Climate | Peru

The thirsty metropolis: Lima

Lima is one of the largest desert cities in the world. Of its inhabitants, 635,000 have no access to water. Climate change may make the situation in the Peruvian capital even worse
Many colorful houses are scattered on a dusty, steep hillside. They are all very simply built and small. Footpaths and steps lead up the slope, there are no roads. There is not a plant to be seen anywhere. The weather is dry but cloudy

To prevent the slope on which the houses stand from slipping under the weight of the lorries, they only stop at the foot of the hill


The sentence “Fill up three times, we are five families” is written in huge letters on a water tank on the edge of a dusty mountainside. More than a dozen of these water tanks line the road winding through the hills of the Puente Piedra district north of Lima. The signs are addressed to the drivers of the water-tankers which supply water to those neighbourhoods of the Peruvian capital which have no water or sanitation.

On a dusty street with makeshift houses, a young man holds a thick water hose over a large white water barrel. Water runs out of the hose into the barrel. An older man stands by and watches

A tanker fills the cisterns in Puente Piedra


Housing co-operative, Siempre Unidos de Villa Verde, is “verde” or “green”, in name only. Its wooden houses, with their corrugated iron roofs, were built on the side of a parched hill, on ground which turns so muddy on contact with water no car can navigate it safely.

The residents have erected their water tanks on the flattest sections of the hill where the water tanker can reach them. From there, they channel the water through hoses and pipes to their homes.

Virginia Martínez Morales is 30 years old and has lived in the area with her three children for six years. “I used to have to walk up the steep hill with canisters, but now I can at least pipe the water to my front door. We use it for washing and cooking,” she says. She uses the waste water to water the three plants she tends in plastic pots. "I like plants and find a way to water them. A bit of nature is good for the children."

She is one of 635,000 people without access to water in Lima, the second largest desert city in the world. The largest is Cairo, but while the Nile provides around 500 cubic metres of water per inhabitant every year, the Rímac, the Peruvian capital's main source of fresh water, provides less than 100. That’s the lowest amount of water per person in the entire country and indicates an absolute water shortage, according to a report by the World Bank last June.

Crucially, one third of the Peruvian population lives in Lima. The water requirements of the city’s more than 10 million inhabitants exceed the capacity of the state-owned supply company, Sedapal. As well as those residents who don’t have a water connection, there’s a further 370,000 who are connected to the mains, but who actually receive water for less than six hours a day, according to data from the sanitation authority, Sunass.

On a high plateau, a woman stands in front of her house and washes laundry in a bowl. Next to her is a pile of dirty dishes. She is talking to a girl who is playing next to her. A taller girl is standing in front of the front door, some pieces of laundry are drying in the wind. The house overlooks a larger settlement

Virginia Martínez washes her family's clothes with scarce water 


Districts on the outskirts of Lima, in particular the poorest, are expanding across the sandy subsoil without any urban planning. In the last decade alone, 28 new districts have formed on the slopes of Puente Piedra, now known as the La Grama sector: a vast landscape of grey hills dotted with corrugated iron roofs and coloured house walls.

This is where the Los Condes housing co-operative is located, offering accommodation to 42 families, albeit without water supply, sewage, electricity or green spaces. Some residents have moved from cramped accommodation in other parts of Lima but most have moved from the Andean regions in search of better work.

“It's quite difficult to live here, and not just because of the lack of water. In winter, it’s very foggy and cold, and in summer we breathe in dry dust. It settles on my furniture, the food and my children's toys all year round. I clean and mop three times a day, but it's still always dusty,” says Jessica Aponte.

Her youngest, two-year-old son was born in Los Condes and suffers from a skin rash due to a dust allergy. Jessica has to buy expensive medication and ointments to treat the itching.

As there’s no sewage system, the families pour their waste water onto the street. This sounds like it could be a good way to combat dust, but it’s not. Excessive water only increases the risk of landslides due to the sand and gravel soil. Accidents happen repeatedly.

Last August, the driver of a water tanker lost control of his vehicle and slid down a slope, taking three houses with him. The residents escaped with their lives because they were away at work, but they lost all their possessions.

Since the accident, lorry drivers have avoided the steepest parts of Los Condes. They fill a communal tank on the roadside at the bottom of the hill. This change has had massive implications for Tula Tinoco Espinoza, who now has to carry several buckets up and down the hill to fill her tank.

