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By Juan Camilo Mira
An IFPRI Report, called "Global Water Outlook to 2025. How to Prevent an Imminent Crisis" projects by 2025 that water shortages will cause global losses of 350 million cubic tons of potential light food production annually.
The complexity of ecosystems faced
to the simplicity of public policies
An IFPRI Report, called "Global Water Outlook to 2025. How to Prevent an Imminent Crisis" projects by 2025 that water shortages will cause global losses of 350 million cubic tons of potential light food production annually. In other words, this means that one of the main factors limiting food for the future will be water. The hardest effect will be suffered by the poorest. While it is true that water is a scarce resource, humans have developed many ways to use this resource more efficiently. But it is useless to have policies, techniques and technologies to save water if they are not put into practice.
In 1995, 3,906 cubic kilometers (km3) of water were extracted in the world. It is projected that by 2025 the extraction of water for various uses (domestic, industrial and livestock) will have increased. This will severely limit the withdrawal of water for irrigation, which will increase by only 4 percent, which will in turn restrict food production. Currently, around 250 million hectares are irrigated worldwide. Irrigation has helped increase agricultural yields and production and stabilize food production and prices. Although the achievements in irrigation have been extraordinary, in many regions its mismanagement has significantly reduced groundwater levels, damaged soils and reduced water quality.
When it comes to food, water shortages can lead to a drop in demand and an increase in prices. Prices of major grains may more than double, while demand for food could be significantly reduced, especially in developing countries. Furthermore, price increases can have an even greater impact on low-income consumers.
The Colombian hydrography is extensive and very rich. The longest rivers run through the eastern plains until they drain into the Orinoco and the Amazon. This distribution makes it possible to distinguish four slopes and six large basins in Colombia: the Pacific slope, the Caribbean slope that includes the Magdalena, Cauca, Atrato and Catatumbo basins mainly, the Orinoco slope and the Amazon slope. The Pacific slope is made up of more than 200 rivers. This slope is characterized by its very high rainfall (one of the rainiest in the world), its rivers are short and plentiful due to the proximity of the mountains to the coast. The Caribbean slope is the most important in Colombia because the largest population in the country lives in this region and it is the one that has undergone the most drastic transformation processes. The slope is fed especially in the so-called Colombian Massif or Colombian Fluvial Star. It includes the rivers that run from south to north, between the great inter-Andean valleys: the Magdalena - Cauca system and the Atrato, Sinú and Catatumbo rivers.
The Orinoco basin occupies just over 320,000 km2 of Colombian territory. Its main tributaries in Colombia are the Meta, Arauca, Vichada and Guaviare rivers. The Amazon slope comprises the longest rivers in the country. These rivers bathe the flat and jungle regions of the Amazon. Colombia has only 116 km of its great extension, south of the Amazonian trapezoid. The Colombian rivers that are part of the Amazon basin are many, but they stand out: the Negro or Guainía, the Caquetá, the Vaupés and the Putumayo.
The area between the San Jorge and Cauca rivers constitutes the largest swampy depression in the country known as "Momposina Depression". It covers an area of 6,000 km2 (600,000 hectares) and extends from Zambrano and Plato in the north, to Ayapel in the south, and from Caimito and San Marcos in the west, to El Banco in the east. It constitutes an immense sinkhole subjected to a constant sinking process caused by the weight of the sediments brought by flood waters. This sinking or subsidence phenomenon fluctuates between 0.9 and 2.5 mm per year. The Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta is a coastal lagoon located on the right bank of the Magdalena River at its mouth. It covers an area of approximately 4,280 km2, of which 730 km2 are mirrors of water corresponding to more than 20 lagoons interconnected through pipes. The wetlands of the Orinoquía are present in the flooded savannas of the Department of Arauca, floodplains of the Meta and Casanare rivers and in the wetland complexes that form the Vichada and Tomo rivers, in the final third before flowing into the Orinoco river (Corporinoquia 2002). The floodable areas formed by the aforementioned hydrographic basins are close to 32% of the country's flooded area, some reports classify these flooded areas and other bodies of water into lakes, lagoons, streams, estuaries, morichales, swamps and swamps2.
The current studies of exploration and evaluation of groundwater at the regional and local level carried out in Colombia have made it possible to identify some areas where there is potential in the supply of quantity and quality for different uses. Hydrogeological studies carried out in the country by different entities in charge of research and planning of the use, management and exploitation of groundwater preliminarily estimate that the total area of Colombia with the possibility of containing important groundwater storage, covers an area of 415,000 km2 ( 36% of the country), of which only approximately 15% have been studied.
