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The Human Right to Water & Sanitation applied by the IDB and the Aquafund

Suma Qamara is the expression of life of the Aymara people in the Altiplano.  The translation literally means to live in peace with oneself, in peace with other people, and in peace with the environment. The protection of the environment was at the cornerstone of the indigenous people of Latin America. Water, a precious public good, was captured and distributed through sophisticated systems long before modern times. It was available for everyone in the community. There was no written constitution at that point in time, but access to water was for the whole community, it was a customary right.

500 years later, water has become a scarce good and not available for everyone. Even though the Latin American region is rich in water sources and resources, service is unequal, quality is degrading, access is not always affordable, administration of the resource is negligent, and supply is threatened by climate vulnerabilities specifically melting glaciers and droughts.

How important is water for public health? It is vital; the lack of sanitation leads to sickness, low self-esteem, and marginalization. These are some of the reasons why The United Nations (UN) proclaimed the access to water and sanitation as a new Human Right in 2010. The UN Comission on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights defines the right more specifically: „The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses“. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) included increasing the access to safe drinking water and sanitation to half of the population who lacked this right. Now, let’s look at the other “half” that is still left out, those who were not among the ones that got access through the achievements of the MDG. There is a common denominator: these are informal settlements in per-urban areas or rural disperse communities with very limited economic means. They are the real poor and vulnerable. And then, it would be necessary to ask: how do we reach them?

In August 2015, we learned from Leo Heller, special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and from Dan Bena of the Pepsico Foundation at the World Water Week that “the water sector and the Human Rights sector talk different languages; putting them together has not been an easy task”. In fact, there is still confusion about what this right entails, and who is responsible for assuring its implementation. Mr. Heller for his part emphasized that this right is governed by several general principles: i) Equality and Non Discrimination (all populations have the right to get Water Sanitation services); ii) Accountability (deliver information to users and non-users); iii) Sustainability and non retrogration (the right must be maintained during emergency situations, draught, or displacement of population); (iv) citizen participation (a means for people to claim their rights for safe water & effective sanitation).

Although this kind of gatherings is necessary, advocacy alone is not enough to reach the implementation the human right to water and sanitation. Providing water is not an act of “charity”, rather a legal obligation. Therefore, the IDB and its partners in the AquaFund (MoF from Austria, Economic State Secretariat of Switzerland, Swiss Development Corporation, Pepsico Foundation and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation) use the fund as an instrument to lay the ground to enable the policy process in a country, prepare for the necessary investments, strengthen countries’ institutions and empower the community. In fact, at the AquaFund we want to break the “middle ground”.

We do not suggest a top down political process, nor a revolution from the bottom! To provide the water as a human right, all stakeholders should participate. While the voice of the needed should be heard, appropriate authorities should create the conditions so that the service can be affordable for informal settlements in per-urban areas or rural disperse communities.  The approach should be the provision to both urban and rural areas in an equitable way. As good as this sounds, the implementation does not come without challenges: it also entails finding solutions for those who cannot afford to connect to the network, those who do not understand the importance of hygiene, or those who do not find the right condition in using water without embarrassment like special needs for women.

The road map of the AquaFund is complex but articulated:

A grant project was recently approved which aims to providing a practical guide and applicable cases on implementing the human right to water and sanitation and basic applicable cases.

More visible, the AquaFund is engaged in a practical efforts to enhance the provision of water and sanitation services to informal settlements in peri-urban areas or rural disperse communities. In four countries of the region specialists are working with local and national government entities, local and international water NGO’s to implement water and sanitation services as pilot projects. The goal is to provide solutions in regard to the policy process, accountability, sustainability of the service, and community involvement and participation to facilitate the implementation on a large scale of the service to the poor. The method is simple: implement pilot projects financed by the AquaFund, draw lessons for replication, prepare practical handbooks with applicable business models, and provide loans to service providers for investments that use the inputs from the pilot interventions.

Part of the effort to implement human rights to water and sanitation is the pilot project for the recovery and modernization of the ancient water system of the Aymara people in the central Andes. Another project of the AquaFund worth mentioning is taking place in Peru: enhancement of the use of water and sanitation in the households of the poor. The project selected four pilot areas of the country: rural, peri-urban, coastal area and the highlands where the technical assistance promotes the use of water and sanitation for different purposes: showers, kitchen sink, toilets, and facilitates these types of improvement through a line of micro-credits and hygiene education.

