Lessons from the workshop by UNICEF, WHO/PAHO with the support of the Colombian government and facilitated by CAWST
By Juanita Ayala
The 7th, 8th and 9th of March I attended “Advancing Towards the Water Security Agenda” workshop in Bogotá, Colombia to discuss how to achieve SDG 6.1: universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. This event was organized by UNICEF and WHO/PAHO with support of the Colombian government and facilitated by CAWST. It gathered policy-designers and decision-makers from the public and private sector as well as academia, working in several countries of Latin America. It was strongly highlighted the importance of sharing data and experiences among countries in the region, as they have similar contexts and face the same challenges which could lead to cooperation opportunities.
During the first day the programme presented a contextualization of the region and the benefits of ensuring water safety for communities development. It also addressed the interlinkages with other Sustainable Development Goals. The second day Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage was introduced, along with a discussion on challenges and opportunities. On the last day a field visit took place.
What I learned
After this marvelous three days of intense work I learned it is important to recognize the progress that it has been made in the region, but still there is much to do. The implementation of policies and technologies need to be complemented with a change of attitudes and behaviors. It is a priority to strength data collection and analysis from a multidisciplinary approach, and not solely by the traditional technical approach. Also, is vital to enhance water governance including and coordinating different stakeholders, specially regarding community consultation processes. It is important to recognize the major progress of regional and multidisciplinary cooperation, and the increasing political will to address this issues.
Youth is vital to achieve SDG6. Achieving full coverage of water and sanitation as well as improved hygiene practices relies on recognizing the problem and changing behaviors and practices. Young people can introduce new practices to their communities, as they are more flexible and receptive towards change. Also, their creativity and increasing multidisciplinary interests is crucial for new research approaches. Furthermore, their energy and vitality is extremely valuable in undertaking in situ tasks such as data collection and implementation of technologies.
Latin America’s context represents different challenges to ensure full coverage of safe and affordable drinkable water for all. For instance, Colombia is made up from six different natural regions, from planes to, jungle and mountain ranges. Also, the distribution of population across the country varies highly, and the rural areas are highly cultural diverse, have lower income and are difficult to access. Colombia also has to deal with increasing migration, particularly across borders with its neighbouring countries Although sometimes migration is part of the global tendency towards urbanization, it fosters the creation of informal settlements that need access to quality water. These characteristics defy not only the implementation of technical solutions to ensure access to safe water, but most importantly hampers the identification of the problem itself. It makes it difficult to gather data and set up consultation processes with communities to guarantee the implemented solutions are the most adequate and sustainable in the long-run.
Other challenges for the region are institutional arrangements and governance. On the one hand it is common to find that the management of water is diffused between numerous governmental institutions making cooperation, budget assignment and data sharing difficult. Also, on the ground there are many stakeholders working towards ensuring water security. In itself, this is great news,, however they have weak coordination and lack of effective communication channels which is a disadvantage when trying to access communities, initiate dialogues and implement solutions.
Solutions provided by the Workshop participants
The workshop participants identified two main tasks, for which they advise the Colombian government to invest in first and foremost: data and alternative solutions to ensure access to safe water in defying contexts.
Participants shared that the available data is incomplete, biased, does not portray the in-situ reality, and is not updated. Furthermore, data is not easily shared within institutions. The SIASAR- Sistema de Información de Agua y Saneamiento Rural (rural information system for water and sanitation) an initiative led by the governments of Honduras, Nicaragua and Panamá to which to date thirteen countries have joined was presented as good practice. It is an online platform that allows to easily collecting data in situ, updating and sharing it to facilitate the characterization of the problem and consequent decision-making process. In Colombia there is another initiative called IRCA- Índice de Riesgo de Calidad de Agua or water quality risk index- which main objective is to ensure the quality of water used for human consumption, beyond physical access. It not only measures microbiological particles that might have short-term effects in human health, but also chemical particles which indicate if its feasible and cost-effective to treat a particular water source in order to prevent chronic diseases.
After a robust data collection process is undertaken, it must be used to develop solutions accordingly to the context. For this it is proposed PSA- Planes de Seguridad de Agua ( water safety plans)which are holistic schemes that facilitate good practices for a proper disposal of safe and drinkable water through a multiple-barrier method. This means the water quality is constantly monitored from its origin source until it is consumed, innovating in its intra-domestic monitoring.
At the most local level it is proposed to introduce TANDAS- Tratamiento del Agua a Nivel Domiciliario- or HWTS ( Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage). This is a flexible and alternative approach to ensure safe and drinkable water in contexts where a regular aqueduct is not a feasible solution. It proposes that decentralized stakeholders can deliver differentiated services according to the specific needs of the context becoming control organisms; and governmental institutions will act as vigilance organisms over them. This means the service will not be provided by the government itself, but it is going to be assigned to other types of organizations i.e. local aqueducts or organizations from civil society, as they have a deeper knowledge of the context and can provide better solutions. It pretends to promptly upgrade the quality of water consumed in low-income households, particularly those of difficult access. These initiatives are now being regulated and included in governmental plans such as the 1898 of 2016 decree in Colombia, of differentiated schemes for the delivery of water, sewage and solid waste management in rural areas.
The workshop concluded with a field visit either to a school or a community where TANDAS was implemented. I chose the school visit, where Xylem in partnership with Agua para la Vida implemented “AquaTower”- a storage, filter and usage facility. The price of the project is around 15,000USD or 45’000,000COP and includes the technology, capacity building workshops for teachers and student leaders who become “guardians of the water”, and a 5 year monitoring plan with visits every 4 months. The device does not only benefits children attending the school, but the community in general as people can access the tower during the day to collect water. Through workshops it has been encouraged behavioral change process, which includes strengthening sanitation and hygiene practices for both the children and the community.