First paradox. According to Germán Márquez3, of five large basins, only the western Caribbean is completely transformed, while the Amazon is preserved. The basins that extend from the mountains to the lowlands, have conserved areas in high parts of the mountains, on steep slopes and in swampy areas. Of the middle basins, many are completely transformed, along with some preserved in the same main basin. Thus, 50 (45.4%) of the middle basins are transformed, especially the Magdalena river basin, which is the most socially and economically significant basin. While 27 (24.5%) of the middle basins are not disturbed and drain 53% of the country, but do not include any basin of the Andes or the Caribbean; another 33 basins, scattered throughout the territory, are partially transformed. The main causes of the loss of forest cover in the country are: the expansion of the agricultural frontier, in particular the establishment of pastures for livestock; the establishment of illicit crops that is mainly affecting the Colombian Amazon with about 100,000 hectares between coca and poppies; and finally, a cause associated with the loss of forests are forest fires that represented about 300,000 hectares between years 85 and 95.
According to the samplings and measurements of the Institute of Environmental and Meteorological Studies (IDEAM) during 20034 the rivers that show an alarming deterioration in their quality are the Bogotá, Medellín, Chicamocha, Alto Cauca, Lebrija and Chulo, due to the discharges that They receive from domestic and industrial origin from the most populated areas of the country, since they present critical results in all variables such as BOD, DO, pH, among others. The foregoing is corroborated by more recent data included in the "Profile of the State of Natural Resources and the Environment in Colombia 2001", according to which: "The total generation of BOD estimated for 1999 was 887,161 tons, of which discharged a total of 624,746 tons. Of this net discharge 462,759 tons (74%) correspond to the domestic sector and 161,987 tons (26%) to the industrial sector ”5. The impact generated by intensive agricultural activity is worrying because according to the same study, a consumption of 25,000 tons of Active Ingredients –IA– is estimated in the last 25 years, which represents an intensity of use of around 6 Kg of IA / ha cultivated . The number of these substances that have been synthesized is already in the order of a few thousand, and in Colombia around 300 different active ingredients are currently used in almost a thousand formulations.
The effects of climate change, demonstrated in the rise in global temperature by about 1 degree Celsius in the last century, take many forms. In the country they can be distinguished in the water supply for various uses, in agricultural production, especially temporary crops and in people's health. The supply of aqueducts and agricultural activities is reduced, making planning processes and daily life difficult for Colombians. Crop yields depend on environmental and technological factors, especially precipitation and humidity, reducing production levels and of course income for farmers. The increase in temperature and the variation of factors such as humidity generate increases in tropical diseases such as acute respiratory infections, tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, dengue, cholera, which have coincided with climatic anomalies due to the effect of the synergy of this with other elements in the middle.
The conservation of water in the country is directly associated with the change in the model of occupation of the territory, this is its main cause, which synergistically with other factors such as changes in the climate, generate the current crisis in relation to deterioration of water in the country.
IDEAM, in its national study of water, calculated the current water demand close to 5,461,574,000 cubic meters and projected it for 2015 at 7,823,314,000 cubic meters and for 2025 at 10,114,007,000 cubic meters. This means that the total demand for water in the country will double in the first quarter of the 21st century if it follows current growth trends.
The sector that uses the most water has to do with the supply of water for irrigation. If it is presumed that part of agriculture is worked in accordance with hydrological cycles, it will be understood that its demand for water is supplied with the water balance, then the critical water requirements are limited to the irrigation districts that correspond to 3,499,000 hectares with a demand close to 1,757,771,000 cubic meters, which represents 32.2% of the total water consumption in the country6. The manufacturing industrial sector is located in and around the big cities, forming industrial centers. Urban industry and large industry represent 6.6% of total water consumption in Colombia and although much of it has its own supply sources such as deep wells, it also demands a large amount of treated water in domestic aqueducts. The hydroelectric and thermoelectric demand is estimated at 48,000 million cubic meters, ten times higher than the rest of the users.
In an average dry year, the scarcity index affects 209 municipal seats in the high, medium-high and medium categories, involving at least 18 million people. The highest values are found in the upper and middle valley of the Cauca River, in the Cundiboyacense highlands, in the Chicamocha and Suárez canyons, in the Zulia canyon, in La Guajira, in San Andrés and Providencia and in some dispersed municipalities of the Caribbean coast. In the rest of the country the index is minimal or not significant7. In relation to the vulnerability that qualitatively measures the degree of fragility of the water system to maintain safe availability in the face of drought, we have that 14 municipalities present a very high level in Valle, Cundinamarca, Boyacá, Santander, Norte de Santander and La Guajira. The medium and high vulnerability categories are present in the Andean zone and throughout the Caribbean region. But the average vulnerability also extends to the Orinoquía, especially Casanare.
