Latin America picks up the gauntlet

Empowering rural water committees is a key to water sector reform in Latin America, as Steven Higham explains.

In its first environmental report of the 21st century, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) notes the progress in water and sanitation sectors over the last 30 years in the Americas, while making evident that important challenges still persist. In short, Evaluation 2000 throws down the gauntlet. Of the 790 million people of which the Americas is composed, 95.64% have access to safe drinking water. Figures for sanitation coverage are similar, but are misleading because the figures include North America.

Such a study need look no further than the river Plate, where in the summer of 2001, environmentalists took 180 litres of samples of contaminated water and sediments from the river and presented them to the Spanish petroleum subsidiary Repsol -YPF, because its Buenos Aires plant lies on the banks of this major artery.

According to Dr M Summer of Germany's University of Kiel, the Greenpeace analysis 'indicates that the area is contaminated by petroleum derivatives, in addition to heavy metals - copper, lead, mercury, zinc'.

Involving communities
Evaluation 2000 emphasises the importance of community participation in local water to improve services and coverage: schemes which take into consideration the adequate management of water resources with the participation of the population.

In 1989, CARE Perú started work with health promoters as part of the Proyecto de Agua Potable Rural y Salud Comunitaria (Rural Drinking Water and Community Health Project), an evaluation which came to an end in September 1997 having focused on 44 communities in Cajamarca and La Libertad. The health promoters and the Comités de Agua (Water Committees) played a key role in the success of the project.

The project was the culmination of 20 years of CARE Perú assistance to rural communities to construct and maintain basic drinking water and sanitation systems - installing gravity water systems and the construction of latrines. The strategies were based on active community participation and self-reliance, ensuring that the project's activities focused on the needs expressed by local people.

Health promoters were aged 18 -40 years old and had to reside in and be respected by the community. They were not remunerated, and needed no previous health or water experience, but had to provide the Peruvian Ministry of Health with monthly details of their activities.

The water committees played an important role in that they were responsible for financial matters, including imposing fines and sanctions on water system 'abusers'.

Community workers functioned in groups, visiting each home in the locality over a two-month cycle, making observations about family water use and hygiene. Any problems were tackled on the spot.

By September 1997, when the project was reviewed, child immunisation had topped the 100% level; a greater number of homes had latrines as well as drinking water connections; handwashing was practised regularly and sewage disposed of appropriately. Most important of all was the control over the incidence of diarrhoea in children and a fall in the water disease-related infant death rate. Fundamentally, the project was successful because it was based on those experiences which communities themselves articulated.

Nevertheless, in absolute terms, 15.41% of the population - a total of 76.5 million people - do not have access to drinking water. In Latin America and the Caribbean, total drinking water (domestic connection) and sanitation coverage, is 83% and 59%, respectively. Lack of coverage is most acute in the poverty belts around the region's major cities.

More than 219 million people - or 60% of the population - have a domestic drinking water connection which is unreliable and which entails a potential danger for users on account of water-related illnesses.

Since 1991, after the reappearance of cholera in Latin America, monitoring of drinking water quality has improved. For example, efforts in Peru have been made to introduce water treatment at a domestic level in those places where there is no public storage or only a basic service.

In terms of sanitation, in Latin America and the Caribbean only 241.3 million people, (48.61%) are connected to conventional sewage networks, and 151.9 million (30.6%) have access to sanitation systems in situ. It is estimated that 103.2 million people (20.79%) do not have access to sewage disposal facilities, of which 37 million (10.15%) corresponds to urban areas and 66.1 million (50.39%) to rural areas. Clearly, the need is to increase the coverage of sanitation services and to improve the efficiency of in situ models.

Evaluation 2000 indicates that only 13.7% of sewage is treated from the 241 million inhabitants of the region through existing sewage systems, which is why the lack of sewage treatment continues to be one of the most serious challenges to health.

Current improvements
However, things are improving. Copasa, the Minas Gerais state water company in Brazil is finalising details of the $32.8M Onca sewage treatment project in Belo Horizonte. Phase I will treat 2,600lps for 1 million residents, and a second phase will raise coverage to 3,600lps for a total of 1.8 million residents.