So what’s different in implementing the human right to water and sanitation? We have to put our boots on the ground! We have to make the voices of the needed heard, connect them with the decision makers, and help develop practical models to provide an affordable and sustainable service.

Water: a warning or a threat?

From Vesuvio to Cotopaxi, 3 crossing points to survival

Who does not like Robert Harris, the novelist? In his 2003 novel Pompeii, he tells the story of Marcus Attilius Primus, who arrives in the Bay of Naples from Rome to take charge Aqua Augusta, the aqueduct that supplies water to the many towns in a region encompassing the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. Springs were failing for the first time in generations. With aid from Pliny the Elder, a famous naturalist and natural philosopher, Attilius assembled an expedition to travel to Pompeii, the closest town still being supplied with water, and then on to the blocked section of the Aqua Augusta, to look into the problem.

The problem in the water supply system, as we discover, was caused by the accelerating eruption process of Mount Vesuvio, a stratovolcano laying the Gulf of Naples, about 9 km east of the beautiful city of Naples.

Unfortunately, Harris has this amazing ability to use real facts to build credible historical fiction. In fact, as we know well, the eruption of Mount Vesuvio was no joke, and the only hints of an eruption came a few days before the event, when the underground water sources ran dry and a minor earthquake occurred. Also, Pliny the Elder really existed. According to his nephew’s report, he died on Aug. 24, 79 AD, in an attempt to learn of an unusual cloud formation, later found to have resulted from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Underground water flow was the only sign, the only hint, the only warning. Run. Go away. Water was a friend that no one listened to. KaBOOM.

2015. I wake up at 5AM. At about 5:35AM, on any clear day on my way to work from Cumbaya to Quito I see a beautiful mountain: Cotopaxi. Besides looking like an amazing symmetrical upside down gelato-cone, Cotopaxi is also an active volcano, located about 50 km south of Quito.

In April 2015, the volcano began to show signs of unrest and came back to life. There was a large increase in earthquakes and SO2 emissions. On August 14 and 15, an ash and steam eruption occurred.

79 AD. Vesuvio. Water. A warning.

2015 AD
. Cotopaxi. Water. A threat.

The production process of potable water in the Metropolitan District of Quito starts from the springs and slopes from which the Empresa Publica Metropolitana de Agua y Saneamiento de Quito (EPMAPS) gets its water. There are four systems:

La Mica – Quito Sur, which captures the waters coming from the Volcán Antisana, with a capacity of about 1,650 liter per second;
El Sistema Conducciones Occidentales, which captures the waters from the sub-systems of Atacazo, Lloa and Pichincha, with a capacity of about 700 liter per second;
El Sistema Papallacta Integrado, which captures the waters from the Antisana reserve, with a capacity of about 3,000 liter per second;
El Sistema Conducciones Orientales, which captures the waters from río Pita, with a capacity of about 3,000 liter per second.
Why would water be a threat? Well, it would be a threat for these systems from the Cotopaxi itself … The main problem relies in the destructive force of the lahar, a hot or cold mixture of water (with glacial ice and snow) and rock fragments flowing down the slopes of a volcano and river valleys. When moving, a lahar looks like a mass of wet concrete that carries rock debris ranging in size from clay to boulders more than 10 meters in diameter. Depending on the slope characteristics, it can reach a speed up to 100 kilometers per hour and flow distances of more than 300 kilometers, causing absolute destruction in its path.

Now imagine: the Cotopaxi glacier has an estimated volume of 1.0 km3. Its snow and ice fields cover approximately 20 km2. In case of an eruption, catastrophic lahares could potentially spring and flow down river valleys, which would become natural drainage canals.

EPMAPS’s water distribution system passes under river valleys in 3 points:

In the San Pedro river, with waters belonging to the Papallacta system
In the Pita and Santa Clara rivers, with waters belonging to the Mica Sur System.

Three key crossing points that are at risk. They are so important: in the most pessimistic scenario, lahares flowing down the Pita and Santa Clara rivers would break the distribution pipes and interrupt the water flow from the Pita and La Mica systems. Additionally, the syphon that crosses the San Pedro River would be damaged, breaking a precious connection in the distribution system of the Papallacta system.

This scenario would represent a loss in the water volume for EPMAPS water supply of about 80%. Just for three crossing points that at the moment are key for the whole distribution system.

EPMAPS is taking extra-ordinary measures to deal with the situation and the Quito Municipality and the Central Government are acting fast.

The clock is ticking…Will we make it? Men against volcanoes. Again.

Water. We need your help again. A hint. A warning.

See also previous blog on water as life and destruction: