Friday, January 15, 2010

Latin America's water needs could foster collaboration to curb global warming

Luis Alberto Moreno in the Truth About Trade and Technology, via the Los Angeles Times: The region's droughts may serve as a catalyst for reconciling the conflicting priorities of poor and wealthy nations when it comes to the issue of addressing climate change. Ask the mayor of a city in the Andes mountains about the outcome of December's climate negotiations in Copenhagen, and you will probably receive a perfunctory reply. Ask about the plummeting levels of local freshwater reservoirs, and you will get an earful.

The reason goes to the heart of the disagreements that split the industrialized and developing countries and prevented a long-term, binding agreement to curb global warming. But it also offers a path toward a more productive approach to north-south collaboration on climate change. In Latin America, water is more tightly linked to human potential and economic competitiveness than in any other part of the world. The region has roughly 31% of the planet's freshwater resources, while being home to only 8% of its population. This huge water advantage has enabled Latin America to get 68% of its electricity from hydroelectric sources, compared with a global average of less than 16%.

The region's key commodity exports -- in agriculture and mining -- depend on extraordinary quantities of water. About half the world's beef exports and nearly two-thirds of all soya come from Latin America, where they are produced cheaply, thanks to typically abundant rainfall.

But after the severe droughts of recent years, this water advantage has become a stark vulnerability. In 2008, Argentina lost 1.5 million head of cattle and nearly half its wheat crop to drought, while hydroelectric output in the most populous part of Chile plunged by 34%.

….The latest droughts are believed to stem from cyclical weather phenomena such as El NiƱo. But they are also an omen, because climate scientists agree that extreme fluctuations in rainfall will be among the first and most dramatic consequences of rising temperatures in Latin America.

The intersection of water and climate could serve to reconcile the conflicting priorities that hobbled negotiations in Copenhagen. First, as they look for the best ways to spend the billions in aid that have just been pledged for climate adaptation in the developing world, industrialized countries should focus on projects that resolve near-term, climate-related problems such as water supply and sanitation….

The Arcoiris waterfall in Bolivia, shot by Rojk, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

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