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Overview of the Water Crisis in Colombia

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Studies
Wordcount: 4196 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Civil conflict in Colombia, has left as many as 220,000 dead, 25,000 disappeared, and 5.7 million displaced since the early 1950’s.(1)

Largely situated in the northwest of South America.Its unique geography, climate and flora has made it susceptible to various armed conflicts during the 20th century including narcotrafficking drug wars and insurrection of paramilitary armed forces. Under the constitution of 1991 Colombia is a republic, the public powers of which are divided between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Its executive is led by the prime minister and his cabinet of ministers. The legislature is divided between two cameras, the senate and the house of representatives whose members are elected every four years. (2)

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Since its inception, the modern Colombian state has suffered various violent conflicts rooted in the lack of breaking the stablished elites front the imperial times, most were the owners of  big farming lands also called ‘haciendas” and the continuous blocking of attempted agrarian reforms, and the rising tensions with the “campesino” ( peasant in Spanish) movements, fighting the constant expulsion of poor campesinos towards areas of unclaimed frontier where the presence of the central state’s regulatory institutions and interaction with the rest of society and the national economy was minimal. These two fronts, mostly represented by the Conservative and Liberal Parties, polarised the Colombian society during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century and exploded in violence during the 1950’s, known as “The Violencia” (violence) which end up with a coup d’état by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla in 1953. During his military rule, he attempted to pacify the continues burst of violence around the country, but due to his anti-communist attitude but its anti-communist attitude drew it into confrontation with the guerrillas, igniting a new wave of violence. Rojas’s attempt to consolidate his power by marginalising the traditional parties prompted them to unite and overthrow him in 1957. (3)

In the 1960’s, 1970’s, as a response to the disaffection from the traditional parties, and the poor treatment to the lowest classes including campesinos and the increasing radicalisation of university students and the urban middle classes the revolutionary guerrilla movements were created, being the most important the Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN) and Popular Liberation Army (EPL). All of them, with a clear communist influences clashed strongly with the Government Armed forces. As the guerrillas began to expand from the peripheral areas towards richer areas more integrated into national economic and political structures their use of extortion and kidnapping (mostly politicians and lawmakers) increased exponentially creating an environment of insecurity and political instability that was highly publicised by international media.

 By the end of the 1970’s, a new player was introduced to the already overcrowded guerrilla conflict. Drug traffickers found in the climate and difficulty to access by land the perfect place in Colombia to grow coca crops. By the 1990s, Colombia had stablished two very powerful cartels (Medellin y Cali) who had the control of nearly 80% of all exports of cocaine to the USA. As this drug traffickers became landowners, it contributed to the creation of far-right paramilitary groups in response to the recurring guerrilla kidnappings being the most important the “Death of Kidnappers (MAS)” with the obliging permission of the local authorities. (3) The infiltration of the cartels in the government institutions made corruption an endemic situation all around Colombia. This reached its peak in 1994 when President Samper was accused of receiving money from the Cali cartel during his election campaign. (5)

The administration of President Alvaro Uribe (2002–10), adopted the highly contestable democratic security policy which included an integrated counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns. As part of a controversial peace process, the right-wing paramilitaries had ceased to function. After peace negotiations in Cuba, the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos and guerrilla of FARC-EP announced a final agreement to end the conflict. However, a referendum to ratify the deal was unsuccessful. Afterward, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a revised  peace deal in November 2016,[120] which the  Colombia congress approved. (6) 

Due to the complexity of the Colombian conflict, one can argued that only one risk factor is the main reason for the conflict. In his conflict risk analysis, Collier and Hoeffler talk about greed and grievance as an explanation for civil unrest. In the case of grievance could be applied to the beginning of the conflict, where mainly it was a fight between different ideological tendencies (conservative and liberals) and the huge gap in inequalities between different social statements. As the conflict resume its course greed took over from grievance with the introduction of cocaine manufacturing and smuggling to the United States and the resulting war on drug led by the American government. (7)


More than forty years of conflict, the rise of drug trafficking and the consecutive weak governments plagued with corruption has made Colombia a place difficult to live in. In the last few years, Colombia’s economy has grown, and the boom of the tourist industry has help to improve the access to health and water facilities (mostly in urban areas), but certain region (mostly rural) still lack essential services.

Colombia is partially surrounded by two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific; the Choco province is the area with the second highest rainfall in the world; the Amazon, which is the largest river on earth, cuts through the south of the country; and the peaks an glaciers of its Andes mountains provide a fresh water source for the whole country. (8) Even though Colombia is one of the plentiful water resources in the world, the lack of infrastructures and facilities, weak water provision policies and man-made damage to the ecosystem (deforestation, pollution) has made water distribution very unequal in different regions of the country. According to the World Economic Forum the mismanagement of Colombia’s waters has placed it in the list of countries that by the middle of this century – in 33 years – will suffer economically from water shortages. (8)

Colombia’s Hydrography (Source: IDEAM)

