Integrating water management and public services in Colombia

Neil S. Grigg, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Civil Engineering
Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado
Member, APWA International Affairs Committee

Every year, the world seems like a smaller place, and APWA's International Affairs Committee has its finger on the pulse of public works around the globe. As an example, the committee is able to offer this article about water policy in Colombia, a country that unfortunately is known more for conflicts and internal problems than for its impressive and innovative public policies.

Located at the top of South America and just adjacent to Panama, Colombia with a surface area of 446,000 square miles (1,141,748 square kilometers) is about the size of Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma combined. It has varied topography, dominated by the Cordillera of the Andes with a highest peak at 19,000 feet (5,800 m). Its most important river is the Magdalena, at 970 miles (1,555 km) long. Coastlines are 1,000 miles (1,610 km) on the Caribbean and 800 miles (1,290 km) on the Pacific. The climate is in the tropical zone, and temperatures vary with elevation. Precipitation alternates with three months of rain and three dry months. Only 5% of the land is cultivated, and agricultural regions have soil erosion problems from poor cultivation practices.

The government is divided into 32 departments and a district capitol. The 2004 population is 42 million, about 70% urban. It includes diverse racial and regional groups. Bogot , the capitol and largest city, is one of the world's larger urban agglomerations, and has about 8.0 million residents. Other important cities of one million or greater are Medell┬ín, Cali, Barranquilla and Cartagena.

Colombia has rich natural resources, including water. Nonrenewable resources include emeralds, petroleum, natural gas, coal, gold, silver, iron, salt, platinum, and some uranium. The flora and fauna are highly varied. Colombia's economy is based on agriculture, coffee, petroleum, coal, mining, and light industry.

Unfortunately, Colombia has a long history of armed conflict. It is still considered a dangerous country and the U.S. State Department advises against travel there. However, tourist and business travelers find they can travel to large cities and populated areas with about the same level of caution that you would apply in other developing countries. Under President Uribe, the number of incidents has fallen and public confidence that the armed forces can handle the conflict has risen (see "El Atlas de la Guerra," Cambio, June 14, 2004).

In spite of its challenges, Colombia has made surprising advances in delivery of public services and in development of its water laws.

Water laws
Among the Latin American nations, several have reformed their water laws in the last two decades. Mexico, Brazil, and Chile have received publicity, for example. Although it has not received as much publicity, Colombia has also altered its water laws and has useful experiences to share.

Briefly, Colombia introduced a new "Code of Natural Resources" during the 1970s, and implemented water laws that were ahead of those in other Latin American countries. With this code and later laws and decrees, Colombia introduced systems for water ownership, water use concessions (or permits), and discharge concessions (discharge permits). It also introduced systems of charges for water use and for discharges, following the principle of "polluter pays."

During the 1950s, Colombia organized its first "regional autonomous corporation," which was essentially a development organization for a particular region. The first one, for the Valle del Cauca region near the City of Cali, was modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority. After a new Constitution in 1991 and a landmark environmental law in 1993, Colombia now has over 30 of these corporations, and has designated them as the country's main environmental authorities. Their work is coordinated through the National Environmental System (SINA), which emphasizes democratization, decentralization and sustainable development. SINA is a management system for coordination and planning, public participation, legal norms, policy, and financing. Its participants are government environmental authorities, territorial authorities, departments (like state governments), municipalities, other environmental nongovernmental organizations, and private firms and farms.

Service delivery
There is a close link between Colombia's environmental and water law and delivery of water and wastewater services. As in many countries, Colombia's service delivery and public health improved dramatically in the last fifty years. Prior to 1875, the nation was emerging from the Colonial period, and services were basic, if they existed at all. In 1886, the first water supply system was inaugurated in Bogot . It was only in 1957 that sewerage service began to be considered important. Water supply coverage in urban areas increased from 11% in 1938 to 29% in 1951 and to about 90% by 1990. Today, urban coverage is even higher, but rural coverage still lags. These statistics are from a government document entitled "Basic Water and Sanitation Sector: Challenges and Results," dated 2001.

