South America deal to share huge aquifer swamped by politics

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hailed as the gold standard for sharing natural resources, a landmark deal between four countries to manage one of the world’s largest aquifers has stalled, Brazilian and Argentinian officials said, raising questions over how states will handle disputes over increasingly valuable fresh water.

Six years ago, the U.N. welcomed an agreement between Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina to manage the Guarani Aquifer, South America’s largest underground source of fresh water, spanning more than 1 million square kilometers (386,000 sq miles).

While land can be easily demarcated with property titles, disputes over cross-border water sources are harder to resolve, leading diplomats to place a high value on resource-sharing agreements.

The world is expected to face a 40 percent shortfall in water availability by 2030, according to the U.N.

With underground aquifers crucial to the planet’s fresh water supply, governments are under pressure to better manage common resources to avoid potential conflicts.

“The Guarani aquifer agreement was the gold standard on how countries can share things,” said Aaron Wolf, an Oregon State University professor who studies water management.

“It was a great example of conflict prevention rather than conflict resolution,” Wolf told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It’s always easier to have these conversations when people aren’t dying as a result of water shortages or drought.”


Despite the initial optimism, the Guarani Aquifer agreement has stalled.

On the ground, “little or nothing” is happening today in terms of formal coordination between the four countries, Miguel Giraut, an official with Argentina’s Ministry of Mines and Energy who worked on the Guarani deal, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lawmakers in Uruguay and Argentina ratified the agreement in 2012, but politicians from Paraguay have yet to ink the deal, some saying it undermines national sovereignty.

And officials in Brazil’s foreign ministry have also stalled its approval, said Luiz Amore, spokesman for Brazil’s National Water Agency.

Some Brazilian lawmakers are pushing for changes to the deal which would open the whole agreement to renegotiation, setting-back hopes of implementing it by years, Amore said.

Political wrangling is hurting efforts by scientists and environmentalists to manage the resource, both officials said, although informal cooperation between the four countries over management of the aquifer continues.

If the agreement gets final approval, joint management commissions in border areas will be able respond to local problems such as regions pumping too much water or a lack of environmental monitoring, officials said.

“There is some cooperation happening now,” Amore told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “But not at the level we would expect... we have to move this forward.”


From the Nubian aquifer in north Africa, to water sources straddling Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, shared bodies of underground water can be sources of strife between neighbors.

A storyline in the James Bond spy movie “Quantum of Solace”, where a shady businessman launches a coup in Bolivia to gain control of underground water, is thought to be based on the Guarani aquifer.

“In Latin America, water is inherently political,” Francesco Sindico, professor of environmental law the UK’s University of Strathclyde told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It goes to the heart of national sovereignty,” Sindico said, which is why the Guarani Agreement was so important.


The stalled deal is particularly concerning in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, which has been hit by droughts and water shortages, said environmental law expert Pilar Carolina Villar.

“In the State of Sao Paulo there is too much exploitation (of the aquifer),” Villar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Underground water is being pumped out faster than it can recharge naturally, said the Federal University of Sao Paulo professor.

This is why monitoring water levels and flow between countries is important; it allows states to know how much water they can sustainably remove from the aquifer.

While South America has abundant water reserves compared to other regions, the aquifer will become increasingly important for crops and drinking water for millions in Sao Paulo state.

And it’s places like this where cooperation among countries matters most, Villar said, as climate change is likely to put further stress on surface water resources, making shared ground aquifers ever more important.