Facing Water Challenges in Lake Merin:A WWDR3 Case Study

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The ecological and economic riches of this region are under human and climatic pressure, while a deteriorating hydrological monitoring network makes accurate assessment complicated.


Focus Areas

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance


Both Brazil and Uruguay are following up on the recommendations in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation regarding IWRM and water efficiency plans. In Brazil, the 1997 National Water Law enshrined such IWRM principles as decentralized water resources management and stakeholder participation as a part of the National Water Resources Policy. Since then Brazil has taken concrete steps to ensure that these principles are applied in practice, and hence it has met the Johannesburg requirement. In Uruguay, although the Constitution provides for stakeholder participation, decentralization and the basin approach in water management, wide scale implementation is still lacking.

See also Brazil and Uruguay for more contextual information

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Main Challenges

Environmental impact of economic development

Rio Grande do Sul is the fourth richest state in Brazil (SEMA, 2007), attracting both investment and labour with a diversified economy based on crops (chiefly soybeans, wheat, rice and corn), livestock, leather and food processing, textiles, lumber, metallurgy, chemicals, and, since the 1990s, petrochemical products and telecommunications. On the Uruguayan side of the Lake Merín basin, the major sources of income are rice, livestock and forest products. Both sides also have tourism activity thanks to the rich ecology and beach resorts in the basin.

Until recently, the pampas and other areas with rich biodiversity were relatively undisturbed, aside from livestock grazing. However, in the last 20 years the spread of irrigated and mechanized rice growing has caused extensive land transformation and led to conflicts over natural resources, while pollution from industry, agriculture and human settlements has degraded the water quality. Many species of animals, especially birds, are threatened as the marshlands are increasingly converted to grazing and cultivation without any attempt to preserve wildlife. Among other species threatened with extinction are the otter, the coypu and the crocodile (UNESCO, 2008). Increased use of waterways and future waterway development plans might also have repercussions on ecosystems in the area.

Poverty and hunger

Brazil has one of the stronger economies in Latin America, yet poverty is still a socioeconomic challenge: in 2006, over 30% of the population was poor. Since 2002, Brazil has helped lift some 6 million people out of extreme poverty (ECLAC, 2007). Nevertheless, the incidence of poverty remains daunting, especially in rural areas, where a key factor is extreme inequality of land tenure, notably in the semi-arid northeast.

In general almost 80% of the rural population – about 30 million people – lives in poverty. Poor rural communities face even harder challenges than the urban poor due to inferior water supply and sanitation coverage (IFAD, 2008). The situation in Uruguay stands in some contrast to that of Brazil, with poverty affecting 18.5% of the population as of 2006. Similarly, as regards the target in the Millennium Development Goals of reducing by half the share of the population suffering from hunger, Uruguay had met the target by 2003 while in Brazil that same year 8% of the population was undernourished.

Thus, poverty and basic water supply and sanitation coverage are still of some concern in part of the Lake Merín basin, although rising income from rice cultivation, tourism and industry is alleviating the situation to some extent.

To summarise, The Lake Merín basin is well endowed in freshwater resources. Agriculture, industry, ecotourism and waterway transport are helping boost the economy of the basin, creating job opportunities and improving the livelihoods of many, including the poor and disadvantaged. However, these activities also contribute to environmental degradation in the area, especially in the absence of measures to ensure that regulations are enforced. Climate change scenarios indicate risks to the socio-economic well-being of people living in the basin, mainly stemming from the likely impact on agriculture and tourism. Uruguay is more vulnerable than Brazil to the impact of climate change, as the area containing the Lake Merín basin generates 70% of its GDP. Stronger bilateral cooperation in the basin to improve integrated management of water resources, alleviate poverty and assure sustainability of ecosystems would be beneficial.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions


See also

Aquastat. 2000. Brazil country profile. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization. http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/countries/brazil/index.stm (Accessed December 2008.)

Assessment of Impacts and Adaptation to Climate Change in Multiple Regions and Sectors (AIACC). 2006. Adaptive responses for the mixed crop/livestock production systems in the Argentinean-Uruguayan Pampas (LA 27).

Chao, R., Macedo, E. and Batista, L. 2007. El Agua en Uruguay [Water in Uruguay]. Asociación Cultivadores de Arroz: Revista [Rice Growers Association Review], No. 48. http://www.aca.com.uy/publicaciones/revista_48_agua_en_uruguay.htm (Accessed December 2008.)

de Sherbinin, A. 2005. Remote Sensing in Support of Ecosystem Management Treaties and Transboundary Conservation. Project on Remote Sensing Technologies for Ecosystem Management Treaties, US Department of State, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Initiatives. http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/rstreaties/ AIAA6thWorkshop.pdf (Accessed December 2008.)

Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). 2007. Social Panorama of Latin America. Santiago de Chile, ECLAC/CEPAL. http://www.eclac.cl/cgibin/ getProd.asp?xml=/publicaciones/xml/9/30309/P30309.xml&xsl=/dd s/tpl-i/p9f.xsl&base=/tpl/top-bottom.xslt (Accessed November 2008.)

IFAD. 2008. Rural Poverty in Brazil. Rural Poverty Portal, http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org/web/guest/country/home/tags/brazil (Accessed December 2008.)

Ministry of Housing, Territorial Planning and Environment. 2007. Program of General Measures for Mitigation and Adaptation to Climate Change in Uruguay. Montevideo, Unidad de Cambio Climático [Climate Change Unit], Dirección Nacional de Medio Ambiente [Environment Department], Ministerio de Vivienda Ordenamiento Territorial y Medio Ambiente.

Netto, O. 2005. Introduction of the Brazilian National Water Resources Plan. (Management of transboundary water resources in Brazil). Lima, International Symposium on Integrated Water Management in Transboundary River Basins. Serrentino, C. M. Forthcoming. Lake Merín Basin Case Study.

State Environment Secretariat (SEMA). 2007. Annual Report. SEMA, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Steinmetz, S., Wrege, M. S., Herter, F. G. and Reisser Jr, C. 2007. Impacto das mudanças climáticas na fruticultura de clima temperado e nas culturas anuais em Terras Baixas. Paper presented at SEMA workshop on Rio Grande do Sul no contexto das Mudanças Climáticas.

UNESCO. 2008. Station écologique de Taim (Rio Grande do Sul). World Heritage Tentative Lists Database. http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/42 (Accessed December 2008.)

World Health Organization (WHO)/United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 2008. Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation: Special Focus on Sanitation. New York/Geneva, Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation.

External Resources

The United Nations World Water Development Report 3


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