Peru: The ironic lack of drinking water for the inhabitants of the Amazon | future planet

A few days before the end of the year 2021, while part of the world celebrated the arrival of 2022 with rockets and confetti, Tito Curitima, a tanned 54-year-old Amazonian man, turned his eyes to the environment in which he lives and commented for the umpteenth time: “The same thing happened again.” Due to the profuse rains, the streets and squares of the human settlement Iván Vásquez Valera, in the city of Iquitos (capital of the department of Loreto), were submerged in water.

The flood threatened to spread, so some white sacks full of sand were placed at the edge of a sewage ditch that runs through a street cruelly called Buenos Aires. Nearby, in a corner, this fetid spring joins two open drains: one comes from an Essalud hospital (the Social Security health system), which is there as a sad health contradiction, and the other from a slaughterhouse near. “The pestilence has increased,” Curitima added, while recalling that in 2010, another intense rainy season took away some belongings from his house.

The bug that leaks

This region, located in the region where the largest water reserve in the country is located (more than 90% of the water available in Peru is in the Amazon, where only just over 30% of the population lives), has no drinking water or sewerage. Nearly 2,500 families live in the Iván Vásquez Valera settlement, and in the neighboring one called 21 de Septiembre, and almost 50% of the population is indigenous; the majority are from the Kukama ethnic group, closely associated with water, as they respect the pink dolphin, the boas; they are masters in the art of fishing, they consider the Marañón River a living being and they believe that when someone drowns in a river, they have truly gone to an underwater world. When that happens, they communicate with them through dreams.

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But here they rather dream of having the minimum basic services, something that the Provincial Municipality of Maynas (Iquitos is the capital of that province) does not grant them, despite having been recognized as Marginal Human Settlements: September 21, 2006 ; and Iván Vásquez Valera, in 2007. What they were given was electricity in the streets and houses, as a sign that their inhabitants exist.

The Constitutional Court of Peru has, since mid-2021, the possibility of putting an end to the poor living conditions of these populations

The Constitutional Court of Peru has, since mid-2021, the possibility of putting an end to the poor living conditions of these populations if it admits the appeal presented by the lawyers of the Legal Defense Institute (IDL), who have been fighting for five years for this cause, so that citizens have basic access to water and sanitation that every human being deserves.

“All these waters can be treated,” says Juan Carlos Ruiz, one of the lawyers who is pursuing the lawsuit using various legal arguments. The Political Constitution of Peru, in its Article 7-A, establishes that “the State recognizes the right of every person to progressively and universally access drinking water.” The 195 indicates that “the provision of public services is the responsibility of local governments.”

Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples also supports the request. According to this, “indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their own spiritual relationship with the lands, territories, waters, coastal seas and other resources.” All this served to win in the first instance, but the municipality appealed and in the second instance the Civil Court of Loreto ruled based on another Peruvian law, number 30645, which prohibits the provision of public services in “unmitigable risk areas”.

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the liquid connection

According to Ruiz, this rule is made for places like the Peruvian coast, where the population tends to settle in places near the rivers that overflow during the rainy season. In this part of the jungle, the situation is qualitatively different, because ancestrally the inhabitants are used to reinventing their way of being and living when the rains come.

The Iván Vásquez and 21 de Septiembre human settlements have been fighting for some time to claim the right to drinking water and sewerage in Punchana.
The Iván Vásquez and 21 de Septiembre human settlements have been fighting for some time to claim the right to drinking water and sewerage in Punchana.Gin Pena Gimeno (Gin Pena Gimeno)

This phenomenon is called floodable forest and occurs in several other places in the Amazon. Furthermore, there are towns like Iceland, a district located on the border with Colombia, where all the houses are built -including the municipal premises- on the course of the Yavarí River, because it is known that, at certain times of the year, in effect the waters will rise. A solution based on logic that, however, is not implemented in similar territories such as Iquitos.

“There is a connection with the water, with its spiritual beings,” says Verónica Shibuya, an official at the Amazon Center for Anthropology and Practical Application (CAAAP). When one walks through these earthy streets of these human settlements, one verifies that the indigenous inhabitants, or mestizos who are the majority, seek not to stay far from rivers such as the Nanay, a tributary of the Amazon that passes nearby. Some even practice subsistence fishing in that river.

