Social Innovation: Turning Around Colombia’s Drinking Water and Sanitation

As 2012 draws to a close and is heralded as the year of social innovation and technology with laptops, Windows 8, etc, there are 783 million people who are still without access to safe drinking water and billions more without sanitation facilities. The figures are staggering. Water and sanitation play a significant role in poverty eradication, health and education and are intrinsically linked to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In countries like Colombia there are real challenges in reaching the water related MDGs, as there is only a 45% water and 16.8% sanitation coverage in the country’s rural areas. Fortunately, a partnership involving the PepsiCo Foundation, the Inter-American Development (IDB) and others in Colombia have launched a series of pilot projects to tackle these issues in that country.

These projects will test and develop social innovation models to provide sustainable water and sanitation services to underserved communities. The Indigenous and Afro-Colombians are the most vulnerable groups impacted by lack of water here. These communities, along with other Pacific coast residents, live far away from Colombia’s municipalities like Bogota and Medellin. In many countries, the wealthiest people have seen the greatest improvement in water and sanitation access while the poorest still lag far behind, as their water resources are limited and at times, non-existent. Waste water management has taken a toll on both the local and national level in Colombia. Isolated communities function without access to water resources. Hydroelectric power has been compromised because of untreated solid waste in the water. Hydroelectric power is a major source of energy in the country; the contamination level of the Bogota River was once so critical that the production of energy was interrupted.

The report, Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2012, by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, highlights that in rural areas in the least developed countries, 97 out of every 100 people do not have piped water and 14% of the population drinks surface water: water from rivers, ponds, or lakes. Even more problematic, 1.1 billion people still practice open defecation where the vast majority (949 million) live in rural areas. This affects even regions with high levels of improved water access; 17% of rural dwellers in Latin America and the Caribbean and 9% in Northern Africa still resort to open defecation. In Columbia, many rural communities don’t have running water or flush toilets. As a consequence, these historically marginalised and displaced groups face public health risks such as bacterial diarrhoea.

For Colombia, water affects health, sanitation, energy and its lush tropical lands. It is a place known for its biodiversity; more than 3,000 species of wildlife, plants and fauna are native to this South American paradise, which depends upon appropriate water resources for survival. It has the capacity and technological advancements necessary to meet the MDGs at local, regional and national level by 2015. However, an integrated response is required to tackle Colombia’s water program. It needs collaborative measures from its government, as well as public and private sectors.

Photo Credit: AllBackgrounds.com

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