LIMA, Peru — The Santa Rosita kindergarten appears like an oasis of color amid the grays and browns of Huaycan, a grim Lima shantytown sprawling upwards into the dusty Andean foothills.
Yet appearances could not be more deceiving. The only water at Santa Rosita is that brought in buckets by the parents of the 30 toddlers, ages 3 to 5, enrolled here.
They use it to drink, wash their hands and flush the toilet in the outhouse behind their classroom, a glorified shack with wooden planks for walls and a corrugated metal roof.
Some of the water is treated, brought by parents with running water at home. But some is not.
No wonder then that many of the youngsters here are underweight, suffering from malnutrition caused by parasites in their digestive tracts preventing them from absorbing the nutrients they eat.
One also has tuberculosis, and another came down with Hepatitis A two weeks before my visit, says teacher Elisa Ribero Guia. Both conditions are related to unhygienic conditions. Every three months, the kids have to be tested for parasites and anemia.
“SEDAPAL [Lima’s state-owned municipal water authority] is not doing its job,” says Judy Simon Tolentino, whose 4-year-old daughter Adriana attends the kindergarten.
“How can it be that these kids are not given treated running water as a priority?”
The answer has much to do with the history of Huaycan, population 200,000, whose first residents, mainly migrants from the Andes, squatted the land here in the 1980s.
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Ever since, the Peruvian state, including SEDAPAL, has been scrambling to catch up and provide basic services to the community.
But it also has to do with the arid conditions along Peru’s coast, one of the driest deserts in the world. Lima receives less than a third of an inch of rain per year.
Water is a scarce resource here and it is the poorest, such as the residents of Huaycan, who are at the back of the queue as demand outstrips supply.
Now, Lima is facing a perfect storm of rising consumption, just as Andean precipitation and glacier melt, apparently impacted by climate change, begin to dwindle.
With 9 million inhabitants — 1 million of whom have no treated, running water — Lima is the second-most populous desert city in the world, after Cairo.
Yet while the Nile flows at 2,830 cubic meters per second, Peru’s heavily polluted Rimac river, which provides Lima with 80 percent of its water, averages around 30 cubic meters per second.
Meanwhile, annual precipitation in the natural watershed that supplies the Rimac has been falling by 4.4 mm per year since 1970. On current trends it will run dry toward the end of the century.
“It could be a natural cycle,” hydrologist Waldo Lavado, of Peru’s national weather service, told GlobalPost. “But climate change is, of course, one of the main hypotheses that we are looking at.”
Yet Lima’s current water demand, of 23.45 cubic meters per second, according to the municipal authorities, is expected to rise to 47.43 cubic meters per second by 2040 thanks to economic and population growth.
“Climate change is a very important aspect which we must take into account,” says SEDAPAL’s head of production, Yolanda Andia. “We don’t have the ‘nevados’ [snow-capped mountains] that we had before, which helped maintain [water] supply during the dry season.”
As a result, SEDAPAL is investing about $2 billion in new projects. These include a giant new reservoir, Huascacocha, some 12,000 feet up in the Andes that will increase Lima’s water storage capacity by 50 million cubic feet.
But many are critical of SEDAPAL, which has been accused of corruption and incompetence.
Lima’s progressive mayor, Susana Villaran, has seen her attempts to name two of SEDAPAL’s five-member board thwarted in congress by the right-wing Fujimorista grouping.
As a result, Gunter Merzhal, of the mayor’s environment department, insists there is little Villaran can do to speed up water connections in places like Huaycan, saying: “Our hands are tied.”
The result is that while wealthy Lima residents squander their treated tap water, those in shantytowns without connections end up paying up to 20 times more — as much as $10 per cubic meter — for untreated water delivered by a fleet of unregulated, private water trucks.
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And at the back of the queue is Santa Rosita, a supposedly state-run kindergarten that’s part of Peru’s PRONOEI program for youngsters in extreme poverty.
Yet the reality is that almost everything in the kindergarten, including the building itself, has been supplied or created by the parents. Teacher Ribero Guia earns a monthly salary of just 332 soles ($125) — or, as she prefers to call it, “a tip.”
President Ollanta Humala swept to power last year vowing to end the Peruvian state’s abandonment of its poorest citizens. Yet in Huaycan, just 90 minutes from downtown Lima, few are holding their breath.
Ribero Guia has attempted several times to get a water main connection for Santa Rosita. Without a land title, the local authorities require proof of occupancy — a bureaucratic fudge acknowledging the reality that thousands of Lima’s residents squatted the land where they now live.
Yet even that would require architectural plans that Ribero Guia says cost roughly $600, an astronomical sum for most residents of Huaycan. “How are we supposed to afford that?” she asks. “Is it not enough that there are children here falling ill unnecessarily?”
Meanwhile, newcomers from the Andes continue to arrive in Huaycan, occupying land higher and higher up the hill, and further and further away from the water system.
As Lima’s water sources dwindle and with SEDAPAL already struggling to meet pent up demand, there is little chance of them — or their children — having treated water on tap any time soon.
With support from a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.