In a time when Colombians are sick and tired of water because of the incessant torrential rains that have hit the country since last year, in a time during Colombia’s worst natural disaster in its history that has affected more than 3 million people and flooded over 2.5 million acres of land, in a time when we have welcomed with open arms President Juan Manuel Santos’s declaration this week that the weather phenomenon of La Niña is finally over, I am here to tell you we should not shelve our water concerns just yet.
I predict one of the most pressing issues of this century for Colombia is learning to cope with the growing needs of water and sanitation within cities.
Let’s contextualize the issue.
Because of its salt content, 97.5% of earth’s water is not suitable for drinking (UN Human Development Report). This leaves 2.5% of freshwater for our consumption. However, less than 1% of the freshwater is readily accessible to us, with about 70% of it stored in ice caps. Colombia is one of six countries (along with Brazil, Canada, China, Indonesia, and Russia) that houses 50% of the world’s freshwater reserves. You would think with so much freshwater Colombia would be one of the few countries that would not have water concerns, but it should.
Though Colombia is one of the six countries that hosts much of the world’s freshwater, that freshwater is threatened with contamination and drying up. For example, half of the country’s departments have registered contaminated drinking water. More appalling is that only 12.5% of departments offer water safe for consumption. The situation has left 15% of departments to offer “high risk” water to their residents.
Colombia’s potable water shortage is cause for panic, and the reasons should alarm you because the factors are increasingly negatively affecting our water problem. With the impact of global warming and as we move forward with industrialization projects, we have traded our water, forests, and agricultural land for a greater GDP. A few major environmental issues are rooted in extensive deforestation and soil and water damage correlated to the overuse of pesticides, for example. This has helped make Colombia a high-risk destination for major infectious diseases. Food and waterborne diseases (2009), like bacterial diarrhea, and water contact diseases, like leptospirosis, will continue to remain high risk diseases, or get worse, if we do not address the water issue as a major threat to our security.
Further, as freshwater becomes more scarce and polluted, it will become a highly sought resource with the potential to spark wars, like oil has in the 20th and 21st centuries. Countries with the power to do so will do what they can to get their hands on such freshwater reserves either by means of cooperation, soft power, or hard power. Since Colombia is one of the top-six water reserves in the world, the country is bound to become of great interest, like the oil producing countries have been during our oil age.
Another factor to keep in mind is that Colombia’s population is becoming more and more urbanized. With 75% of Colombians living in urban areas (2010) and with an annual urbanization rate of change of 1.7% (estimates for 2010-2015), we must anticipate potential future water concerns. The fact that 45.5% (2009) of Colombians live below the poverty line and that distribution of family income is getting worse—Gini index: 53.8 (1996), 58.5 (2009); Colombia now the 8th worst in the world for income inequality—we can anticipate near and long-term threats affecting a large percentage of our population.
Many Colombians live in slums or informal settlements that are scattered around the country’s cities. One main challenge that will continue to evolve is providing our poor with adequate water and sanitation facilities. According to the UN’s Water and Cities Facts and Figures, around the world “the urban poor pay up to 50 times more for a liter of water than their rich neighbors, since they often have to buy their water from private vendors.” Colombia has not been immune to this international phenomenon.
In April and May of this year, for example, large parts of Medellin went without running water for weeks after landslides destroyed part of the city’s water supply network. As a resident impacted by the water shortage claimed, “They are selling water, but I have not seen one water truck here.” During this water shortage, there were complaints by residents that the available water finally delivered by the EPM was not clean, which resulted in giving residents stomach problems, diarrhea, and vomiting. In 2008, Colombians with the country’s lowest 10% household income consumed only 0.8% of the country’s share of goods, while the highest 10% consumed 45%. With the economic disparity being as large as it is, we can anticipate a potential future threat regarding adequate water for a large portion of the country’s poor and vulnerable population.
Along with a desire for democracy and more jobs, many of the political changes going on in the Arab world now also concern the current rise in food prices. We should not think lightly of the issue. Food prices are also rising in Colombia, and the water situation is getting worse. Water is a major security issue and should be a variable in the country’s policy of Democratic Security and Defense. The government, however, has been quite pathetic when dealing with this topic by not having a clear strategy for managing land and controlling water sources. This needs to change.
The government, however, is not entirely at fault nor are we utterly helpless. For one thing, we can be more careful and cautious about the amount of water we use (read: waste). Because of the constant rains caused by La Niña, Colombia may never have seen this much water. Yet, as our lands become inundated, we are on a slow path toward water shortage, a water crisis. The more we let water flow through our faucets when it is not needed, the closer we are to a thirsty future for all.
Colombians speak of the “sin” it is to waste food. “¡Qué pecado!” says my grandmother. Yet, for some reason, we do not think of water as food when we go about our day: taking showers, brushing teeth, washing dishes, mopping floors, washing cars, watering lawns (often simply for aesthetic value), and so on. Despite this, without water there is no food. Without water there is no life. Period.
Further, along with not treating water as a food, we treat it as if it were an infinite resource. This waste of water may be partly rooted in the interpretation of a very contentious verse in the Bible —the so-called Dominion Mandate in Genesis 1:28—where it states the following: “And God blessed them [Adam and Eve], and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.” (Italics mine.) In short, there’s a widespread belief that “God” has made the world and everything in it for humans, and, thus, we can do whatever we want with the resources without consequence.
The waste may also be rooted in the ignorance about how our lifestyle and everyday consumption patterns use/waste water. For example, according to The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy, there are many things we could do to save water if we simply learned the facts about hidden water and how to conserve more. Below are some examples The Nature Conservancy provides:
- It takes 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make a pair of jeans.
- It takes 2,192 gallons of water to make 1 pound of leather.
- Use a rain barrel to water your petunias. They can store 50-80 gallons of water.
- A garden hose can use 530 gallons of water/hour.
- The water footprint of a pound of beef is 1,500 gallons.
- You can lose 20 gallons of water per day from one drippy faucet.
- Cut your shower time by 5 minutes and save up to 20 gallons of water per shower.
- Turn off the water while brushing and shaving and save up to 1,000 gallons/month.
- It takes 24 gallons of water to make a pound of plastic.
- Eat healthily: It takes 49 gallons of water to make a bag of chips, but 18 to grow an apple.
For more examples go here.
Forecasting the future is always an uncertain business, but I am sure of the following two things: (1) We must demand from our government a clear plan of action to manage land and control water sources, and (2) we need to be more cautious as individuals about how we use/waste water. If we don’t, the 21st century may provide the stage for an inundated world that slowly dies of thirst.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.