According to the World Health Organization, contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio. Absent, inadequate, or inappropriately managed water and sanitation services expose individuals to preventable health risks. This is particularly the case in health care facilities where both patients and staff are placed at additional risk of infection and disease when water, sanitation, and hygiene services are lacking, which makes it imperative and essentially the urgent to tackle this problem. As part of the Sphere project, minimum standards for core areas such as water supply needs to be made. This include finding enough water resources, determine how much water is needed and how to deliver it and finally elaborate a waterpoint drainage and household and communal washing. (9)

After a series of centralization and decentralization policies in water management by the central government during the 1950’s and 1980’s, improved water provision and access to it mostly in urban areas. The country’s estimated coverage of urban potable water infrastructure reaches 97% of the population (10). Despite this improvement, water distribution in Colombia in very unequal. More than 60% of urban population lives in Magdalena – Cauca region, with only 13% of national water reserves. In contrast, the Amazonas region is home on only 5% of urban population with the 40% of the national water availability. The most direct consequence to this is that nearly 35% of urban population lives under water stress levels. Other the main problem that the country is facing is the excessive water abstraction for farming purposes with the approximately 82% of water abstractions dedicated to agriculture, 7% for industry and 11% for public water systems (11). The graphs bellow suggests the unequal distribution of the population (where urban areas, mostly around Bogota, Cali and Medellin) and rural areas and barely populated. A clear example of this is the massive displacement of people, during 1993 – 2005 from the Antioquia region to Medellin, due to continues violations of Human rights (massacres, threats, extortions, assassinations) carried out by paramilitary groups hired by private and public mega-project

entities (12). Other suggestion could be the lack of efficient water provision facilities and the excessive use of water resources for agriculture and industry. The soaring of economic prosperity has made Colombia a very attractive target for multinational companies with interest in gold mining, coffee and plantain cropping and water hydrologic mega projects that would alter the already delicate ecosystem.

After the heavy flooding and consequent landslides od 2010-11 that affected the 93% of the Municipalities:  3.5 million people were displaced, and 464 people died (13), the Colombian Government led by President Santos ask for support from the Dutch government to carry out and study on water governance. Daphne Willens, from Water Governance Centre, carried out the study found out that even though there was enough knowledge awareness for effective water governance, there was a lack of translation from national policies to the regional and local authorities (14). Furthermore, the lack of financing, clear leaderships and the unorganised institutions and the peace process with the FARC that is dominating the political sphere at the moment, has diminished the visibility of the problem which could imply serious consequences for Colombia in the future.

Other problem that Colombia is facing in regards of water in incoming appearance of the climate phenomenon called “El Nino” by which the normal patterns of tropical precipitation and atmospheric circulation are disrupted, hence triggering extreme climate events around the globe: droughts, floods and affecting the intensity and frequency of hurricanes. Latest reports from the Colombian metereological agency suggests that the rainfall might drop by 80%, which has raised concerns inside the Colombian institutions due to a possible national water shortage. These events makes it more obvious to institutions to take into action into the water problem as a matter of urgency to avoid future human disasters including more people displacement and appearance of communicable diseases.


As stated previously, ensuring an uninterrupted supply of safe drinking water is critical to prevent communicable diseases such as cholera and typhoid.  Overall tackling the water crisis in Colombian will need support, not only from national government and international institutions, but also from the regional and local government as these are the one that have the power to apply the measures.

The proposed interventions in this assignment are aimed at the poorer areas of Cali where water supply and access are very limited. All stakeholder levels should be approached from, national, local, international and No-governmental. Using the project cycle, we can plan the proposed interventions are working or not (15).

In their article, Cairncross and Valmandis talk about how certain Interventions destined to tackle or ease the constant problem of water supply and lack of water points are cost effective and can improve the quality of life of the population targeted. They also suggest that poor maintenance could aggravate not only the access to these facilities but exacerbate the already deficient quality of water that will lead to increase on incidence and prevalence of water-borne diseases (16). For this project, we will be focusing on interventions to palliate poor access/supply of water with a timeframe of 3 years. To implement and monitor the effectiveness of the intervention we will use the logical framework approach by building tree: 

Continuing with the process we converted these problems in positive and achieved changes:

  According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme on Water Supply and Sanitation recommends that a drinking-water source should be less than one kilometre away from its place of use and that it should be possible to reliably obtain at least 20 litres per member of a household per day (17). The action will significantly contribute towards reaching Soacha area, in the outskirts of Bogota, for access to water thereby improving the standard of living of the poor and reducing poverty. Currently the lack of drinking water supply in this area has led the community to look for alternative forms of supply such as illegal water collection, from the main drinking water distribution pipeline of the company providing the service. (18)

Following a request to the grants program from Presidential Agency of International Cooperation (APC in Spanish) will be made in which we will plan the construction of 100 water points across the area and connections to the main water network and aiming to improve the access for at least 10000 people in this neighbourhood. All the indicators are made according to SMART criteria (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). With help of local NGO (will act as external auditor) and the water company will provide human and material resources regular communal surveys will be carried out to ensure the intervention is effective. An independent audit firm will be hired to asses an accurate and efficient uses of financial resources.

When talking about advocacy and responsibility of other in the log frame approach for this intervention good maintenance made by the local water company that will need to be supervised by local NGO’s to ensure good quality of facilities. On the other hand, a sensitization campaign could be useful to raise awareness of the consequences of water misuse and wastage, ideally funded by the Vice-ministry of water and Sanitation.




