Water management in Colombia: ideas to avoid a crisis

By Naoll Cyrille Mary*

This article was originally published in Forbes in July 2021.

Photo: Gerardo Pesantez / World Bank

The availability of water for human consumption is a challenge that not only threatens to keep a large part of the global population in poverty, but also constitutes a ticking time bomb that endangers the very sustainability of our civilization. The future looks complex: More than 36% of the world’s population lives in water-scarce regions and it is projected that around 50% may be at risk from water stress by 2050.

According to data from the United Nations (UN), 71% of the world’s population (5.2 billion people) have safely managed drinking water, but around 844 million still don´t. About 2,900 million people have safe sanitation, but 2,300 million have difficulties to enjoy basic sanitation and 892 million practice open defecation, so it is not surprising that according to Unicef ​​more than 800 children die every day from diarrhea caused by contaminated water and poor hygiene conditions.

Access to clean water and sanitation is one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the series of guidelines proposed by the United Nations to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. According to World Bank calculations, countries must quadruple spending to US $150 billion a year to provide safe drinking water and universal sanitation.

The impact is significant for cities. According to UN data, 156 million people living in urban contexts do not have efficient connections to water services and 700 million live in unsanitary conditions. Access to drinking water, sanitation, and municipal infrastructure is imperative, especially in the face of the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has demanded an exponential increase in hygiene measures to prevent infections and the spread of the virus, and it has generated even greater pressure on the fiscal resources of countries and municipalities.

The planet requires creative, market-oriented solutions with a long-term vision. Investments must be better coordinated and targeted to ensure that services reach the most vulnerable, while governments must involve the private sector more to cover the high costs.

Colombia, a country with vast water resources, is no exception.

The problem is almost ironic: despite being one of the nine most water-rich territories in the world (Colombia is classified within the top 10 countries in terms of renewable water resources per capita), a third of the urban Colombian population suffers from water stress. The mismatch between high water availability and excessively concentrated demand has made Colombia highly vulnerable to risks of water scarcity in the medium and long term.

Against this background, the Colombian Association of Capital Cities (Asocapitales) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), with the support of the Economic Cooperation and Development of the Swiss Embassy in Colombia (SECO) and the World Bank, recently organized Water in times of crisis: Challenges and good practices in the comprehensive management of water resources for Colombian cities, a webinar that also had the participation of the National Association of Public Services and Communications Companies of Colombia (ANDESCO), the Municipal Companies of Cali (EMCALI), the Aqueduct and Sewerage Company of Bogotá (EAAB), the Government of Antioquia and a former director of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL).

The conclusions were overwhelming. Colombia has taken important steps to improve the institutional framework of water, devising a series of programs and policies aimed at increasing water security with the recovery and sustainability of water resources. The available drinking water, however, remains limited: the coverage of the safely managed water supply reaches 73% at the national level (that is, 27% of the Colombian population does not receive clean water), 48% is connected to a treatment plant and only 42.8% of the collected wastewater is treated.

A recent World Bank report — Colombia: A Change in Course: Water Security for Recovery and Sustainable Growth — highlights that climate change and population growth have led the country to suffer from extreme symptoms of water insecurity, ranging from intense droughts to severe flooding. To mitigate the negative impacts of these phenomena, the report points out, priority investments are needed to optimize the performance of the sector and catalyze the potential for growth and recovery, especially now that the intensity of the Covid-19 health emergency appears to be diminishing.

One fundamental proposal of the webinar consists in changing the linear economic approach with which the water problem is addressed to a circular economy, that is, one that exchanges the typical cycle of river basin management (production, use, and disposal) in favor of a better management of water resources, reuse, and recycling. The longer materials and resources are used, the more benefit to all stakeholders and the environment. The circular economy in water management consists of transforming a resource into a new opportunity with the recovery of residual water, reduction of losses through the improvement of efficiency, the reuse of water with minimal treatment for different processes, the recycling of treated water, and the restoration of water to the source with the same or better quality as preservation and sustainability of the water resource.

The paradigm shift in relation to sanitation must contemplate the planning of water resources at the basin level, water management, the transformation of wastewater treatment plants to facilities for the recovery of resources, the application of innovative business models, and the promotion of institutional policies that safeguard and ensure the durability of society and the environment.

The current limitations are not easy to overcome: the reduced capacity of service providers to finance new investments, low distribution and sanitation rates to sustain operating expenses, the economic crisis reflected in a low capacity to pay by users and, now, the complications intrinsic to the pandemic. Colombia has developed a post-pandemic recovery plan that includes job creation, green growth, and support for vulnerable sectors. Responsible and correct water management is crucial to face these times of crisis, since adequate investment in water security will lead to job creation, a better balance of green infrastructure, and improve the health of the population with fewer resources.

Now more than ever it´s necessary to support the construction of bankable projects with the technology and innovation necessary to solve problems and formulate suitable financing structures. There´s no alternative. Efficient water management can also contribute substantially to reducing migration and the number of internally displaced persons, resulting in greater peace and security for the country. It´s time to redouble our efforts. Together we can do it!

* Naoll Cyrille Mary is a Senior Operations Officer at IFC

IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets.