for National Geographic News
Conspiracy theorists fear the United States is secretly taking control of South America's largest underground reservoir of fresh water.
The accusations are clouding international efforts to develop the Guaraní Aquifer. And the rumors come at a time when water may be joining oil as one of the world's most fought-over commodities. (Related: "UN Highlights World Water Crisis" [June 5, 2003].)
Stretching beneath parts of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, the Guaraní Aquifer is an underground system of water-bearing rock layers covering 460,000 square miles (1.2 million square kilometers)an area larger than Texas and California combined (map of South America).
The International Atomic Energy Agency says the Guaraní may be big enough to supply drinking water to 360 million people on a sustainable basis.
Already, some 500 cities and towns across Brazil tap the aquifer for drinking water. Officials worry that overuse and expanding agricultural activities are threatening the reservoir's future health.
Currently experts are studying the sandstone aquifer's structure and devising ways to sustainably develop and manage the cross-border resource for farming, drinking supplies, and geothermal energy.
The Global Environment Facility, a U.S.-based funding consortium managed by the United Nations and the World Bank, has put the equivalent of 13.5 million U.S. dollars into the project.
That funding plus contributions from national governments adds up to a total of 27 million dollars for the first phase of the Guaraní project, which began in 2003 and ends in 2009.
Distrust of the U.S.
But local distrust of U.S.-backed lending institutionsalong with the presence of U.S. troops in Paraguayhas spawned suspicions that Washington is exerting slow control over the aquifer as insurance against water shortages in the U.S.
"The United States already has water problems in its southern states," said Adolfo Esquivel, an Argentine activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. "And it is clear that humans can live without oil, gold, and diamonds but not water. The real wars will be over water, not oil."
Esquivel points to a recent military deal, under which U.S. Special Forces will train with Paraguayan soldiers. He says this is evidence of Washington's creeping controla claim that's been further popularized by an Argentine documentary, Sed, Invasión Gota a Gota (Thirst: Invasion Drop by Drop).
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