The critical environmental and sustainability issues of Uruguay:
1. Ageing Population and Low Birth Rate
Uruguay is an ageing nation. With the largest proportion of people over 60 years of age, the country is home to Latin America’s oldest population. Incidentally, Uruguay has a population growth rate of 0.36%, lower than the world average of 1.2% and that of most neighboring countries. The Latin American nation did not undergo typical growth peaks and experienced an early decline in infant mortality and birth rates, leading to low awareness and an absence of policies specific to population control. A low birth rate of about 2 children per woman combined with a high life expectancy of 70 years for men and 76 for women has given rise to an ageing population typical of more advanced nations. Low immigration inflows, implementation of sexuality education in schools, and high levels of education have also contributed to the decline in population growth.
Projections indicate that unless the growth rate shows improvement, Uruguay’s population will begin to decline post-2050. According to a study, 22% and 30% of Uruguayans will be over 65 years old by 2050 and 2100 respectively. This has a number of policy implications, including a drastic increase by 2100 in the percentage allocation of the GDP towards social services and social security.
2. Water Pollution
Water pollution and scarcity of clean drinking water is perhaps the most critical environmental challenge Uruguay faces today. The Santa Lucia River basin, home to 12% of the population and the primary source of drinking water for 60% of the population, has experienced a severe degradation in water quality. Sources of pollution include sewage, industrial dumping, and excessive fertilizer and pesticide runoff from agricultural fields; such dumping leads to the accumulation of large amounts of phosphorus in the water, giving rise to cyanobacteria – a pollutant. As of 2013, phosphorus levels in Santa Lucia River water were over 150 micrograms/liter, against the maximum allowed level of 25 micrograms/liter. Heavy metal pollution in Montevideo Harbour, resulting from the dumping of untreated waste and unregulated industrial discharges, is another pressing sustainability challenge that needs to be addressed. Montevideo Harbour water is found to contain high levels of heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can have severe bio-toxic effects in marine organisms and human beings alike.
While Uruguay has a largely successful education system compared to most other South American countries, problems of retention, infrastructure, and inequality persist. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Uruguay’s performance in education remained mostly stagnant between 2006 and 2015. Additionally, the National Institute of Educational Evaluation (NEED) reports high dropout rates among middle and secondary school students. 29% of 13-year-olds either drop out or repeat grades, while 27% and 39% of 17-year-olds abandon their studies or fall behind, respectively. Socioeconomic inequality also presents a challenge in the completion of schooling. A mere 25% of students between 15 and 17 years of age from the lowest income percentile completed secondary education, compared to 85% of students of the same age from the highest income percentile who finish their studies.
An overly complex and fragmented institutional governance structure, along with education policies that lack vision, lies at the heart of the problem. Moreover, public expenditure on education is much lower than the average expenditure of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. This inadequate spending impacts not only learning outcomes and performance but also teaching and research efforts.
4. Rise in Obesity
While Uruguay produces enough food to achieve nutrition security, unhealthy and excessive diets pose a public health challenge. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), nearly 29% of the country’s population suffers from obesity, with prevalence on the rise. Obesity is linked to type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, as well as cancer, and affects adults in particular. In 2016, at 24.9%, Uruguay had the second-highest prevalence of obesity among men in Latin America, with the numbers growing at an average rate of 2.49% per year. Among the female population, 30.6% of women suffered from obesity in 2016, growing at an average rate of 1.63% per year. Moreover, a study published by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in 2018 revealed that almost 1 in 3 adults and 9 in 10 young people in Latin America and the Caribbean did not reach recommended levels of physical activity, thus exacerbating the overweight and obesity issue.
5. Crime and Safety
Increasing socioeconomic challenges and the rise of drug cartels in Montevideo and Uruguay-Brazil border towns have given rise to a considerable increase in violent crime in the country. The most common offenses include homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, theft, assault, and house break-ins. According to the Uruguayan government, homicides rose by 46% in 2018, with a death toll of 484, a substantial increase from 284 in 2017. The country has reached an all-time high homicide rate of 11.8 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than the rate for most South American nations. According to the Interior Ministry, in the first six months of 2018, armed robberies rose by 56%, theft by 27%, and the use of firearms to commit crime by 67%. This drastic upsurge in violent crime poses a major threat to public security in the Latin American nation.