Expanding water infrastructure in Colombia
Why should you read this document?
Despite Columbia being considered one of the most ‘water rich’ countries in the world, with nearly 50,000 cubic meters of water available per person per year1 and having an abundance of natural water sources, a water related crisis has begun to emerge in recent years. Despite plentiful water availability, pollution, unequal distribution, inadequate infrastructure, and variable rainfall result in Columbia being susceptible to water stress, an issue which is gradually worsening.
Since 1990, the percentage of the urban population that has water piped to their homes has dropped from 95% to 94%2. Although these figures are still categorized as positive, considering Columbia’s label as a developing country, the decrease in water availability in developed, urban regions highlights the increasing water stress faced by the country. Additionally, the figures for Columbia’s rural population aren’t as encouraging, with the percentage of people who are able to access improved water sources only increasing from 69% to 74% since 1990. Thus, 26% of the rural population in Columbia is currently using water that is potentially unsafe and/or contaminated.
Such pollution occurs due to various sources, including human, industrial, and livestock waste as well as wastewater from agricultural and mining activities. These sources of environmental pollution could be controlled and managed by improving and expanding sustainable water infrastructure through the use of ‘green’ and ‘gray’ techniques across Columbia.
Who is this document for?
This document shines a light on the worsening issues regarding pollution, poor distribution, and unimpactful water infrastructure in Columbia. This article is aimed at:
EU investors who are willing to improve and expand upon their knowledge on water infrastructure, both in Columbia and similar developing countries;
Policymakers working to improve water infrastructure systems;
SMEs operating or with interest in the water infrastructure innovation sector.
Levels 2 and 3 will provide you with deeper insight into the water infrastructure issues in Columbia and potential improvements to reduce pollution and water stress.
Physical Aspects of Expanding Water Infrastructure in Columbia
In 2013, regulators inspected 333 of Colombia’s wastewater treatment facilities, 89 of which were found to be inoperable. Although facilities and water treatment have since improved steadily, Columbia’s water consumption levels are higher than ever as the population continues to grow and become increasingly urbanized. Overwhelming evidence suggests that Columbia would hugely benefit from the combined installation of ‘green’ and ‘gray’ water infrastructure techniques, to ensure water is evenly distributed throughout the country.
Green techniques are a cheaper, more sustainable option to naturally reduce flooding, increase water supply, and reduce costs. These affordable and environmentally friendly infrastructure techniques deliver vast economic and environmental benefits and are well suited to a developing country. Some examples of green techniques are rainwater harvesting, permeable pavements, bioswales, and green streets3.
Grey techniques refer to traditional structures such as dams, roads, pipes, and water treatment plants, and would be hugely beneficial when expanding Columbia’s water infrastructure and combating its growing problems with water pollution.
In 2015, it was revealed that only 25% of sewage from Columbia’s capital, Bogota, is being treated, with the rest being discharged into the Medellin River. Colombia is already taking steps in the right direction, with plans to build the Bello Treatment Plant which will treat 95% of the waste currently being discharged into the river4; however, there is plenty of work to be done to ensure water security and permanently reduce water related stress.
Governance Aspects of Expanding Water Infrastructure in Columbia
Columbia is still classed as a developing country, and it is important to take into consideration the cost and economic implications of the crucial expansion of water infrastructure. Columbia has a number of institutions which have responsibilities related to water management, regulation, distribution, and infrastructure, including:
The Environment Ministry and up to 33 Regional Authorities are responsible for water resources management and policies at the national, regional, and watershed level. Other sectoral ministries are in charge of water supply, sanitation, water for irrigation, and water for energy5
The Vice-Ministry of Water and Sanitation, created in October 2006 within the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Territorial Development is responsible for setting sector policy
Regulation is the responsibility of two separate national institutions, the Potable Water and Basic Sanitation Regulation Commission (CRA) and the Superintendency of Residential Public Services (SSPD), a multi-sector regulatory agency
Service provision is the responsibility of 1,500 water and sanitation service providers in urban areas and over 12,000 communal organizations providing services in rural and urban areas. While most urban service providers are public, in 2004 there were 125 private and 48 mixed public-private water companies in the country6
Despite having a seemingly well-developed legal and institutional framework for managing water resources, many challenges relating to a lack of efficient water infrastructure techniques still remain. These include the lack of consistent national strategy concerning water resources management and the governability challenges due to both social and environmental issues.
How is Columbia tackling the water pollution and distribution crisis?
In 2015, around 4 million people still lacked access to water with "improved" sanitation, something which the government has since been trying to tackle through methods of basic water infrastructure and sanitization.
In order to tackle industrial pollution, Columbia is trying to regulate the corporations through economic incentives such as the ‘wastewater discharge fee program’. Traditional regulation methods simply set limits on how much pollution a facility is physically allowed to discharge into the environment. Theoretically, this program was more likely to be successful as it ensured that a fee would be charged based on units of pollutants discharged into the environment by each company. However, despite being more successful than traditional regulations, the efficiency of the fee-based program was highly debatable. The program faced issues with billing and fee payment and a shocking statistic released in 2002 revealed that only 27% of fees were actually collected, diminishing the deterrent aspect of the fee based program altogether7.
This being said, a positive outcome of the wastewater discharge fee program was that it forced Colombia's 33 Corporaciónes Autónomas Regionales (CARs) to start permitting, monitoring and enforcing water pollution regulations, something which was previously severely neglected. By developing a complete inventory, an information management system was developed (which ideally should have been well established already), making it easier to calculate the pollution loads of each facility.
An organization named ‘Give to Columbia’ implemented a new initiative aimed at bringing new water connections to homes and schools, benefitting 290 local families. However, small organizations with limited online presence can only do so much to aid the worsening water pollution and inadequate infrastructure crisis growing in Columbia.
How can European SMEs get involved in the expansion of water infrastructure in Columbia?
This level will focus in particular on what relevant EU and Columbian leaders have done so far in order to aid water and pollution stresses in Columbia, and ways in which they can continue to be involved in the future. Columbia is in urgent need of some incentives to more closely manage water pollution, particularly in the industrial sector, as well as funding for improved and expanded water infrastructure techniques.
While water coverage in Columbia covers up to 74% even in rural areas, a positive figure in comparison to other developing countries, there are blatant problems with pollution and the infrastructure in place, crucial developments which European SMEs could become involved in.
Due to Columbia facing various vulnerabilities related to air and water pollution, leaders are actively attempting to combat these threats, exemplified by the decision to partner with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) in 2012 and taking on a leadership role by joining the Steering Committee for a two-year term in 2020. Colombia also became a member of the ‘Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean’ (AILAC), a group of eight countries who are working together on multilateral negotiations on climate change in order to achieve sustainable development.
However, despite all of Columbia’s current steps and initiatives, it is important that water pollution and infrastructure systems will continue to be a focus. It is crucial that the Columbian government, academia and industry come together and form initiatives which will gradually improve and control water stress related problems in Columbia. European SMEs have a good opportunity to take a leading role in bridging Columbia’s public and private water infrastructure, and to help evolve it to the level needed.