Certainly not the majority, because the predominant jobs are stevedore, helmsman, bricklayer, electrical technician or street vendor (the average daily income barely fluctuates between two and seven euros or its equivalent in soles). But it is clear that they cannot imagine their life away from the aquatic ecosystem and, therefore, they are there and not in the center of the city. Others have migrated from the same city. The problem is not the water; it is contamination.

But even the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has explored alternative situations, such as the accumulation of rainwater (in Iván Vásquez it was tried, but without good results). Or raise the pipes. Or promote a system of wells, as long as the water table is not contaminated. Instead of following that route, the authorities make promises that they do not keep, reject demands, and the consequence is that 2,500 families remain submerged in oblivion

If there were no drains from Essalud, the slaughterhouse or the school ―called Liceo Naval de Iquitos―, life for the neighbors could be minimally more bearable. But a torrent of bureaucratic hurdles, erratic interpretations of the law, and poor cultural understanding seem to have come together to create a whirlwind of trouble and keep opening the sewage pipes.

Migrate or get sick

The social situation of the jungle in general also affects this health drama. “I came here because I wanted to improve and study,” says Ronaldo Jiménez, a young man from the Matsé ethnic group, whose original place of residence is five days and nights away by boat from Iquitos, in the Alto Yavarí area. Before, he lived in his community and part of his time was dedicated to fishing Amazonian species such as the acaraguazú or the bujurqui. Today he studies graphic design in Iquitos.

He lives with his wife and a child in a rustic house on the main avenue of Iván Vásquez Valera, which is partially covered with earth to avoid the pernicious effect of seasonal flooding. It is made of wood, it is on a loft and his in-laws and his cousins-in-law also live there. To get into his cabin — where there is a refrigerator, some chairs and a couple of hammocks — one has to walk through narrow, rickety wooden corridors.

The terrible sanitary conditions cause a high incidence of skin, respiratory and stomach diseases

Like him, hundreds of indigenous people have come to the city and, according to a CAAAP report, they do so to “improve their living and health conditions,” something that, according to the document itself, is contradictory because “the area is a permanent source of infection.” . To the point that, in a survey carried out by this entity on 175 people from the settlements, the majority declared having had dengue and malaria. It is impossible not to imagine it when the waste is around on various sides and the water stagnates, an ideal habitat for the mosquitoes that transmit these diseases.

This territory, surrounded by stinking watercourses, where buzzards move as if in their essential fluid, seems like a gigantic breeding ground for mosquitoes, including the aedes agypti, which can transmit not only dengue but also chikungunya and zika. The terrible sanitary conditions also cause a high incidence of skin, respiratory and stomach diseases; as well as cases of tuberculosis.

Would it be better if they didn’t migrate? According to the article Health in the native Amazonian communities of Peru, published in 2014 in the Peruvian Journal of Epidemiology, barely 10% of native communities have a health post. Sanitation is equally poor and there are high rates of child malnutrition. According to a recent study by the NGOs Supay and Zerca y Lejos, in Santo Tomás, a town neighboring Iquitos, the prevalence of stunting there is very high. In preschool children it reaches 31.3%, which is 18.6 percentage points above the South American average (12.7%). It is, then, a desired migration, but at the same time forced. Segundo Panduro, a man whose ancestry is Kichwa (another Amazonian ethnic group), came here from Tarapoto, a Peruvian jungle city located in a rather mountainous area. He couldn’t find work and in this town at least he found a place to build a house.

Before the next flood

Across from Panduro lives Mrs. Nora Sikiwa, who is also a Kichwa, but from Ecuador. She came across the border because her fruit-selling business began to fail. She is the mother of seven children, of different ages, who climb on her body and laugh while she talks. At the door of her humble wooden shack she sells pieces of watermelon and, of course, she also hopes that one day clean water and sewage will arrive. Because she knows that diseases surround her.

The Constitutional Court of Peru has in its hands to admit the appeal presented by the inhabitants and decide that they have the right to something as basic as water, to their water. Meanwhile, the next flood is coming, in the midst of the miasmas; not as it would happen in a clean forest, or in a town with services.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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