Second paradox. Greater public investment and we continue to drink poor quality water. According to information from the National Planning Department (DNP) 8 regarding the ICV or quality of life index, it has increased from 60.2% in 1985 to 75.7% in 2000. The increase in the index is mainly due to the increase in indicators such as water supply (4.8 to 6.3), garbage collection (0 to 5.1) and people per room (5.8 to 10.9). This means that the quality of life has improved due to greater coverage of basic public services of water and basic sanitation. The quality of rural life continues to be much lower in these areas than in the municipal capitals and there are enormous distances in relation to the coverage of basic services. The reading of the ICV by departments indicates that those peripherals of the Amazon, Chocó and San Andrés have the lowest access to drinking water in the country, departments with intermediate cities report better levels of quality of life due to access to drinking water and finally the departments with the best reports are those with large capital cities such as Bogotá, Cali, Medellín and Barranquilla.
According to the report on the control of water quality in Colombia 2003, of the Superintendency of Public Services, of a total of 231 municipalities evaluated, 18% were supplied with water suitable for human consumption, that is, 189 municipalities received water not drinkable, which represents 82%. Out of a total of 23'908,989 Colombians who received water, 8'187,542 were supplied with non-potable water, which represents 34% of the total population. The study of the Ombudsman's Office (2005), recently presented, corroborates the data of the Superintendency (2003). From the tests analyzed, it is concluded that most of the water consumed in the country does not comply with the 95% parameter in biological and physicochemical aspects. Especially, the most vulnerable population is affected, such as minors and all those who live in conditions of extreme poverty.
Total national sewerage coverage9, for homes in 1985 only reached 59.5% and increased to 63 in 1993 and in 2000 it reached 73.3%, on the contrary in rural areas it was 11.3% in 1985 and coverage increased to 14.4% in 1993 and 37% in 2000, corroborating the investment trend in the urban areas of the municipalities. The departments with coverage below 30% are, from lowest to highest: Vichada, Guaviare, Vaupes, Choco, Córdoba, San Andrés, Boyacá, Guainía, Casanare and Putumayo. Between 30 and 50% of sewerage coverage are departments such as: Sucre, Arauca, Bolívar, La Guajira, Nariño, Magdalena, Cauca, Caquetá, Amazonas, Cesar and Cundinamarca. Finally, the departments that have coverage of more than 50% of the homes are: Tolima, Meta, Huila, Norte Santander, Santander, Atlántico, Antioquia and Caldas. With coverage greater than 80% are Valle, Risaralda, Quindío and Bogotá.
According to calculations made by the MDE10, equipping only 300 municipalities with wastewater treatment systems that meet the planned technical conditions would have a cost of close to US $ 3.4 billion, including US $ 800 million required to complete the collector and interceptor networks. The resources available from the different sources could finance approximately 12% of the investment requirements. Attempting to finance the shortfall with tariff increases, although legally possible, would lead to additional increases to those planned for dismantling subsidies of up to 50% in stratum 1, which would be difficult given the political and social situation of the country. It is worth noting that in this scenario, the inclusion of the remuneration rate in the bill for the aqueduct and sewerage services would generate an additional 2% increase. If the investments in wastewater treatment systems are not made, this component would increase to 7.5% in the fifth year.
Third paradox. The mirage of the private business structure of public services. The drinking water and sewerage service is a municipal responsibility. Currently, there are more than 2,000 providers, of which 830 are registered with the SSPD. Of this sample, only 12% assumed the form of public services company (ESP); 61% of these companies are private, 28% mixed and the rest official. The vast majority of providers have availed themselves of other exceptional figures allowed by the public services law as direct provision by the municipality and organized communities. 32% of the entities are providers in rural areas.
The privatization processes highlighted by the official entities of the sector are: the case of Triple A in Barranquilla, acquired by Spanish operators; in Cartagena, the private participation process was carried out with Aguas de Barcelona; in Montería, a concession contract was awarded to the company Proactiva; In Tunja, Santa Marta and Maicao, processes were carried out to link individuals to the provision of services. In Bogotá (12% of the country's inhabitants), the aqueduct and sewerage services are provided by the Empresa de Acueducto y Alcantarillado de Bogotá (EAAB), an official stock company. In Medellín, sanitation services are in charge of the Public Companies of Medellín (EEPPM) and in Cali they are served by Emcali, companies from their respective municipalities. The drinking water sector is atomized. However, in small municipalities, in general, the administration continues to be in charge of the service, even though there has been a separation of accounts and the information on the provision of services has been improved.
