Lima: Every year the city of Lima grows larger – it is now the world’s biggest desert city after Cairo. For as far as the eye can see (and further) cheap, 3-ply dwellings pepper the sand dunes around the old city, home to millions of impoverished migrants, hoping for a better life. More than 80% of the population now lives on the desert coastal strip, (which receives 1.8% of the country’s water), well over half of them – 9 million – in Lima.
It is putting even greater pressure on the city’s dwindling water resources, already hard hit by melting glaciers and diminished rainfall. Lima’s water supply will diminish by 25% over the next decade, according to conservative estimates. Even in the wealthiest parts of downtown Lima, businesses and residences already suffer frequent shortages from water rationing.
But the problem is far worse in the 1800 euphemistically termed ‘acentamientos humanos’ (AAHH), slum communities of migrants that are home to some 2 million people. They are home to squatters, who, after living on the site for a number of years, can claim title. “There are 40-year-old AAHHs, like Ensenada with a population of 150,000 people, which still has no water supply,” says Abel Cruz, director of Peruvians Without Water, an action group started by Cruz in reaction to the social injustice that sees the poorest Peruvians pay the most for water. “People living in AAHHs, like me and my family, must pay for private water truck companies to fill our tanks at 2 soles per litre – the very poorest, living highest on the hills, have to pay 3.5 soles/litre – whereas, in Miraflores [a wealthy area in downtown Lima, where our hostel is] people pay 2 soles for 10 litres of clean piped water.
“And because these water companies are private and not monitored, they supply cheap, contaminated water that makes us sick,” says Cruz. People living in AAHHs have a high incidence of dysentery and other water-borne diseases, as well as malaria and dengue, as a result of their water being stored in tanks where the mosquito vector breeds.”
But how do these Quechua-speaking country peasants end up living in squalor here, trying to scrape a living shining shoes for the rich city people or selling snacks at the windows of cars waiting at traffic lights? What I had assumed to be the accumulation of a million arbitrary decisions to move from the countryside to the big smoke, turns out to be a highly organised, billion dollar business in internal people trafficking, controlled, in the main, by one incredibly powerful individual, whose money alone ensures political sway. He locates land on the outskirts of the city, ascertains that the owner is overseas and then collects people to invade the land – for a fee.
German Cardinas Léon lives and runs an entire block on the ‘other’ side of town – the bad side. Over the river is a gangland of criminals, where police dare not enter and where much of the black market goods and money ends up. Since we’ve been in Lima (around a week), we’ve seen more crime than in the whole of the 21 months we’ve been travelling. From the hostel we’re staying in, for example, three tourists have had their passports stolen, four have been mugged, two have witnessed muggings, and one has been attacked. (None of this actually in our lovely hostel, of course, but in buses, taxis and on the street). Interviewing German, who is surrounded by machine gun-toting hit men, is a bad idea, says Francis, our hostel owner, who has heard dark stories.
I am intrigued, but short of time and, let’s face it, a little wary… Instead, I talk to people who have dealt with him; people who have been trafficked by him. There are many, but the stories are all similar, so here is Abel’s tale. (Abel, incidentally, professes a ‘friendship’ with German, but although he gives me the big man’s address, he backs out of accompanying me.)
“I am a farmer from Echarte village near Cusco. It’s a very poor area, but there are more millionaires there than from anywhere else in Peru because they found gas there. I am not rich, though. I had some pigs and grew cocoa and vegetables, but there was drought and our productivity went down.
One day in 2003, a man came into the village and asked if we wanted a better life in Lima. He said we would live in a nice house and find good jobs and good school for our two little boys.
I thought about it with my wife for a few months, because we didn’t want to leave our families and our home. But the drought got worse.
We paid the man 1500 soles and packed up a few belongings and left the countryside. We were told to meet the man at 5 am with the money and a few sheets of plywood or ‘esteras’ (bamboo sheeting).
When we met him, there were lots of other families just like us waiting there. We were taken to a sand dune and told to fence off an area of the dune and start constructing our houses from the material we brought with us. He helped arrange for a private company to connect us to the electricity and cable TV.
We have no water or sanitation. Our toilet is a silo, a hole we dig in the floor of the room and cover with plywood. Every couple of years, it gets full so we make another hole. It takes 20 years for the whole of the floor-space to be full of shit, so I don’t know what we’ll do then. The place stinks and there are many mosquitoes from the water tanks that we keep water in, so people get sick from dysentery, malaria, dengue.
The biggest problem, though, is the lack of water. Many households spend half their wages on water delivery.”
One of the inspired stunts that Cruz’s protest group pulled, was during a political meeting with the government’s health and water ministries, in which each politician was handed a bottle of water filled from an AAHH tank. The politicians were wary about drinking this contaminated water, understandably, which led to a press bonanza. The government was angered by this and tried to discredit Cruz, claiming that the water was fine. Spanish CNN began following the story and was filming Cruz at the moment that government prosecutors and troops appeared, issuing a writ for Cruz’s arrest. A file was manufactured against him by congressmen.
It would have all ended rather badly for Cruz, had not his journalist friend’s (journalists are such heroes) father-in-law happened to be Secretary of the UN. Intervention at this level, meant that the bottled water was tested, Cruz’s story found to be true and Cruz exonerated and released.
Protests by Cruz’s organisation, together with water-allocation conflicts elsewhere in the nation came to a head during the 2005 election campaign. Current President Alan Garcia was elected on a mandate of ‘Agua Para Todas’ (Water For All) – a promise he is far from delivering.
Lima would need 300 million cubic metres of water per year if its 9 million population is to get the recommended World Health Organisation water supply, but Sedapal currently has access to a maximum of 220 million m3, of which it loses 40% due to leakages and theft. Lima residents currently uses twice as much water per capita than the WHO recommends, so better management, efficiency and rationing will all be necessary in coming years. Nevertheless, there is already a water shortage, and Garcia, who during his first term of office in the 1980s discussed moving the capital to a more watery location, is now backing expensive plans to pipe water from the Amazon basin through the Andes to Lima.
What a dreadful story. I had not really thought very much of how shanty towns develop. I’d assumed it was through an individual’s choice not orchestrated by some middleman. It seems like whenever there is human misery there is always someone around who will strive to make a profit and make a dire situation even worse.
Yes, it was a huge eye-opener for me too, but I suppose it’s not that different to the people trafficking that goes on across borders.