LIMA -- "Surviving in Lima -- at this rate, there's no way it can be called living -- has become a task for titans." Thus began a piece this month in Caretas, a popular newsmagazine, offering the reader tips on urban existence without water or electricity.
Lima takes a bit of knowing, but it is a fascinating and exciting place, a huge, vibrant, naked-city kind of metropolis that puts the senses on constant alert, if only to avoid the pickpockets. Even the admirer, though, recognizes its faults: filth, crime, decay, a stench that seems to envelop whole neighborhoods. At best, life here is tough.
In the past few months, life has gotten tougher.
Millions of Limans are living at least part of each day without electricity and without water. The government doesn't seem to be able to do anything about either problem, and officials won't predict when the situation might get better.
The culprits seem to be Maoist guerrillas, government neglect and the gods, not necessarily in that order.
For years, the Shining Path insurgents have crisscrossed the countryside blowing up the towers supporting the power lines that bring electricity to Lima from hydroelectric plants in the mountains. Government engineers have been clever in rerouting the flow of current and repairing the damage, but the overall capacity of the system is down. Economic crisis and the presence of Shining Path make it difficult to do more than patchwork.
The same economic crisis has kept the government from modernizing or even adequately maintaining the facilities that pump Lima's drinking water, even though the city continues to grow rapidly.
These circumstances made for frequent blackouts and occasional water shortages. But now a drought has made things much worse, and what was a troubling annoyance has turned into crisis.
So little rain has fallen in the mountains that hydroelectric output is sharply down. Shining Path continues to sabotage what little is left. The Rimac River, where Lima gets most of its water, is now a muddy trickle in no way adequate for the needs of 7 million people.
The result is a rationing system in which even some of Lima's most exclusive residential neighborhoods have electricity only for two or three hours in the morning and a few hours at night, not counting sporadic blackouts caused by new bombings. The situation in marginal neighborhoods is even worse. Water service throughout the city is hit-and-miss, and what water there is sometimes has a brackish smell.
The two problems feed each other. In San Juan de Lurigancho, a vast shantytown zone, the drought has caused an electricity shortage that means there is no power to run the pumps that supply water to the area. In other words, no water means no power means no water.
The well-to-do trip over the tubs of water they have to keep around the house in reserve and complain that they can't run their personal computers when they want to. For the small businesses that employ so many of Lima's workers, the situation is more critical -- furniture makers can't run their electric tools, merchants have to sell in the dark.
In many shantytowns there wasn't much water service to begin with, and residents now have to trek to the nearest working faucet and slog back laden with heavy buckets full of water. Some make the trip by bus to upscale neighborhoods like Miraflores where the search is more likely to be successful. Hospitals have begun to report more cases of dehydration in children.
Beyond rationing, the government has given no indication that it sees any way to make the situation improve. Officials have stated the obvious: There isn't enough water in the river and the reservoirs. When the rains eventually come, things should get better. In the meantime, the outgoing government of President Alan Garcia has neither the time nor the energy to launch any major public works improvements -- to say nothing of the money it would take at a time when the country's reserves are essentially gone.
So Lima adapts and survives. The water company sends big tanker trucks around to service dry neighborhoods, sales of gasoline-powered generators steadily rise, and a new figure has been added to the teeming Lima street scene -- the man or woman trudging along, slightly bent, a big bucket of water in each hand.