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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


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


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


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


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).






water* coverage


water* coverage


sanitation coverage


water* coverage



Canada, USA

99.94% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%

Group II



44.2% 91.3% 64.9% 95.2% 80.2% 88.1%



Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador

43.9% 85.4% 60.6% 90.3% 73.8% 82%



Chile, Paraguay, Uraguay

59.7% 89.9% 35.9% 88.2% 85.3% 80.3%


Belize, Cuba,

Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Dom Rep, Costa Rica, Puerto


60.5% 91.2% 61.6% 93% 77.1% 78.6%


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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