Another plant, also in Belo Horizonte, will benefit 1 million residents - solid sewage discharges into Ribeirao dos Arrudas will fall by 60% and organic sewage by 40%. Phase II will increase treatment coverage to 4,500lps, reducing solid and organic waste by 90% and benefiting a total of 1.6 million people.

Similarly, Costa Rica's state-owned water utility AYA, will upgrade and operate its sewerage infrastructure in the San Jose metropolitan area this year. It will cost $250M to rehabilitate and expand, and includes the construction of new collectors. The plant will have a final capacity of 3.2m³/sec and treated water will be channeled into the Torres River to benefit 1.7 million residents.

In January 2004, Chile will have the largest wastewater treatment plant in Latin America (and the fifth in the world). The technology and management contract for the U$315M La Farfana plant has been awarded to France's Degrémont by Santiago-based water utility Emos.

High costs of sewage treatment are a serious obstacle. One alternative is the use of low-cost technologies. Sewage treatment in situ covers about half of the population of the Americas in rural areas and nearly 27% of the urban population, but some problems have been observed: nitrogen contamination of subsoil and groundwater. Health is also put at risk - the rise of gastrointestinal illnesses is an example - due to toxic substances in industrial waste and the use of agrochemical toxins, many affecting seafood. In Nicaragua, runoff causes 13 tons of insecticides annually to reach the marine life off its Caribbean coast.

As part of its mandate to detail the provision of drinking water and sanitation services throughout the Americas, Evaluation 2000 drew up 6 different groups of countries; the data corresponds to 1991-2000 (Table 1).

  Rural sanitation Urban sanitation Rural water* coverage Urban water* coverage Total sanitation coverage Total water* coverage
Group I
Canada, USA
99.94% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%

Group II
Brazil, Mexico

44.2% 91.3% 64.9% 95.2% 80.2% 88.1%
Group III
Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador
43.9% 85.4% 60.6% 90.3% 73.8% 82%
Group IV
Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uraguay
59.7% 89.9% 35.9% 88.2% 85.3% 80.3%
Group V
Belize, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Dom Rep, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico
60.5% 91.2% 61.6% 93% 77.1% 78.6%
Group VI
Jamaica, Trin & Tob, Guyana, Bermuda, +22 others
86.2% 92.3% N/A c.100% 90.3% c.100%
* refers to drinking water
Table 1: Evolution 2000's mandate illustrated disparities in provision

In Canada and the US (Group I), the provision of drinking water and sanitation services is practically universal. There are almost 293 million people in this area (about 37% of the Americas) and while there are few problems in terms of coverage, North Americans need to invest in new treatment infrastructure and processes to meet increasingly stringent environmental legislation.

Brazil and Mexico are grouped together because they account for the largest populations in Latin America (257.5 million), and comprise 32.6% of the population of the Americas and 52% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean.

After Group I, these two countries have the highest level of urban drinking water coverage but in rural areas only 38% have drinking water connections at home and less than 28% have 'easy access' systems (e.g. a village pump). Evaluation 2000 makes clear that both Brazil and Mexico 'must give greater attention to rural water supply/storage'.

Sewage networks cover 91.3% of the urban populations of Group II, but again in rural areas it is less than 45%. In Group III, treating water for human consumption has been given a priority - especially in Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. However, in Ecuador, only 60% of urban residents benefit from treated water, and in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the world, this figures falls to 26%. Sanitation stands at 44% of the rural populations of this group.

In the South Cone countries, with a combined 60 million people (12% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean), only 36% of rural peoples have drinking water - especially in Paraguay where almost half the population lives in villages.

Drinking water treatment is being promoted in Group IV with notable successes in Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panamá y Puerto Rico. Similarly, in urban areas of the Dominica Republic, treatment covers 95% of the population, in Cuba 91%, and in Honduras 51%. Work needs to continue in Guatemala and Haiti where only 24% of sewage effluent is treated, the lowest in Latin America and the Caribbean.


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