The Water Situation in Colombia: Both Good and Bad?

Colombia is a beautiful country.  I went there a few weeks ago for vacation and was amazed at the natural beauty throughout the country.  I experienced everything from lush mountains to beautiful beaches and tropical (but very humid) forests along the way, and was never disappointed.  However, Colombia has, and does, have its share of problems.  The most known is its issues with drugs, but I’m not really interested in that.  I’d like to talk about their issues with water.

While I was there I kept an eye out to see what kind of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) issues there were.  However, I think because I was a tourist and was, for the most part keeping to the more populated areas, I didn’t see much.  Everywhere I went had running water, but you could only drink it from the tap in a few of the big cities; Bogota, Medellin, and Cali.  Otherwise it needed to be treated.  Luckily I had brought my handy Camelbak All Clear bottle which uses UV to purify water, and so I didn’t have to buy any water the entire time I was there.  I did get out of the cities a couple of times, once for a four day trek into the jungle, and another to hike out to the beaches in the north.  I was surprised to find that even in these more remote places they had a reliable water supply.

Suspecting that my experience may not be representative of how most Colombians live I came home and started reading about water and sanitation coverage there.  What I found was not surprising and not at all a-typical; high coverage in the urban areas, and lower coverage in rural areas.

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.  This is good and bad.  Good because most of the population lives in urban areas where there is good water and sanitation coverage, but bad because there are still a lot of people in rural areas that don’t have these services.  Let’s take a look at the numbers.

These statistics come via the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program, and are current as of April of 2014.  Surprisingly, since 1990 the percentage of the urban population that has water piped to their homes has dropped from 95% to 94% (I cannot find anything that indicates why there was a drop in coverage).  However, the percentage of the population drinking from improved water sources rose from 92% to 93%.  Overall, the percentage of people that have access to clean water in urban areas has stayed steady at 97%.  This is a great number for a developing country (Colombia is considered a developing country, although its infrastructure seemed pretty developed to me).  I was not surprised to read this based on my experience, but was happy my thoughts about coverage were confirmed.  It is interesting that the number has stayed fairly constant for 20+ years.  Why not make the push and get 100% coverage?

Moving on to the rural population, the numbers aren’t as good.  Since 1990 the percentage of the rural population that has water piped onto their property has increased from 38% to 68%.  Great! However, the total percentage that has access to improved water sources (either piped to their property or otherwise) has only increased 5%, from 69% to 74%.  That means that 26% is still using water that is potentially unsafe.  19% of which is from surface water which could be at risk from all kinds of pollutants.  So what this means to me is that more people have an easier time getting their water, but the number of people with access to clean water hasn’t changed much.  Saying that, overall it’s still a great thing because now less people need to spend their time walking to get water and can instead work, get an education, or do whatever else is important to them.

The washing station, with running water, at a rural outpost

Now that we’ve seen that the coverage is fairly decent, I have some bad news.  As of March 2011, half of the water departments in Colombia had contaminated water.  I mentioned before that you could only drink water from the tap in a few of the larger cities, but before I started researching I thought that was just a rule for gringos like me.  Turns out that is not the case.  Of the water that is contaminated, the contaminants include residual chlorine, microorganisms, E. coli, and coliform bacteria among others.  This pollution comes from a number of sources including mining activities, the discharge of human and industrial waste, wastewater from agricultural activities (pesticides and fertilizers), livestock waste, and although not common, oil spills.

In 2013, regulators in Colombia announced that over the past two years they had inspected 333 of Colombia’s 562 wastewater treatment facilities and their findings were shocking.  Of those inspected, 89 facilities were found to be inoperable.  Further, it found that regulations on the disposal of sewage were not being followed, that operators did not have sufficient knowledge of operating protocols, and that the infrastructure was not being maintained and was vulnerable to natural disasters.  WOW!  Well, we know where a lot of the pollution is coming from.  In response, Colombia’s public services regulator, who carried out the inspections, set out an action plan to train staff as well as improve operations, maintenance, and optimization of the systems.

