Opinion space about water and its challenges

26 January 2015

Cartagena de Indias: the case of the Nelson Mandela settlement

Foto Nelson M 8

Agbar began its activities in Colombia back in 1995, when it was awarded the tender for the selection of the operating partner of Acuacar, a new PPP water and sewerage company, in which the District of Cartagena would be the public partner. I was lucky enough to form part of the team deployed there, where I worked until the beginning of 2000. 

The tender was promoted by the World Bank, aware of the deficient situation of the water and sewerage service, and its impact on the living conditions of a city which, at that time, already had 600,000 inhabitants and was growing in a chaotic manner, due to the daily arrival of displaced persons from the war zones of the interior of the country. The Nelson Mandela settlement was established precisely at that time, with the arrival of dozens of families in the south-east of the city.

At the time, the city’s water service coverage was very deficient, with an average continuity of some 14 hours a day, and often in non-drinking conditions. An important part of the population received its supplies from private tanks, which charged abusive prices to a population in very precarious socio-economic conditions. Only about half of households were connected to basic sewerage, implying serious health problems which especially affected the child population. The absence of water collection and wastewater treatment systems had an impact on the bodies of water which surround the city, the Bay and the Ciénaga de la Virgen, of great environmental and tourist value.

The situation was so difficult that, with the exception of Agbar, no other international water company dared to become involved in the project. For us it was, however, a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how professional, socially oriented and technologically advanced management could turn around such a difficult situation. We were also convinced that success in Cartagena could convert it into an international benchmark, in view of its dual condition as an important tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cartagena now has a million inhabitants, and the water cycle is no longer a problem. The water supply service covers all citizens. A wastewater treatment system has likewise been set up which guarantees discharges under optimal environmental conditions, and the sewerage network is close to reaching the last population settlements.

The increase in demand for water has basically been covered with the same production capacity which existed in the 90s, on capturing all the efficiency reserves existing in the system, that is to say systematically reducing the network losses. The authorities and the World Bank recognize the positive impact of the project from a social point of view and quote it as a model to tackle complicated situations in other cities, in a context of increasing urbanization of the population in Latin America.

Nelson Mandela currently has 30,000 inhabitants and last October inaugurated its sewerage network, a project co-financed by Acuacar and the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation. It is worth devoting a couple of minutes to watching this video and understanding the need to replicate and promote successful experiences which allow the effective protection of the human right to water.


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