Government investment in drinking water increased at the end of the 1980s. Due to the National Constitution that incorporates the new institutions and decentralization, spending in this area shoots up, reaching its maximum expression in 1993 and then stabilizing between 1, 5 and 2.5% of national social spending11. The obvious causes for the backwardness of public service systems in Colombian municipalities are the low budget allocation from the central level, little or no planning of the sector, of course administrative corruption, which are still maintained and an accelerated process of concentration population in urban centers, for various reasons triggered the domestic demand for drinking water and basic sanitation. The form and magnitude of transfers and local administration processes were changed. This process, which was very important until 2000, and has begun to be reversed with the processes of centralization and reforms to recent legislation such as Law 715.
As you can see, public investment has increased, there is strict regulation, there is freedom of markets, but we continue to drink non-potable water in most of the country. In addition, public policy in this regard has promoted the increase in rates (CRA Regulation). This rate increase has reduced consumption levels per user close to 25 m3 per month to averages below 20 m3.
Based on the laws issued under the new constitutional framework, the resources of the national budget are allocated to subsidies. In aqueducts, the balances between contributions and subsidies are made at the municipal level, and it is very common to find deficits in those localities with very low participation of contributing users. In this case, the State does not assume any commitment to close these imbalances. However, a percentage of the General Participation System must necessarily be used in systems with low coverage and water quality, which allows to alleviate the tariff burden for users. It is estimated that in the coming years 250 million dollars will be allocated annually, which allows covering a figure close to $ 10,000 per subsidizable user per month, which represents about a third of the total cost of the service. The balance between subsidies and solidarity contributions presents a dangerous gap12. As a result of monitoring the resources granted to cover subsidies in the aqueduct and sewerage services, it was found that in 2002 the deficit in a sample of 120 companies was about 270 billion pesos (US $ 125.6). The highly negative result, between subsidies and contributions, puts at risk the supply of public aqueduct and sewerage services to the lowest strata of Colombian society.
On the other hand, the entry of private participation is not very likely as a solution for smaller municipalities or in rural areas with widely dispersed users. The high costs of transporting water limit the economic possibilities of developing regional systems for the production and distribution of water. The municipal market is, by nature, in the case of this service, the optimal scale from the point of view of the assets and from the point of view of the users who do not want to pay more so that a few fill their pockets.
Taking into account the current situation of the country and the trends in relation to the supply and demand of water, the Andean and Caribbean regions are the most vulnerable. The trend is to increase the current vulnerability and the appearance each time of new areas with critical indexes, since the processes of deterioration due to contamination or decrease in supply due to the impact of the cycle and a constant increase in demand will continue in the medium term.
Based on the current model of supply and demand for food and water, if current water policies persist, it is going to be really difficult for agricultural producers to meet food needs. If investments and policies related to water continue to be neglected, it will create a serious crisis in the supply of water, which in turn will lead to a crisis in the food supply. It is useless to have policies, techniques and technologies to save water if they are not put into practice. When incentives and institutions are not appropriate, they often prevent effective water use13.
Water is an essential part of nature, and its conservation to ensure natural cycles that guarantees the survival of ecosystems and plants and animals, and in turn ecosystems help regulate the quantity and quality of water, must be a national priority, concentrating efforts on the country's hydrographic stars such as the Colombian Massif, the Nudo de los Pastos, the Nevado del Huila, the Nevado del Ruiz, the Páramo de Sonsón, Tatamá, the Serranía de los Yariguies, the Sierra Navada de Santa Marta, the Farallones del Citará, among others. It is also necessary to focus on the management and conservation of wetlands throughout the country, they store water during rains, release it into rivers and recharge groundwater, in addition to many other fundamental environmental services for nature itself and for Colombian society.
Water pollution, a scarcity factor
The tragedy of the Magdalena river
The Magdalena River has an extension of 1,540 kilometers. There are 73 municipalities in this basin, and in its area of influence more than 700 populations in the jurisdiction of 18 departments. According to the data presented by IDEAM both in its report "Annual report on the state of the environment and renewable natural resources in Colombia 2004" and the "Profile of the state of natural resources and the environment in Colombia 2001 SIAC Volume 3 ”, In the Magdalena River there are normal values in indicators such as BOD, COD and dissolved oxygen, partly due to the large volumes of water and the high speed of its course, which allows diluting the organic pollutants that receives.