Since then, several new treatment systems have also been installed in cities throughout the country.  In the northern town of Tolu, a secondary treatment system was installed at the end of 2013.  The addition was comprised of a UV disinfection system, one of the first of its kind in Colombia.  Additionally, currently under construction, and slated to be completed towards the end of 2015, is the Bello wastewater treatment plant in Medellin.  Astonishingly, currently only 25% of the city’s sewage is being treated! The rest is discharged into the Medellin River, untreated.  The Bello plant will change that, serving over three million people, and treating 95% of what is discharged into the river. This is great news that they’ve started paying attention and getting treatment facilities built, but they’ll need to do a lot more work to get full coverage.

But what about industrial pollution?  It seems like wherever you are, if there are big multi-national corporations there is pollution.  And for developing countries it’s a tough predicament; do you put harsh fines/regulations in place and risk the companies pulling out, which will hurt your fragile economy, or do you let them pollute?  And if regulations are put in place these countries often don’t have the resources or experience to police these companies, and therefore, they keep polluting.  And fines? Usually they’re just a slap on the wrist.

Colombia decided to try regulating the corporations working in their country through economic incentives (in addition to the old emission standards (caps) that were in place, but not doing much).  In 1997 they introduced a wastewater discharge fee program.  Traditionally, regulations set caps on how much pollution a facility can discharge into the environment.  This program was different; it charged companies a fee based on how many units of pollutants were discharged into the environment.  The idea behind this being that companies will want to find ways to reduce their pollution in order to save money.  During my research I found that there are differing views on the success of the program.  It had its problems, but there was also a reduction of pollution in several watersheds after the implementation of the program.

The problems were similar to those I alluded to above.  First, the agency in charge of regulation, CARs, had problems getting universal implementation of the plan over all of its 33 districts. Additionally, companies weren’t being billed, and when they were, it wasn’t being followed up on and no money was collected.  Between 1997 and 2002 only 27% of fees were collected!  Further, there was mass confusion regarding who had to pay what, and when.  And finally, municipal sewage treatment plants were noncompliant and refused to pay the fees they were billed for.  Because municipal plants were in the public sector, and therefore, very visible, this led to some childish complaining of “if he doesn’t have to do it why do I?” from the private sector.  Even with all these problems, it seems like there was some success.

Between 1997 and 2002 there were substantial reductions in pollution.  Nationwide, the two main pollutants that this program meant to reduce, biological oxygen demand (BOD) and total suspended solids (TSS), were reduced by 27% and 45% respectively.  But was this because of the new program?  Well, from what I’ve found, yes and no.  The new program forced CARs to start permitting, monitoring, and enforcing water pollution regulations, something it had not really done at all previously. This meant developing a complete inventory of who was discharging, create an information management system, calculate each facility’s pollution loads, and developing a way to monitor everything.  This all should have been done years ago in order to monitor the old emission standards, but wasn’t.  Now, they all the sudden had a way to monitor both the old and the new system.  Therein lays the controversy over which program caused pollution levels to drop, the old or the new.

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We’ve seen that coverage is good in urban areas, and they’re working on the pollution.  In rural areas the number aren’t terrible, but what is being done to close the gap and bring water from improved sources to more people in rural areas?  Surprisingly, from what I could find, currently there’s not much going on.  There is one project being implemented by an organization called Give to Colombia which is meant to benefit 290 families and 2,500 students by bringing water connections to their homes and schools. The project is supposed to be completed at the end of this year.  Besides that, I couldn’t find much going on.  And unfortunately, maybe there isn’t much going on. It could also be because the organizations are small and don’t have much of an internet presence, or because they’re Spanish-speaking organizations and I’m searching in English.  Who knows?

Another explanation could be that there is still conflict between the government and rebels which cause a lot of people in Colombia, specifically in rural areas, to be displaced.  Actually, Colombia has the highest recorded number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world based on a report by Global Humanitarian Assistance.  They reference UN figures that say 150,000-200,000 people are being displaced per year (report was published in 2013).  Therefore, if you have this many people that are constantly being moved around it’s hard to bring them services.  Saying that, the IDPs are only a small portion of the 26% of people in rural areas that don’t have access to improved sources of water so that argument is pretty thin.

