a small part of Uruguay.
On the aquifer inside the San Rafael Forest Reserve, a forested remnant of the historical canopies that occupied parts of the departments of Itapúa and Caazapá, live the indigenous people of the Arroyo Morotí community, members of the Mbya Guaraní people. Local people call this area ‘Tekoha Guasu’. Guaraní language is, along with Spanish, the official language of Paraguay. In this indigenous language, the words mean: ‘The place where we make our life.’ Despite living above the heart of this major natural aquifer, the indigenous people of Arroyo Morotí have no drinking water.
In past decades, the people of Arroyo Morotí could turn to any nearby stream for water. That is almost impossible today. Most of the streams carry only a fraction of their historical flow. Those that have enough water are no longer safe due to the high levels of pollution in the area caused by mass use of agrochemicals for the agricultural plantations that dominate the region.
Children play in the nearby Enxet indigenous community of El Estribo. Credit: Santi Carneri.
Eusebio Chaparro is the leader of this community, which faces extreme poverty. He says that for the 45 families that live there, the only drinking water available is from a single natural spring, from where all families get their supply. ‘You have to carry jerrycans or buckets to be able to take water to the houses. What worries us is that this spring will stop bearing water, because the streams are drying up,’ says Chaparro in his native Guaraní.
According to the Global Water Partnership, Paraguay is the country that comes lowest on the water security index in South America. Some state functions reinforce this record. Only in May 2022 did the Paraguayan executive issue the necessary decree to regulate Law 3239/2007, its main water legislation, no less than 15 years after its initial enactment.
This regulation will ensure that large multinationals pay a fee for the use of water from aquifers. In addition, it establishes a system for the protection of the country’s wetlands, as well as an updated inventory of water channels in Paraguayan territory. Despite these positive amendments to the law, Chaparro remains pessimistic. Like other members in his and other indigenous communities across Paraguay, he worries that the spring at the heart of his community will run out of water at some point soon. He closes with a damning reflection: ‘Tekoha Guasu has been our home since ancestral times. Within a few years, it may no longer be the place where we make our life,’ and he adds: ‘Without water, we do not know what will become of us.’
We are grateful to members of La Nación for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.
A member of the Arroyo Morotí community in the Paraguayan Chaco. Credit: Aldo Benítez.