Life in Arid Poverty

“The often overlooked struggles water scarcity brings to asentamientos”

The ride is long and perilous up the hills forcing the van’s tires to screech against the dusty ground. All around one can see crumbling houses made of worn-down wood, plastic, cardboard and broken bricks. Thousands of them all built covering every inch of the hillside. And inside of each house a family. Unfortunately, most of the families living here face several hardships in their day-to-day lives.

One of them, also being one of the most noticeable ones, is water scarcity. Water scarcity is a major issue not only all over Perú, but specifically in the places where we can see its most visible effects: the shantytowns or “asentamientos” in Lima. In such places, lack of water brings forth many struggles and challenges to these people, since a great part of the population living in “asentamientos” depends on agriculture and animal production in order to receive their income. Of course, for both of these things water is essential. Having the chance to speak with an 71 year-old woman in the area she mentioned how tough the situation was for her: “What we suffer from here the most is lack of water. There’s willingness to work the land; before we came, these lands were an abandoned desert, it didn’t have any life! Yet, one suffers when seeing that the poor plants can’t receive any water and some start to die.”

Another often discussed issue in the water sector is it’s high price. ”The water costs so much ma’am” she said, “Imagine, 60 soles for only the refill of my water deposit! And it only lasts me a week even when trying to use very little. It’s such a high price, I can barely afford it.” This issue is mainly due to private water companies raising the price of water whenever there is water shortage making the resource harder to obtain from water supplying companies such as SEDAPAL. This rise in the price of the water travels, not only to the people living in the city, but also to the people in the asentamientos who are the most vulnerable to the prices.

Ironically, people living in low-income conditions at asentamientos are the ones who end up paying more than the rest of Lima’s population. Most people in the capital who are connected to Municipalidad de Lima’s water pipe distribution system and are paying close S / .3 per m3 of water, while on the outskirts of the city about 600 thousand people in extreme poverty pay up to 10 times more than the capital’s population in order to obtain potable water. 45% of people living in poverty all together aren’t even connected to the water pipe system, instead they find themselves dependent on the water from water trucks, also known as “camiones cisterna”. These water trucks are provided by private water companies who distribute and sell water in the “asentamientos”. This also raises the price of water considerably. One would think that by paying a higher price for water, the supply provided would at least be of quality and meet its basic sanitary requirements; yet water from water trucks is oftentimes of very low quality in comparison to running tap water and makes the people who depend on it more vulnerable to waterborne diseases provoked by this unclean water.

If there is the lucky chance that a family indeed is connected to the water system living in one of Lima’s shanty towns, the water is exceptionally limited anyways and might come for only two hours a day, usually from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm. Several families are forced to collect all the water they can get during those two hours in order to store it in buckets and homemade water tanks which oftentimes are connected to plastic tubs of all shapes and sizes through hoses. They later use the stored water to supply their needs such as cooking, washing clothes, bathing, and several others.

This, much like water trucks, is also unhygienic; so even if some families have running water they must store it because of limited time access to running tap water, which can make them prone to diseases such as “dengue”, a disease transmitted through mosquitoes and created through the storing of water. It has been known that this disease is most common in places where people store water due to low access to piped water such as in Villa Maria del Triunfo, where dengue is a major issue especially in the summer. Overall, not only do they have to pay a higher price in order to obtain water access, but the water provided is oftentimes insufficient also bringing along diseases. “This situation affects us a lot, but what can we do but keep moving forward?” a 45 year-old resident in Villa Maria mentions to us.

But let’s go back to the main problem. Why is water scarcity such a major issue overall? In Lima, these asentamientos have originated from people who were previously living in the countryside and decided to migrate to the capital. Migration has been a great issue in Lima, since people have been taking up land in order to live, even though it wasn't their property initially. The "why" behind the decision these people made to move and take over, lands falls upon the government's negligence towards poor communities outside of Lima. People migrate in order to find better life and job opportunities in the capital which were not offered to them previously by the peruvian government where they lived. This lacking of opportunity has brought along the extreme number of human settlements in the hills of Peru's capital and this large amount is what brings along such concerning problems such as the water issue. Imagine if you were in the situation of any of the people and families described above. How would you feel if this was your daily situation? How would you feel if these challenges we set upon you and you weren’t able to do anything about it? This sense powerlessness is what millions of peruvian families are going through in this very second. No one deserves to lack from their basic human rights, this is why solving water scarcity is such a critical step to be taken; a step that depends on all of us.