In 1994, Colombia introduced a new law for public services (Law 142), which brought into effect new encouragement for private delivery of public services and new regulatory structures and agencies. Private sector involvement has increased in a number of public service areas, with visible results. While success is not universal, there have been improvements in delivery of water supply and sanitation services, especially in the larger cities.

As part of its regulatory strategy, Colombia has experimented with an innovative way to transfer income from wealthier to poorer utility customers. This is done through a system of classification of service zones by income. Higher income customers pay more and lower income customers pay less. Regulatory agencies regulate rates according to the proof by the public service authority that they are implementing this system.

Colorado State University project
During summer of 2004, a team from Colorado State University worked with staff and consultants of Colombia's Ministry of Environment, Housing, and Territorial Development toward a new draft water law to be introduced in Congress in October of that year. The new law is expected to coordinate the many disparate articles governing water use, water quality, natural areas, groundwater, and water management in coastal and marine zones. In preparation for the new law, a number of important issues have been identified, such as:

Municipal sources are the largest source of contamination in the country. Only about 5% of municipal wastewater is treated. The extent of industrial discharges to sewer networks is unknown. A culture to promote treatment of municipal wastewater is largely absent. Funding is inadequate and prospects for improvement seem limited in the near term. There is a lack of an integrated system of information to control withdrawals and a lack of coordination of water uses. Most of the smaller municipalities use small, vulnerable sources. Groundwater management is largely missing. Municipalities and service authorities lack funding for infrastructure. Service coverage for aqueducts and sewerage is inadequate, especially in rural areas and smaller municipalities. Waterborne disease is a major problem.

The Magdalena River, Colombia's most important river, is severely polluted and carries an excessive level of sediment, thus threatening coastal and downstream areas. It is the major source of contamination to the southern Caribbean Sea system. Taken together, the Magdalena River and the Mississippi River explain a large share of the entire pollution in the Gulf of Mexico-Caribbean system.

There are no programs to aid municipalities and local governments in designing and implementing stormwater and flood control systems, and there is no national system for flood damage mitigation.

Our neighbor Colombia is endowed with rich water resources, which offer the nation much potential for utilization and many opportunities for stewardship. These water resources are supplying the population, industry and agriculture, and they are being used to generate nearly 80% of Colombia's electric energy. Thus, the country is taking advantage of its water resources to meet national needs at its present level of development.

However, Colombia has reached a crossroads in its use of water resources and in delivery of public services. With a rising population, many problems of contamination and over-exploitation threaten the resources and the quality of life in the country. These problems have emerged in spite of innovative and forward-looking approaches to water law. Complex institutional problems that have heretofore been allowed to persist cannot be tolerated if the nation is to solve problems that inhibit more effective management of the water resources.

As it recovers from its legacy of conflict and violence, Colombia has many lessons to offer to its neighboring countries in Latin America, to other developing countries, and to North Americans. Perhaps these lessons can be shared in the context of more cooperation in the future, to be organized through APWA's International Affairs Committee.

Neil Grigg is also a member of the APWA Reporter's Editorial Advisory Board. He can be reached at (970) 491-3369 or at


Doing Business in Mexico
Mexicans usually have three names. On a business card these are presented in the following order: first name, paternal family name, and maternal family name. In addressing someone, you should use the paternal family name. For instance, Sr. Pablo Gomez Ortega would be addressed as Sr. Gomez. Increasingly, Mexicans are abbreviating their maternal family name. In such cases the name would appear as Sr. Pablo Gomez O. In other cases the name is dropped altogether. Take the lead from your Mexican contacts before switching to a first-name basis. (Source: USDA, Foreign Agricultural Service)

Cultural Proverbs

"That which is good is never finished." - Sukuma, Tanzania Proverb

"When elephants combat, it is the grass that suffers." - Kikuyu Proverb

"The villager who always complains and is never satisfied with anything is like an annoying flea on the foot." - Nilotic Proverb

"If the tiger sits, do not think it is out of respect." - Nilotic Proverb