I was really surprised no to find more organizations working to bring clean water to rural areas in Colombia.  If anyone knows of organizations doing this kind of work please let me know.

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Overall, compared to some other developing countries, I’m happy to say that Colombia is doing pretty good regarding water coverage with 97% in urban areas and 76% in rural areas.  They need to get their pollution under control, but it seems like the government is making an honest effort towards that.  However, even though the situation seems okay right now, that may change in the future.

Historically, Colombia receives more than enough rain to provide sufficient water for everyone in the country.  However, when I was in the north of the country I was talking to a woman about changes in the climate and what she’s seen.  She told me that up until a couple of years ago they would receive six months of rain a year, and now they’re only seeing about half that.  In addition, temperatures on average have been higher.

What she told me seems to be true and is already having an impact. Parts of Colombia are experiencing a pretty bad drought right now, with the government calling for conservation through the country.  As of this month they have even started to penalize people and corporations that use more water than what the government deems acceptable.  Hopefully this is just a temporary change in the climate, but unfortunately it probably isn’t.  If not, Colombia will be facing new and different problems with water down the road.

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That’s all for now.  I had intended on writing about both water and sanitation, but as often happens, there was more to write about water than I had planned for.  Therefore, I’ll write about the sanitation situation in Colombia next time.  As always, thanks for reading and please share this and leave comments letting me know what you thought.



Country Economy – Colombia Population

World Bank – Urban Population Data

World Bank – Rural Population Data

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

Article: Half of Colombia has Dirty Drinking Water

Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America

Colombia: Regulator Finds Wastewater Treatment Failures

Xylem to Improve Efficiency and Reduce Cost of Wastewater Treatment in Colombia

Medellín’s US$347mn Bello Wastewater Treatment Plant to Come Online in Sep 2015

Economic Incentives to Control Water Pollution in Developing Countries – How Well Has Colombia’s Wastewater Discharge Fee Program Worked and Why?

Colombia’s Discharge Fee Program – Incentives for Polluters or Regulators?

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

Global Humanitarian Assistance – Colombia – Resources for Humanitarian Response and Poverty Reduction

Drought forces water rationing in Colombia


The Water Situation in Colombia: Both Good and Bad?
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2 thoughts on “The Water Situation in Colombia: Both Good and Bad?

  • August 9, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    it is a very interesting article, Colombian government is doing a great effort to controll pollutant discharges to medium and big companies located in urban Areas; unfortunatly in rural areas where the mining companies are extracting gold from rivers and from mountain areas the situation is really katastrofic, no care for the environment and rivers, discharging creeks and rivers with Cyanide and mercury, in Rio Nechi in the towns of El Bagre and Zaragoza, the situation is very bad, in El rio Cauca close to the Town of Caucasia the situation is the same very bad, in the town of Segovia you can hear about the Cyanide creek, you can hear now stories of people having cancer problems in this mining rural areas.
    by now no studies have been done to analyze the short and long term effects in polluted water due to mining in rural areas. For sure the government does not have the total control of the situation, and does not apply all the environmental law to the legal mining industry.

    Thank you very much for your analisys during your visit, it is of great value.

  • August 9, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Good information and seemingly objective! Hard to find these days. I am aware of the document ” Health aspects of water and sanitation” this is a good base line in the world water place. But I look at large special interests like Nestle etc. and see two faces or conflicts with large money and the earth and people living here. Jobs are great, but at what point is it just plain wrong? Jobs can be made doing many things sustainable, it is not necessary to be “counter productive” or have “Necessary evils” this is all a choice not a necessity. The choices are made however by those who do not suffer the price of profit. But I guess they matter not, for they are not americans? or is it they are not white? or is it that they simply have no vote in the issue. They need jobs and are kept ignorant as to the cost or loss from the jobs and as well do not share in the profits. Slavery? I ask… Sorry for bringing dark issues into a good story, but I seek balance and equality in my question not nationalism or or controversy.


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