Is water and sanitation for all possible in Latin America and the Caribbean?

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"Water" and Latin America are inextricably linked. The region's vast expanses lose their meaning without their clear blue lakes, the roar of their waterfalls or the deep depth of their rivers. Despite these natural riches, the region faces various challenges to manage water in a way which is accessible to everyone and also contributes to improved sanitation for the population.

To find solutions to these challenges, water experts from around the world are gathered in Stockholm, Sweden, for World Water Week, the biggest annual meeting on world water issues.  For us, water and sanitation folks, this event is an important opportunity to look at how the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region is doing towards meeting the water and sanitation needs of its population within the context of green and inclusive growth.

Water supply and sanitation play an integral role in the green and inclusive growth agenda of countries, and is a fundamental requirement for human health, economic development, and environmental sustainability.  It is impossible to imagine a green and inclusive future without clean drinking water, sanitation for all, water for commerce and industry, protection against urban flooding, and vibrant rivers, lakes, wetlands, and marine coastal areas. This vision of the water sector is achievable for most countries in the region within a generation—provided sound decisions on institutional reforms and investments are made now.

In the Latin American context, the green and inclusive growth agenda could be translated into the following objectives for the sector:

  • Efficient and Inclusive Water Services delivered at affordable rates for everyone;
  • Clean and Environmentally Sound Water Services that protect the environment, manage water as a scarce natural resource, and incorporate water into the urban fabric; and
  • Resilient Water Services that anticipate and respond to the disasters of today and the consequences of a changing climate, especially droughts and floods, without significantly compromising service quality.

Achieving the objectives of efficient, inclusive, clean, and resilient water services needs a commitment from all stakeholders of society to continue deepening the institutional reform agendas for the sector, as well as forge stronger linkages with environmental, water resource, and urban management efforts.  A good example of this vision is the Mexico 2030 water agenda.

Significant progress has been made, but much is still needed in terms of efficiency and inclusiveness

If we examine the dimension of inclusiveness in the water supply sector, the LAC expects to meet and surpass all the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) targets except for rural sanitation. Estimates for 2015 are:

  • 99% for safe urban water supply, against an MDG target of 98%
  • 84% for safe rural water, against an MDG target of 80%
  • 92% for improved urban sanitation, against an MDG target of 90%, and
  • 60% for improved rural sanitation,  against an MDG target of 70%

These levels of access are encouraging, especially taking into account the rapid urbanization and economic shocks over the last two decades.  Water utilities were able to keep pace with urban growth and now serve 70 million more customers since 2000. There are still millions of people without access though.  The gaps that remain have resulted from a combination of inadequate investments and low efficiency of many water utilities.

Teresina, Brazil - Enhancing Municipal Governance and Quality of Life: This project's objectives are to:  (i) modernize and improve the management capacity of the Municipal Government in financial, urban, environmental, service-delivery, and economic development; and (ii) improve the quality of life of the low-income population of the Lagoas do Norte region of the city. The project has three components: (i) municipal management modernization, city development, and project management; (ii) integrated urban-environmental development in Lagoas do Norte; and (iii) social and economic development in Lagoas do Norte. This project was selected by the Brazilian Government as a best practice example of green and inclusive growth and showcased at the Rio+20 Conference.

Although LAC is mostly a middle income region, significant portions of the population remain un-served—or underserved—by water utilities and other service providers.  About 65 million urban dwellers—or 14% of LAC's urban population--has no household connections for water supply while 20%  of rural inhabitants lack access to an improved water supply and 40% do not have a house connection. Furthermore, 113 million--or 24% of urban residents have no household sewerage connection.  These figures paint a sobering picture and highlight the importance of continued progress in the provision of services.

Efficiency of water utilities

While the region has some world-class water utilities, most are under-performing in operational and financial terms.  The causes vary, but most countries are still in the process of reforming their water sectors and crafting the right polices on tariffs, regulation, industry structure, financial arrangements and the distribution of subsidies.  For example, Colombia, like Chile, created strong regulatory agencies to oversee the water and sanitation sector. Additionally, Mexico decentralized water service to 2,438 municipalities and each state now has its own water agency that provides oversight to the municipalities.

Keeping it clean: Ensuring environmental sustainability

The lack of adequate wastewater treatment is a major contributor to the contamination of rivers and coastal areas around most cities in the region. LAC countries currently collect and treat less than half of the wastewater that they generate. Most of the mega cities in the region, including Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Bogota, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Lima are in the process of expanding collection systems and building new treatment plants.

Many cities are taking action. For example, the World Bank is working with the city of Bogota, where all of the city's wastewater is dumped into the Bogota River but only 20 percent receives primary treatment.  As a result, the Bogota River is considered biologically dead. The city's utility and the regional environmental authority are working to implement a comprehensive program that looks not only at wastewater treatment but also flood management in an integrated manner.

Obras Sanitarias del Estado (OSE)- Sustainable and Efficient Project: The Bank has recently approved this project which aims to improve reliability, resilience, efficiency, and management capacity of the water utility, OSE.  The Project has a number of green elements, including: (i) Water Source Protection, to protect the quality and quantity of water in the Laguna del Sauce Watershed;  (ii) Climate Risk Assessment, so that OSE can begin incorporating targeted adaptation and mitigation measures in its long term strategic plans; and (iii) Energy Efficiency, to help OSE develop an energy management plan that will help reduce current consumption and incorporate energy efficiency in  decision making.

Resiliency of the water services

Ensuring a reliable water service, despite increasing floods and drought across the region, is an essential driver of inclusive and sustainable growth.  Fortunately, a new array of tools to deal with scarcity issues is emerging and becoming more economically viable. These options range from standard conservation measures --through pricing, proactive leakage and loss reduction programs, low water-use devices, and public awareness campaigns-- to developing new alternative sources (when there are no other options) such as desalinization, water recycling, and rainwater harvesting.  Additionally, rainfall in urban areas generates huge quantities of water that must be properly managed if a city is to avoid flooded streets, traffic snarls, property damage, and often loss of life.

The price of investing in green growth

Most countries in LAC have the ability - within a generation - to realize a future that includes clean drinking water, proper sanitation for all, good flood protection, and adequate water for industrial and commercial use.

Typical costs to provide water and sanitation to the un-served range from US$200-US$500 per person. In most countries, this will be affordable.  Challenges in providing access to the un-served, however, are primarily social and institutional as most of them live in either rural areas or settlements on the fringes of urban centers and typically not well-served.

As it turns out, providing new service is only half the story.  Current customers may have access but typically, it is of low quality and inefficient, imposing yet another cost.  The case of Chile provides a beacon; the country has addressed this problem by improving the efficiency of its own utility and water and sanitation services to near OECD levels with an investment of about US$200 per urban resident.

Improvements in water and sanitation are taking place in LAC; however, we still see ample space for continued growth.  If the countries of LAC invest in new water and sanitation services that are efficient, inclusive, resilient, and environmentally sound, the future of water and sanitation in the region looks decidedly bright.


Greg Browder

Global Lead, Water Security and Integrated Resource Management, World Bank Water Global Practice

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