By Ernesto Guhl Nannetti
The situation has worsened to the point that today in the world there are 1.1 billion people who do not have access to drinking water and 2.6 billion who lack basic sanitation. The United Nations has recognized that these deficiencies have become very serious limitations to achieve improvements in the quality of life.
For almost a decade, the World Water Forum has met every three years, convened by the United Nations. The initiative was born out of the growing concern of the international community for the accelerated deterioration and impoverishment of the planet's water resources, due to the destruction of the ecosystems that produce and protect them, the overexploitation of traditional sources and their exhausting and dramatic contamination , caused by the activities of a growing and increasingly water-hungry population. In short, it can be said that we have abused an essential resource for life and progress, to a point that we hopefully can correct before it is too late.
The situation has worsened to the point that today in the world there are 1.1 billion people who do not have access to drinking water and 2.6 billion who lack basic sanitation. The United Nations has recognized that these deficiencies have become very serious limitations to achieve improvements in the quality of life and a powerful obstacle in the fight against poverty, disease and underdevelopment and therefore in a great difficulty to fulfill with the Millennium Goals set for 2015.
Satisfying them involves radical changes in our relationship with water and in the way we use it and therefore requires a very important collective effort.
In recent days the fourth meeting of the Forum was held in Mexico City. She sits on what was a wonderful and productive lake that disappeared little by little, as the frenetic, attractive and polluted megalopolis of today consolidates. May the symbolic premonition of what happened in that city serve as inspiration to prevent the same thing from happening throughout the world. Attendance at the Forum was massive, as was the presence of groups of community organizations from very diverse origins, who protested in an orderly and peaceful manner against the "privatization of water" and demanded participation in its management.
The Forum highlighted the dramatic situation in Africa, plagued by thirst and waterborne diseases and to a lesser extent in other regions of the world. It also recorded encouraging progress in increasing levels of access to drinking water and placed the most pressing problem on water quality and basic sanitation, issues in which no significant improvement has been recorded despite the efforts made. Finally, as if that were not enough, the management of rivers shared by several countries is fertile ground for international conflicts caused by a resource that is increasingly in demand and with poorer quality.
The global picture drawn was one of scarcity, aggravated by the loss of support capacity of ecosystems due to aggressive human intervention on them and due to pollution. So a thirsty world looms. To try to prevent this image from becoming a reality, the need to generate and spread a new "culture of water" was raised that gives it its symbolic and economic value as an essential element for life, well-being and development and that stimulates its conservation and careful use, within a comprehensive vision of resource management, which until now has been fragmented and partial. This cultural change must be advanced through training and educational processes that cover the whole of society and achieving it constitutes a challenge of the first magnitude for governments. The rationalization of consumption, taking into account the priorities of the various uses, is also a fundamental part of the new culture.
With regard to the amount of water, the need to find new sources was emphasized, either through innovative treatment technologies that allow the reuse of the resource, or by taking advantage of the "harvest" of rain that has proven to be very effective in areas rural areas and populations in various countries and the desalination of seawater, which is the great future reserve and is already used competitively in many countries with freshwater limitations. These new sources and others to be developed are essential to overcome the problem of scarcity.
Agriculture is perceived as a particularly favorable field for saving water, since it accounts for about 80% of world consumption and traditional irrigation techniques are very inefficient as well as damaging to soils. The use of better techniques and efficient irrigation systems offers a very important potential of reduction in consumption and savings for farmers by allowing them to recycle nutrients. The challenge is to produce more, using less water.
Regarding water quality, an issue as worrying as quantity due to its implications on health and the possibilities of using the resource, the urgency of advancing in the treatment of urban and industrial wastewater was highlighted, making use as far as possible ecohydrological methods and changes in agricultural practices to reduce their polluting contributions, especially agrochemicals that affect surface and groundwater.
The hitherto unstoppable trend towards urbanization and the concentration of the population in megacities with uniform and consumerist inhabitants, is another of the main enemies of sustainable water management. It is estimated that between 1990 and 2000 the world population increased by 15%, while the urban population did so by 24%. In 1990 43.5% of the world's population was urban and will reach more than half in 2010. The concentration in large cities has been even stronger and megacities will increasingly be located in developing countries. In 1980, of the 12 largest cities in the world, seven were in developing countries; in 2015 there will be ten.
