Driven by Necessity: Realizing the Full Potential for Sustainable Development in Latin America

Thursday, April 18th, 2013


The classic definition of sustainable development, as given by the 1987 Brundtland report, is “[development that] meets the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[i] The United Nations expanded the definition a step further by specifying that this type of development must consider three factors: economic development, social equity, and environmental protection.[ii] Since 1987, the term sustainable development has become almost colloquial among multilateral organizations, and developing nations are even putting it to practice.

In August 2009, I had the opportunity to assist with a unique feasibility study, sponsored by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center (VWRRC) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The study focused on making sustainable development a reality in Latin America.  If deemed feasible, the study could lead to a project with a simple goal and sizeable impacts: to install rooftop rainwater harvesting systems on buildings in the eastern region of the province of La Altagracia in the Dominican Republic. An otherwise underdeveloped region, La Altagracia is home to Punta Cana, one of the Caribbean’s top tourist destinations. A yearly influx of vacationers has caused the region’s economy to boom, but a growing population and a lack of governance has led to, among other problems, poor drinking water quality and mismanagement of groundwater resources.

The first target of the VWRRC feasibility study was the Ecological Foundation building of the Punta Cana Resort & Club—a nonprofit organization, located on 1,500 acres of protected land within the resort, with the goal of improving the sustainability measures of the resort. The building, which provides short-term housing and a fully-functional lab to students and researchers, was an ideal location to start. The initial feasibility study indicated that a rooftop rainwater harvesting system could provide roughly 87 percent of all water used in the building.[iii] This figure does not account for drinking water, as the tap water is not potable and is sourced exclusively from bottles.

The onsite, or decentralized, rainwater harvesting system provides a new source of water and is relatively inexpensive when compared to the costs of drilling a new well in situ.[iv] The reduced consumption in the building, if the system were installed, would help prevent depletion of groundwater sources and irreversible damage from saltwater intrusion into the aquifers. Despite implementation occurring completely within the property boundary of the resort, the entire community would benefit from increased water conservation, and the project would open the door for further innovation in the region. This is especially important for the nearby town of Veron, which many of the resort’s employees call home. Most of the residents in this boomtown lack access to basic water infrastructure or sanitation services, and any investment into water conservation by the resort could eventually be felt by the surrounding communities.

This story is one of several similar projects occurring throughout Latin America. With little to no existing infrastructure, rural Latin American towns have the opportunity to become leaders in sustainability as they utilize recent innovations to meet the demands of their community. Decentralized projects are a perfect example of these innovations because they do not need to connect to central infrastructure, and they typically have minimal impact to their surrounding environment.

Another example of this type of project is the use of solar panels in the Salta province of northern Argentina, where towns are so remote that connection to the power grid is not possible. The panels, which the government of the Salta province and the Inter-American Development Bank jointly fund, take advantage of the long hours of intense sunlight to provide electricity to homes and schools. Residents even use solar cookers to bake bread or boil water.[v]

Of course, new sustainability initiatives are not occurring exclusively in remote communities or boomtowns. Latin American countries have the opportunity to embrace sustainable innovations at a national scale as well. For example, Marc Roca noted earlier this year in Bloomberg, the Argentinian government is now offering incentives to promote investment in renewable energy projects as the country attempts to meet its new goal of generating 8 percent of total power from renewable sources by 2016.[vi] Roca is predicting that this will result in a boom in Argentinian solar energy in the coming years.

Uruguay is also making a case for this type of development. The Uruguay Wind Energy Programme, funded by the United Nations Development Programme and the Global Environmental Facility, is embarking on a mission to establish large-scale, grid-connected wind farms in the Caracoles hills. [vii] From large-scale collaborations to local feasibility studies, the potential for sustainability in this region is becoming increasingly evident.

When I was leaving the La Altagracia province after three months, the resort was already funding a second study on the feasibility of installing a rainwater harvesting system on their private laundry facility. While impressed with the rapid adoption of these sustainability measures, I realized that the Punta Cana community pursues projects like this one out of necessity more than any other reason. Bearing this in mind, the developing world seems like the ideal place for sustainable development to occur. From rural villages, to high-end tourist destinations, to national governments, these communities are typically not limited by aging utilities infrastructure like many developed nations. Latin American countries contain a diverse range of natural resources that present many opportunities for innovation, such as hurricanes in the Caribbean offering gallons of harvestable water, or dry, arid regions where long hours of intense sunlight are common. Driven by necessity and taking advantage of their natural geography, Latin American communities have the potential to become world leaders in implementing and innovating sustainable development.

Jared Messinger is pursuing a Master’s of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He has previously studied in the Dominican Republic and worked in Costa Rica.
[i] Gro Harlem Brundtland, et al., “Our Common Future” (Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, United Nations, Geneva: 1987), 16.
[ii] John Drexhage and Deborah Murphy, “Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012” (Background Paper, International Institute for Sustainable Development, New York: 2010).
[iii] Caitlin Grady and Tamim Younos, “Water Use and Sustainability in La Altagracia, Dominican Republic,” (Special Report No. SR49-2010, Virginia Water Resources Research Center, Blacksburg, VA: 2010).
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Inter-American Development Bank, "Energy in Latin America and the Caribbean," (Inter-American Development Bank).
[vi] Marc Roca, “Argentina Heads for Solar Surge With Incentives,” Bloomberg, 18 February 2013.
[vii] "Uruguay Wind Energy Programme (UWEP)," Global Environment Facility,