Nothing in the Toilet – Sanitation Coverage in Colombia

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Colombia, and the issues the country faces with water coverage.  If you missed the post you can read it here.  This week I’ll shift from water, and instead take a look at the state of sanitation in Colombia. First, let me talk about what I saw on a recent trip to the country.

Like I said in my post about water in Colombia, as a tourist not there to specifically look into the water and sanitation situation, what I saw was probably not typical of how all Colombians live.  So what did I see regarding sanitation coverage?  Toilets.  Everywhere I went they had western style flush toilets.  The only difference was that you can’t flush your toilet paper because it will clog the pipes, so you put everything in a wastebasket next to the toilet.  I saw a lot of signs like this:

It’s not the nicest thing to look at, but it works.  I was a bit surprised that even in the big cities like Bogota and Medellin, which seemed quite modern, the sewer pipes haven’t been updated to allow people to flush their TP.  But I guess there are a lot of other priorities.  Even 15 miles out into the jungle there were nice porcelain thrones for me to use (although I’m not sure where the waste goes).  Like I said, I’m sure that this isn’t the situation for everyone in Colombia, especially in the rural areas.  But I don’t really know, so let’s take a look and see what the real situation is.

As I said in the last post, Colombia has a population of a little over 48 million.  Of that 48 million, according to the World Bank, 76% (roughly 36 million) live in urban areas.  That leaves about 12 million people living in rural areas.  Looking at the numbers for urban areas they look pretty good, leading me to believe that what I saw while traveling there is fairly typical for the population living in urban areas.  Considering this is most of the population, that’s great!

Looking at the numbers, the level of sanitation coverage in urban areas has been fairly good for some time, and hasn’t changed much since 1990, according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program.  In 1990, 82% of the urban population used improved sanitation facilities (defined as a facility “that hygienically separates human excreta from human contact”), and 11% used shared facilities. That means that overall, 93% of the urban population was using some sort of improved facility.  3% used unimproved facilities, and 4% practiced open defecation. Open defecation is of specific concern because of the high risk of disease due this practice.  Disease is spread by people not washing their hands and then touching food or each other, flies landing on the waste and then landing on food, or water contamination either due to runoff containing waste, or the waste polluting groundwater.

The level of sanitation coverage did improve a bit since 1990.  Now, 85% of the urban population uses improved facilities, with 12% using shared facilities.  This raises the percentage of people using some sort of improved facility from 93% to 97%.  That’s great and paints a favorable picture of sanitation in urban areas.  However, 2% of people still practice open defecation.  This is interesting and makes me wonder who this 2% is that is not receiving this service.  2% doesn’t sound like much, but it’s roughly 720,000 people!  My guess would be that these are the people living on the outskirts of urban areas, or peri-urban areas, in shantytowns or slums. These communities throughout the world are often forgotten about, or ignored, and therefore do not have the same access to facilities as others.

Moving on to the rural areas of Colombia, the situation isn’t as good, but is improving.  Keep in mind that some of these communities are very secluded, for example, in the Amazon Rainforest, and therefore open defecation is normal practice for them.  Some have probably never even used a toilet, or maybe even seen one.  Saying that, here’s what the coverage looked like in 1990.  Only 41% of the rural population used improved sanitation facilities, and 4% used shared improved facilities.  Of the 55% that did not have access to improved facilities, 43% practiced open defecation! This was a huge problem, but fortunately it has been given some attention and the numbers are improving.

Since 1990, the number of people with improved facilities has jumped to 66%, an increase of 25%, and those using shared facilities improved a bit, to 6%.  This led to a 27% drop in the amount of people practicing open defecation, down to 16%.  Now, 16% is still a lot of people, but it is a huge improvement, and considering the remoteness of some of the rural population it is quite an accomplishment.  Curiously, the number of people using unimproved facilities remained the same.

All of these improvements were made possible due to projects by the government of Colombia, as well as numerous organizations including the UN, World Bank, and NGOs like Action Against Hunger and Give to Colombia.