Maintaining them not only implies enormous flows that far exceed the natural supply, for which they force to bring water from other basins through works that are extraordinarily expensive in time and money, which create conflicts with other uses for the resource. Also by altering natural flow patterns and massively intervening ecosystems, or having to resort to ever deeper aquifers, they cause severe environmental impacts. Megacities generate large and concentrated wastewater flows, which threaten the quality and survival of watercourses and require large investments to treat them properly.
Investments to provide water and treat discharges from megacities impose an enormous financial burden on them and their inhabitants. Some of them could well be assigned to very important programs in other areas such as education and health, if growth were discouraged and the new water culture put into practice.
Water management, which the Forum called governance, was another of the fields in which possible actions were foreseen to correct the trend towards a thirsty and impoverished world. It has been concluded that a good part of the drinking water deficit corresponds to management and administration problems, rather than to a natural insufficiency. Today it is clear that water management has ceased to be an exclusively technical matter to give way to a more complex and interdisciplinary vision called "Integral Management of Water Resources", which starts from the idea that for water management be sustainable, it must include the complete hydrological cycle, protect and increase the natural supply and jointly consider the demands and needs of all its users. The implementation of this new vision of water management as a shared responsibility implies the direct participation of users in its administration, a clear and practical regulation and an agile institutional framework that facilitates the processes and coordinates the actions of the various actors in each basin. , which becomes the natural unit for planning and managing the resource.
Another concern permanently present in the Forum and that motivated many of the protest marches, is the so-called "privatization of water", through which a powerful cartel of multinationals seeks to transform access to water, which has traditionally been a people's right , even enshrined in various religions and many standards, in a field for business. Given the nature of water as an indispensable and irreplaceable good, which is also increasingly scarce, it is evident that the interests to access its sources and manage it as a market good are becoming stronger.
Within the privatization spirit of the dominant model, the cartel companies have obtained concessions in various countries to bottle water from springs and serve the aqueduct, distribution and water treatment services, with results that in various cases threaten sustainability, equity and people's quality of life. Some of these concessions have even given rise to conflicts and even popular uprisings, as they feel that the cartel companies harm their rights and interests.
While it is true that the participation of the private sector can contribute to the better management of the water problem with resources and technology, it is also true that this participation must be firmly regulated and controlled by the state and framed in a set of principles led by the equity and sustainability, maintaining the character of water as a public good, above private interests.
Fortunately for us, as for a few other countries, including several of our neighbors, the situation in Colombia is different from the general global panorama in terms of some crucial elements such as the amount of water and the existence of production areas not yet intervened. Due to its planetary location, close to the Equator line and to the two great oceans and to the strong relief, our territory is a humid region, with a precipitation that is three times the average in the world and twice that of Latin America and which still has an important extension of natural forests. The availability of water per inhabitant reaches levels that place it well above the global average.
While in the world the annual average per capita is around 6,500 m3, in Colombia it is around 28,000 m3. However, when it comes to quality, we follow the global pattern more closely, as we are irresponsibly and seriously polluting our rivers and bodies of water.
The main problem of water in Colombia is therefore a matter of quality rather than quantity and the main contamination comes from pathogens and nutrients generated by the urban population and the agricultural sector, rather than from industrial discharges. Naturally, the institutional and administrative system, that is, the governance of water, also occupies a prominent position in our problem. The catchment and distribution systems have many design and maintenance failures that lead to high losses and put the population's supply at risk in dry years, not due to a natural lack of water, but due to deficiencies in the aqueduct systems.
The fundamental question that remains after the previous considerations on water in the world and in Colombia, is how to achieve that the exceptional natural wealth that the country has represented in the water, instead of giving rise to its wasted and waste, become a factor of sustainable development and well-being for all Colombians of today and tomorrow. The sustainable use of our water wealth is a crucial element of our better future and deserves a state policy to achieve it.
A first step in this direction may be to take advantage of the government's initiative on the so-called "Water Law", to rethink the project that is being considered by Congress, about which there are many doubts and objections because they consider it incoherent with the reality of the country and make confusing and vague proposals that contribute very little in real terms to solving the water problem in Colombia. The approaches and advances discussed in the Mexico Forum can be very useful in this endeavor, adapting them to our situation and enriching them with the contributions of many people familiar with the water situation in Colombia, users, communities and experts, whose suggestions and experiences they have not been properly incorporated into the ongoing project.
* Ernesto Guhl Nannetti is Director of the Quinaxi Institute - Colombia