However, the most polluted rivers in the country drain into the Magdalena River. The Bogotá river receives organic and heavy metal pollutants from the tanning industry in Villapinzón, then receives the waters from the municipalities of La Sabana and Bogotá where it receives organic loads close to 135 mg / l. The Chicamocha river receives the leachate from the industry in the upper part, it is also a receiving source of discharges from flower industries and dairy products.
The Cauca River in the Department of Valle del Cauca has a critical section that runs from Puerto Isaac (Yumbo) to Mediacanoa (Yotoco). In this section, the river receives the impacts of the area of the Department that concentrates the most relevant economic activities: the Cali industrial zone –Yumbo–, the sugarcane agroindustry and the largest population volume corresponding to the city of Santiago de Cali and its metropolitan region. Several tributaries of the Cauca River such as the Yumbo, Cali, Amaime, La Paila, Guachal and Jamundí rivers present critical stretches due to low levels of dissolved oxygen. From there, it receives the waters of the La Vieja river, the San Juan in Antioquia and, further down, those of the Porce that brings the polluted waters of Medellín and then flows into the Magdalena. Another channel that presents high levels of contamination is the San Jorge that receives all the solids from the mining, as well as the mercury and cyanide residues in the gold mining.
But the greatest problem of river contamination is expressed in the lower areas of the Momposina depression and the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta where progressive increases have been found in the levels, already very high, of heavy metals (water, sediments and organisms) such as cadmium, copper, zinc. The impact of this contamination is on the health of the people who consume the water or hydrobiological resources from these ecosystems. It is a silent poisoning, very slow but deadly. Furthermore, health systems hardly associate diseases with these types of causes.
74% of the Magdalena river basin is intensely intervened; practically the entire Magdalena Medio region is deforested and half of the Colombian Massif forest where the river is born has been cut down. The river receives 3.8 million gallons of pesticides a year, in addition to the enormous amount of toxic waste from oil refineries, industry and mining. This situation has caused the extinction of many species of terrestrial and aquatic animals (fish, reptiles). Fishing statistics show that while 72 thousand tons of fish were recorded in 1970, in 1998 only 7,562 (one-tenth) were caught, as a result of agricultural, urban and industrial development, pollution and deforestation in the river basin. .
In its transit from the Andes mountain range to the Caribbean Sea, it receives about 200 tons of household waste daily, according to the Ministry of the Environment, Housing and Territorial Development. The Magdalena River basin has an erosion rate of 330 tons of soil per hectare per year, according to the National Planning Department, and a high sediment load; the navigability of the river has also been damaged. Additionally, the rain regime has changed due to deforestation and irrational land use plans, according to experts.
Colonization in the basin and the inappropriate use of the land, especially in the last three decades, has destroyed more than 3.5 million hectares of forest, which represents about 50% of the original forest. Especially cattle ranching in the Andean zone has converted thousands of hectares of forest into pastures, affecting the stability of the soils, has increased erosion processes and has altered the dynamics of the river.
The case of the Bogotá River, one of the tributaries of the Magdalena River, is very critical, since it has become an open-air sewer. This river has an extension of 380 kilometers; 41 towns are located there, including Bogotá. As it passes through the upper basin, the Bogotá River receives pollutants such as: chromium, sulfides, blood, and excrement from tanneries and slaughterhouses. As it passes through the country's capital, it receives 442 tons of waste a day, 89 kilograms of lead, 5.2 tons of detergents and 1,473 tons of solids, in addition to mercury and cadmium.
* Juan Camilo Mira 1
 Campaign Coordinator Water a Public Good. Ecofondo.
 Taken from the baseline document of the Orinoquía Regional Unit.
 Marquez Germán. From abundance to scarcity. The transformation of ecosystems in Colombia. In, Nature in Dispute. Essays of environmental history of Colombia. National University. 2001
 IDEAM Op Cit.
 Colombian Environmental Information System - SIAC, IDEAM and others 2.002
 IDEAM op cit.
 IDEAM. Annual report on the state of the environment and renewable natural resources in Colombia. 2004
 DNP. DIOG. SISD version 2.0 1997
 SISD op. cit.
 SSPD, op Cit.
 Sectorial impact of the 10 years of the domestic public service framework legislation in Colombia. SSPD document collection. Roda P. 2004
 IFPRI. Global panorama of the water until the year 2025. How to avoid an imminent crisis. 2004