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"Pollution and overexploitation of water resources are two major challenges in Latin America"

  • "Pollution and overexploitation of water resources are two major challenges in Latin America"
    Helder Ernesto Solis Carrión, Technical Undersecretary of Water Resources at SENAGUA

About the entity

The mission of the 'Secretaría Nacional del Agua' is to direct the integral and integrated management of water resources throughout the national territory through policies, norms, control and decentralized management.

To take a closer look at the water situation in Latin America as a whole, at SWM we have carried out a series of interviews on #WaterinLATAM. Different public officials and experts in this field from Latin America have told us about the current situation and the future challenges that countries are facing with regards to water.

Today we talk with Helder Ernesto Solis Carrión, Technical Undersecretary of Water Resources at SENAGUA, the government department in charge of water in Ecuador.

Question - What do you think are the main water problems in Latin America?

Answer - Inequality intensifies water conflicts. The region of Latin America and the Caribbean includes more than 40 countries very rich in natural resources, including water resources.

According to the FAO, the region has one third of the water resources in the planet; even so, it faces great challenges.

Water resources pollution and overexploitation could be the two major challenges affecting access to water and hindering sustainable development in our region. Only 14% of waste water undergoes treatment; this figure usually corresponds to cities (urban areas) who have invested in waste water treatment infrastructure. With regards to rural areas, the reality is quite different: in addition to waste water pollution from large cities, rural areas are exposed to the expansion of the agricultural frontier, mining and oil exploitation, and other activities that have as externalities poor water quality in rivers.

Although in our region water resources are generally abundant, their regional and local distribution leads to exposure to floods and droughts, as well as overexploitation of water resources. Moreover, we do not know much about their quality or quantity.

Q - How about in your country in particular?

A - In Ecuador, 88% of the population live in the Pacific drainage basin, with limited water resource availability, since only 31% of the water resources are in this basin.

At the national level, approximately 80% of the population has access to water and 64.5% has some type of sanitation; however, these percentages are much lower in rural areas, with coverages below 40% in small communities with less than 200 households.

'65% of the water flowing at an elevation of less than 2000 metres above sea level are polluted and not suitable for human consumption' (J Jurado 2010). Water quality analyses done after 2012 revealed that in more than 50% of the sampling points in water bodies, water quality does not comply with the maximum allowable limits for human consumption.

Additionally, water resource use is informal, hiding deliberately the fact that water is controlled by a few dominant actors, for certain purposes linked to the concentration of land and means of production.  

Q - What measures is the Government taking in this regard?

A - In Ecuador we have defined goals to address water access problems and reduce the gaps between urban and rural areas. To this effect, a plan to provide safe water and sanitation for all [Misión Agua Segura y Saneamiento para Todos] has been drafted, to finance and promote the construction of infrastructure that ensures access to water, mainly in small and medium-sized municipalities, with the participation of community organisations involved in water services. The focus is on rural areas, to address discrimination in relation to water access and ensure everyone in the country has a good quality of life.

In addition, in compliance with the Organic Law on Water Resources and their Use, the country is promoting the preservation of water sources and appropriate management of public waters. Consequently, Drinking Water Protected Areas are being defined with the participation and support of local and regional decentralised governments and community-based managers. Moreover, the creation of a National Water Fund has been proposed, with revenue collected from raw water tariffs, to be invested specifically in the preservation of water sources.

In the medium term, public authorities are committed to regularising informal water users and redistributing water.

Q - Over the past few years we have seen the concept of water governance gaining momentum. Is there awareness about the importance of water governance in your country? What are the main gaps?

A - The concept of democratic water governance took hold in the country in 2000-2001, with the purpose of improving water management; the first actions undertaken were workshops to discuss reforms to the Water Law. After the current legislation was approved in 2014, water management was given a greater weight with the creation of the Water Authority, and a proposal to implement Basin Councils as mechanisms of participation. This piece of legislation established that water management can be only public or community-based, setting some limits to privatisation processes, and ensuring the visibility of more than 10,000 organisations, and their participation in management.  

The main gaps in water governance in the country lie in structural problems related to education, access to information and appreciation of different cultures and nations. Providing water-related services requires certain technical and social management abilities which the different actors do not always have; instead, they favour uniform management at the expense of the rich diversity of community-based management and existing successful experiences. A vision that favours the role of the central government as a manager of this strategic resource is also a barrier to real collective management experiences.

The information required for appropriate management is limited and relies on the involvement and understanding of several sectors and actors. Currently there are only water balances at the level of river basins, but decisions are made at more specific levels, thus management cannot happen without participatory monitoring and modern water management.

Out department has put a lot of effort into renovating the vision of water management incorporating regulations and policies that enable a multicultural vision and real mechanisms of democratic governance. These include, for instance, community-based water management, the creation of 46 basin councils, a 'water school' as a platform for professionalisation, and public consultations on policies and plans, among others.

Q - Is the existing legislation enough to manage water resources?

A -  National water management regulations that stem from the 2014 Organic Law on Water Resources and their Use encompass a broad range of aspects related to integrated water resource management. These and other regulations cover important legal aspects not addressed previously. However, the implementation of this law is still a complex issue because there are some gaps in technical guidelines and no resources to apply it to specific routine cases.

Q - What is the coverage of water supply and sanitation services in the country? What investments are required to increase coverage?