Sources of Verification


(responsibilities of others)

Disease prevention and control are ensured through the provision of access to safe potable water

Less admission to hospital due to water- borne infections

Communal survey

Annual Ministry of Health Report

Improve quality of water


Better management of water

By the third year, at least 10000 people should have access to water

Pre/ Post intervention survey

Local water company

Enough water points

Agricultural water surplus and reduce misuse/ smuggling


Improve quality of water infrastructure

By the third year, 100 water point will be built

Report from Water company

Cundinamarca department

Good maintenance


Improved funding

Budget approved according to necessities

Water company

Local NGO

Vice -Ministry of Water and Sanitation


Awareness campaign to reduce water waste

One of the key health system challenges for this project could face the quality of water when is storage. According to a study carried out by Venegas, Mercado et al, in 2014, the presence of E. coli, and other microbial pathogens in the drinking water storage containers was evidenced, which represents a health risk for the population due they can cause diseases of water origin (19). Further interventions such as use of chlorine (which is cheap and easy to provide) should be implemented.


1        The National Centre for Historic Memory’s report Basta Ya!  (Enough Already!) chronicles 2012) Colombia’s decades of civil conflict. [internet] Colombia. Available in Spanish from: http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/micrositios/informeGeneral/basesDatos.html

2        Kline. H.F, Parsons, James J., Garavito, Clemente, Gilmore, Robert L., McGreevey, William P. (1999) Republic of Colombia. Britannica Encyclopaedia [Internet] July Available from: https://www.britannica.com/place/Colombia

3        Gonzalez, Fernan E. (2004) The Colombian conflict in historical perspective. Accord[internet] 14: 31-57. Available from: https://www.c-r.org/accord-article/colombian-conflict-historical-perspective

4        Human Rights Watch (1994). Colombia Killer’s Network: The Military – Paramilitary Partnership and The United States. [internet] 1st edition. USA.  10 – 26. Available from: https://books.google.es/books?hl=en&lr=&id=OYGsJTjZLOQC&oi=fnd&pg=PP6&dq=Medina,+Autodefensas,+Paramilitares+y+Narcotráfico+en+Colombia,+pp.+366-382&ots=otuzArCvRy&sig=di2QBu2K7X6Q03LAPian8iaNMLA#v=onepage&q&f=false

5        The Associated Press (1995) Colombia President’s Aide Linked to Drug Money. The New York Times [internet] New York. Available from:https://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/27/world/colombia-president-s-aide-linked-to-drug-money.html

6        Beittel, June S (2015) Peace talks in Colombia. Congressional Research Service [internet]. USA. Available from: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R42982.pdf

7        Collier P, Hoeffler A. (2004) Greed and grievance in civil war, Oxford Economic Papers. 2004. 56, 563-95

8        Johnson Jamie V (2017) Colombia headed for serious water shortage by 2050. Colombia Reports. [internet] Bogota. Available from: https://colombiareports.com/colombia-headed-serious-water-shortage-2050/

9        UNICEF. (2013) Colombia Statistics. Geneva: United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. Geneva. Available from: https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/colombia_statistics.html#115

10    Sphere. (2018) The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and MInimun Standards in Humanitarian Response. Sphere Project. [internet] Available from: https://handbook.spherestandards.org

11    OECD and United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (2014) OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Colombia 2014. OECD[internet]31. Available from: https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/environment/oecd-environmental-performance-reviews-colombia-2014_9789264208292-en#page7

12    Spigarelli Gina. (2016) Water Rights and peace process in Colombia. Open Democracy. [internet] Medellin. Available from: https://www.opendemocracy.net/gina-spigarelli/water-rights-and-peace-process-in-colombia

13    Dirección de Gestión del Riesgo (DGR) (2011) Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales (IDEAM) and Policía de Carreteras; results presented in Vanguardia.

14    Willems, Daphne (2013) Water Governance challenges in Colombia. Water Governance Centre, [Internet].  The Netherlands. Discussion paper 1321. Available from: http://www.globalwaterforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Water-governance-challenges-in-Colombia-GWF-1321.pdf

15    Howard. N, Sondorp. E, Ter Veen. A (2012) Conflict and Health. McGraw Hill. England. 112 -123

16    Cairncross, S; Valdmanis, V (2006) Water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion (Chapter 41). In: Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries. The World Bank, Washington DC, pp. 771-792

17    World Health Organization( 2011) Valuing Water, Valuing Livelihoods. IWA Publishing, London, UK.

18    Venegas C, Mercado M, et al (2014) Evaluation of the microbial quality of drinking water and waste water in one population of Bogota. Biosalud. Colombia. Vol 13, n 2. Spanish. Available from: http://www.scielo.org.co/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1657-95502014000200003


19    Colombia’s Hydrography. Source IDEAM

20    Water resources and abstractions. Source: OECD and United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Colombia 2014. OECD [internet] 2014; 31. Available from: https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/environment/oecd-environmental-performance-reviews-colombia-2014_9789264208292-en#page7


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