In Colombia, Abundant Water Brings No Security

5 MINS READJun 7, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

Editor's NoteThis is the 16th installment of an occasional series on water scarcity issues around the world.

Colombia has made great strides in advancing peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), improving the prospect of peace with the guerrilla movement and finally settling the country's longtime security threat. But another crisis of sorts is seeping through the country, based this time on the vulnerability of a precious resource: water. With nearly 50,000 cubic meters of water available per person each year, Colombia is technically one of the most water-rich countries in the world. But pollution, inadequate infrastructure, unequal distribution and extreme variability in annual rainfall leave an otherwise abundant resource susceptible to water stress. A drought, influenced by the El Nino weather pattern, has only exacerbated the situation. Despite peace talks progressing and stabilizing the country, sustained low oil prices will limit Bogota's ability to invest in and expand water infrastructure. And without investment and greater enforcement of existing policies, access to Colombia's water resources will remain uncertain for many.

Colombia's Hydrology

By definition, if a resource is abundant, it is counterintuitive that it could simultaneously be scarce. Yet this is exactly Colombia's water situation. Colombia is awash with water resources but is facing economic water scarcity, which is when demand for water outstrips the inadequate capacity caused by insufficient infrastructure. So even when water resources are in physical abundance at a local or national level, there are still constraints, similar to periods of water stress. In Colombia, the location of much of these resources does not match up with the majority of the population. The Magdalena and Cauca river basins support more than two-thirds of the country's population but contain only 13 percent of the country's available water. Meanwhile, the Amazon basin supplies nearly 40 percent of the nation's total surface water resources, but only to the basin's sparse population.

Moreover, when there is access to water, conservation efforts are hampered by lack of information and extremely low water rates, which encourage people and businesses to use water without much cost. Rural areas have further limited access to water because of insufficient infrastructure.

Extensive pollution from industrial and agricultural activities and lack of sewage treatment in some areas curbs the amount of water that is actually usable, compounding the unequal distribution and straining the Magdalena and Cauca River basins. For example, the Bogota and the Chicamocha rivers (tributaries to the vital Magadalena) are highly polluted by domestic pollution, although industrial and agricultural pollution from coffee growers contribute significantly as well.

There are regulations in place to mitigate pollution, including a discharge fee. But federal and regional efforts are largely uncoordinated, noncompliance is often rampant, and many of the laws simply go unenforced, ensuring pollution will remain an issue for Colombia's water supply.

Then There Is a Drought

For more than two years, a severe drought has laid bare the long-term structural issues in Colombia's water use. Agricultural production consumes just over half of all water in Colombia. While profitable coffee crops were largely unaffected over the course of the past year, some estimates show that the Caribbean coastal area (the region perhaps most damaged by the drought) has lost more than 170,000 hectares (420,000 acres) of cropland, affecting nearly half a million people and 100,000 farm animals and resulting in losses of roughly $40 million. These agricultural privations have also contributed to skyrocketing food prices as supply diminishes and inflation increases to 8 percent in March 2016, its highest rate since October 2001.

But agriculture is not the only water consumer in the nation. Much like neighboring Venezuela, where the Guri Dam levels are monitored as closely as the country's political crisis, Bogota relies on hydropower to supply up to 77 percent of the country's electricity in wet years. That number drops under 50 percent in drier years when thermal power alternatives — primarily natural gas followed by coal — make up the difference. Regardless, the extended drought has lowered water levels in numerous reservoirs, causing damage to several hydropower stations.

Finally, though it is a smaller percentage of overall consumption, domestic consumption in rural and urban areas has been restricted and rationed in recent months, contributing to social unrest. And strikes have occurred in more than a dozen Colombian provinces, blocking roads. 

Rough Waters Ahead

In the short term, weather patterns are shifting. The much-touted El Nino is dissipating, and La Nina, which brings cooler temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, appears to be building in its wake. The new conditions tend to bring more rain to Colombia — rain that is desperately needed to alleviate drought conditions. But dangerous floods are also a possibility, and even with temporary relief, Colombia will be vulnerable to short-term water stress. In the end, there will always be other droughts that will have similar repercussions for the country.

Understandably, Colombia will need to build new and expand existing infrastructure to lessen future water stress. But it requires greater revenue and investment to do so. The country depends on hydrocarbons, which account for roughly two-thirds of export revenue. Sustained low oil prices caused an economic downturn in the country. Though President Juan Manuel Santos will be pressured to bring investments to the hinterland to maintain social stability ahead of 2018 elections, he will be hard-pressed to do so because of the country's poor economic situation. Consequently, there will be fewer infrastructure investments than needed, especially for water infrastructure projects, which tend to be lower priority than other, higher-profile construction. A peace deal with the FARC may improve security in the country and even increase business prospects. But Colombia will struggle with its other bubbling crisis, economic water scarcity, in many regions in the near term.

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