I should note that even though the amount of sanitation coverage in the country is quite good, the handling of waste is not (I covered this more in-depth in the last post).  Waste is often discharged into waterways without being treated, which leads to water pollution and the risk of disease.  If you’d like more information about this please read my previous article.

Now that we know what the level of coverage is let’s look at a few projects going on right now aiming to further improve the numbers. The World Bank is currently working on the La Guajira Water and Sanitation Infrastructure and Service Management Project.  This project aims to bring sanitation services to urban, peri-urban, and rural areas around La Guajira.  This is a $158 million project, and aims to benefit around 300,000 people by its completion in 2015!

Give to Colombia, a NGO, is working on a project that is due to be completed by the end of this year.  The goal of this project, says Give to Colombia, is “to provide scalable and sustainable access to basic water supply and sanitation services in the poorest and most vulnerable areas of Colombia”.  They plan on doing this through promotion of sanitation and hygiene in schools, providing solutions for water and sanitation in rural areas, and helping to set up in-home water connections.  This project will benefit 290 families and 2,500 students!

Lastly, Action Against Hunger, also a NGO, is working to bring basic services to 15,000 people in the Narino Department that have been displaced by the ongoing violence in the country.  Once completed in 2015, the project will have provided a number of services, including new sanitation facilities and the repair of old facilities, promotion of good hygiene practices, and the distribution of hygiene kits.  This project will also aim to bring clean water to the same area.

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Overall, Colombia is doing pretty well with its sanitation coverage (and even better with its water), and is continuing to provide more and more people with improved sanitation facilities all the time.  They’ve made great strides in the past decade, and hopefully in the next they can achieve universal coverage.  However, regarding rural coverage, there are a couple of obstacles standing in their way.

One, the ongoing conflict is continuing to displace people.  This is a problem because, besides the obvious, if people have to continuously move, there is no way to provide them with sustainable sanitation services.  Well, you could, but they may be gone in a month and it wouldn’t have helped anyone.

Second, like I said before, a lot of the rural population is very secluded from the outside world.  This is an issue because they are hard to get to, but also because for hundreds of years they have lived a way of life that has not included a toilet.  Now, to go in and try and convert them to “toilet users” will be very difficult.  And is it even necessary?  As far as I’m concerned if they’re not being impacted from disease due to their sanitation practices, and they’re not polluting their water, then the outside world should let them be.  But saying that, if they’re practicing open defecation, as I suspect they are, this is most likely not the situation.

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I hope you enjoyed these last two posts on Colombia.  Please share this as well as leaving a comment and letting me know what you thought.  Thanks for reading!


WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation

World Bank: La Guajira Water and Sanitation Infrastructure and Service Management Project

Give to Colombia – Comprehensive Models of Access to Water and Sanitation

Project profile: Colombia – Improving Hygiene and Access to Safe Water – ACF Appeal 2014


Nothing in the Toilet – Sanitation Coverage in Colombia
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3 thoughts on “Nothing in the Toilet – Sanitation Coverage in Colombia

  • August 23, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    Perhaps we are going about it the wrong way … water is NOT an essential part of well working toilets. With door-free, long term composting toilets water is not used and they are still easy to clean, enjoy high user acceptance, have a nice design and offer nothing offensive in the bathroom. The enclosed long-term composting toilets are the without comparison best for the environment since there is no discharge (therefore require no permits). But they also are preferred by users since they are always door-free, quiet, aesthetically pleasing, very low cleaning and maintenance and do not have to “emptied” for 40 years. See and

    • August 29, 2014 at 10:50 am

      Hi Carl,

      Very interesting latrine design. I agree that composting toilets are the way to go. Traditionally, they have two compartments and the compost is used in the fields. Your design eliminates this. What makes yours different than other composting latrines that you have to empty yearly/bi-yearly? Also, how many people can use it and still not have to empty it for 40 years?



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