A - According to the National Drinking Water and Sanitation Strategy (2016), the service coverage is as follows:




Water supply coverage

Sanitation coverage










Rural ‘parroquias’ (municipal subdivisions)



Rural: communities with <200 households



Rural: communities with <100 households




As mentioned earlier, the plan to provide safe water and sanitation for all outlines the need to invest 2 billion dollars (government term), of which 266 million dollars would be allocated during a first phase, benefiting 62 districts and 1.2 million people.

Municipal regional decentralised governments are responsible for providing drinking water and sanitation. SENAGUA developed the National Drinking Water and Sanitation Strategy jointly with municipal governments; the strategy provides strategic guidance and promotes the plan to provide safe water and sanitation for all.

Q -  Agricultural water use plays a key role in the development of Latin America; what progress has been made in the country in the past few years? What are the objectives in this regard for the coming years?

A -  We are updating the National Irrigation and Drainage Plan, including infrastructure and actions to ensure that small and medium-sized land owners have access to water for farming activities, combining visions of food sovereignty and agricultural exports.

In addition, we are implementing actions to foster technified irrigation, to allow small and medium-sized farmers with up 20 ha in highland areas, and up to 40 ha on the coast to access technified irrigation. As well, they will receive technical support to strengthen associations, develop environmental and productive economy practices and market their products.

In Ecuador, only 13.8% of the irrigated land surface has technified irrigation systems, so implementing these actions is essential.

Provincial decentralised governments are responsible for irrigation and drainage. SENAGUA works jointly with them to define strategies and policies for the sector. Every year the national government transfers resources for investments, and for the operation and maintenance of decentralised governments, co-financing the sector.

Q: Estimates indicate that the cost of low quality water in Latin America entails a loss of 1% to 3% of the GDP. Are there measurements of water quality in the country? What are the investments in this area?

A - According to the analyses done between 2013 and 2015, the compliance of water sources with quality criteria varies widely; the data in the following table shows evidence of low water quality.

Water quality criteria for water sources

Tables 1-3-5 in current environmental regulations

Sampling campaigns (year)

Annual per cent of non-compliance




Table 1: Quality criteria for water sources intended for human consumption




Table 3: Allowable quality criteria for the preservation of wildlife and aquatic organisms in freshwater, marine waters and estuaries




Table 5: Quality criteria for water intended for agricultural irrigation




Source: SENAGUA – National Water Quality Network, 2015

The plan to provide safe water and sanitation for all estimated that the investments planned could reduce by 310 million dollars per year the expenses incurred due to water-borne diseases in the country.

Q - In general terms, does the user pay for all the costs of water conveyance and treatment? How are water prices set for the different uses?

A - Water users that withdraw water directly from the source pay a set tariff for raw water. Water used for human consumption and irrigation to ensure food sovereignty is exempt from payment. The raw water tariff is established by SENAGUA, and the tariff for services provided is set by each operator, based on the criteria and parameters under the Law, its regulations and other secondary regulations.

Water conveyance and treatment is the responsibility of service providers, whether they are community organisations or municipal decentralised governments, and they set the tariff for the service provided directly. According to the Water Services Regulatory Authority (ARCA), this tariff, for the most part, does not have a technical basis, and is insufficient to ensure the sustainability of the service. The regulatory authority has defined criteria to establish service tariffs that providers must abide by.

Q - What are the most important achievements in the country with regards to water security?

A - The most important achievements are:

  • Investments in drinking water and sanitation in small and medium-sized municipalities, which in a first phase will benefit 1.3 million people.
  • Creation and implementation of 'water schools' at the national level.
  • Delimitation of seven drinking water protected areas to preserve the sources that provide water to 4.3 million people.
  • Implementing a monitoring network with 375 points in the nine river basins, including two bi-national monitoring networks (Ecuador-Colombia and Ecuador-Peru).
  • Upgrading the Water Quality Laboratory infrastructure at the DHPC, which was fitted with instruments and equipment specialised in physico-chemical water analyses.
  • Seven groundwater aquifers were prioritised at the national level to study them in detail and prepare a management plan.
  • A project to describe surface water bodies during the dry season at the national level is under development.
  • National Water Quality Strategy.
  • National Drinking Water and Sanitation Strategy.

Q - Are public policies taking into account the effects of climate change?

A - There have been projects to analyse the infrastructure to generate hydropower and climate change scenarios. As well, there is a Climate Change Division that coordinates the Interinstitutional Climate Change Committee, which includes the water sector. Several local 'water funds' are participating in the project PROAMAZONÍA, which aims to reduce deforestation in the Amazon basin, and are measuring the emissions prevented by reducing deforestation.

A proposal was presented to the Euroclima+ programme dealing with water and cities, to analyse the vulnerability to climate change of several projects receiving funding from the plan to provide safe water and sanitation for all.

Q - What are the main water resource management challenges into the future?

A - The main challenges are as follows:

  • Agreements with the different water management stakeholders (water funds, local governments, communities, community-based managers).
  • Investments in grey infrastructure together with investments in capacity building and green infrastructure.
  • Determine specific and national actions to reduce untreated discharges, penalise pollution and promote water use efficiency.
  • Generate mechanisms to regularise and redistribute water.
  • Formalise processes to manage hydrometeorological information for water resource management.
  • Mechanisms to ensure meaningful participation and collective decision-making.
  • Develop sector-based planning processes and water public policy.
  • Professionalise water management and associated services.
  • Strengthen regulations and their enforcement.
  • Standardise and streamline water administration and management processes, favouring water security and safeguarding people's rights.

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