“I have hip problems, I can't carry much. My husband and son help me when they're not at work or school. It's the only way I can cook,” she says.

“Jessica Aponte waters her cactus with the dirty water”

In these neighbourhoods, residents adapt their household routines to the water shortage. Tula uses two tubs for washing up; she soaps the dishes in one and immerses them in water in the other. That's all she can do. She uses the dirty water to water her cactus. It’s a scandal considering how much water is wasted in Lima's most affluent neighbourhoods for copious showers, washing cars and watering expansive lawns.

According to Sunass data, the wealthier San Isidro district used 280 litres of water per capita per day in 2022, almost three times the amount recommended by the WHO to meet a person's basic needs. In contrast, the daily water consumption of a person in Puente Piedra is only 64 litres and in other districts in northern Lima such as Ancón just 33 litres.

A dusty and stony road leads up a steep hill. Large black water cisterns are lining the road along both sides. At the top, a girl walks further up the road, behind the hill you can see the corner of a house and above-ground power lines

Cisterns in Lima


Until the Covid pandemic, Lima residents who were not connected to the mains, paid 3.5 dollars a week to have their tanks filled by water tankers. Some families also bought water of dubious quality from unofficial vendors. This system was suspended when the government started distributing free water due to the health crisis, but this temporary measure will expire if an emergency decree (Decreto de Urgencia 014-2023) is not renewed.

“If they don't renew the decree, we’ll have to buy contaminated water again,” says Carla Ortiz Paz, chairwoman of the Los Condes cooperative. Above all, the Ministry of Housing and Construction needs to fulfil its 2019 commitment to connect the residents of Puente Piedra to the water and sanitation system.

The construction project is part of the “Programa Agua Segura para Lima y Callao” (PASLC), a programme for safe water for the two cities, expected to cost the equivalent of 84.3 million dollars. The project description states that 153,000 inhabitants of the district are to be supplied with 5,077 new water pipes and 5,100 sewage pipes and a further 2,704 pipes are to be repaired.

The children in the Los Condes co-operative have no idea what it’s like to have running water in their homes. Their parents don’t want this to be the next generation’s legacy, but change will take more than a few new pipes in the desert. As a result of climate change, water reserves in Lima, where it rarely rains, have decreased overall.

The main source of water in the metropolis is the Rímac (69 per cent), followed by the Chillón and Lurín rivers and groundwater reserves, which are already overused. All of these sources are in turn fed by rainfall in the high Andes which is no longer reliable.

Senamhi, the authority for hydrology and meteorology, reported that Peru's mountainous region experienced its worst drought in 58 years in 2022. In 2023, rainfall was delayed again and led to a 30 per cent reduction in the amount of water in Huascacocha and Marcapomacocha, the two lakes from which Lima is also supplied.

Back in 2016, a study by the organisation Aquafondo warned of the consequences of climate change for Lima. “The water supply could decrease by six per cent in the long term due to a lack of rainfall; in a less optimistic scenario, the figure is as high as 13 per cent. These developments could trigger a serious water crisis in Lima if demand from private households and industry continues to rise and no measures are taken to utilise and re-use the resource more efficiently.”

There is also a lack of infrastructure to store, treat and distribute the already scarce water. According to a World Bank report, Peru has a storage capacity of 184 cubic metres per person, which is far below the 2,500 cubic metres calculated as the average for the rest of Latin America.

“The more than 1,400 ponds and water reservoirs subsidised by the Peruvian government are not enough”

According to the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Irrigation (MIDAGRI), Peru only uses one per cent of its annual precipitation total of two trillion cubic metres. The rest seeps into the sea or evaporates.

Faced with this difficult situation, the inhabitants of the high Andes are trying to draw on traditional knowledge about how to collect water. They are damming lakes and collecting rainwater to supply underground reservoirs and bogs. Between 2019 and 2022, the government subsidised the construction of over 1,400 ponds and water reservoirs in the Andes. It’s not enough.

“We don't know what climate change will bring us,” says Carla Ortiz from the Los Condes cooperative. “Will we be worse off than we are now? Who knows, but just having a few hours of water a day would be a real improvement for us in Puente Piedra.”

Translated by Laura Haber and Louise East