Colombia Campaign Seeks to Make Water a Constitutional Right

(IPS) – Sixty environmental, indigenous, labor and social organizations in Colombia are carrying out a campaign for a constitutional amendment that would make access to clean water a fundamental right. The proponents of the initiative have already fulfilled the first legal requirement by collecting some 135,000 signatures, equivalent to five out of every 1,000 registered voters.

But they now face a bigger challenge.

Once the signatures are certified as valid by the Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil (national registry), the organizations will have to gain the support of 1.5 million Colombians in order for Congress to call a referendum in which voters would decide in favor of or against the proposed constitutional amendment.

The initiative included an awareness-raising caravan along the Magdalena river, which ended Friday when it reached the port of Girardot, 133 km southwest of the capital.

In this country of 42 million, nearly 12 million people have no access to clean water and four million have limited access, i.e. to a public faucet, according to the Defensoría del Pueblo (ombudsman’s office).

Ironically, Colombia is the second country in Latin America in terms of average annual renewable freshwater resources, and seventh in the world, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

But despite the abundance, the governmental Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) predicts that 69 percent of the Colombian population will suffer from a lack of clean water in 2025.

The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and trade unions promoting the constitutional amendment point to the privatization of water utilities, which was authorized by law in 1993, as one of the causes of the problem.

"Of the country’s 349 water companies, 141 are private and 24 are mixed," reports the CENSAT Agua Viva/Friends of the Earth Colombia.

One of the NGO’s researchers, Danilo Urrea, told IPS that "privatization has significantly driven up the cost of water services, and the granting of concessions to private operators has also given rise to scandals and corruption."

In addition, there has been an attempt to charge a toll for navigating the Magdalena river along the stretch where it flows into the Barranquilla port on the Caribbean coast.

The Magdalena river emerges in southwestern Colombia and runs through 18 of the country’s 22 departments (provinces) for over 1,500 kilometers before reaching the Caribbean.

In the 1970s, 70,000 tons of fish were caught in the river annually, an amount that shrunk to 40,000 in the 1980s, 20,000 in the 1990s and just 8,000 today.

That problem is also on the agenda of the groups carrying out the campaign. "You can’t just put an end to public utilities arguing that the state is corrupt. What must be achieved is management of water for the benefit of the population as a whole," said Urrea.

The petition drive to collect signatures in favor of the constitutional amendment was launched on May 1, International Workers’ Day, in several cities around Colombia.

Various actions were carried out in the following two months, mainly organized by young people. This month, during the first forum for water and life in the Caribbean, held in the city of Barranquilla, the caravan set out on the Magdalena river, reaching Girardot on Friday.

One of the country’s most heavily polluted rivers, the Bogotá river, flows into the Magdalena at the port of Girardot. The Bogotá is a dumping ground for chemical residues from the cut-flower industry and tanneries.

This first stage of the campaign is coming to a close with "a positive evaluation," said Urrea. "Even if we are not successful in our attempt to hold a referendum, we have carried out awareness-raising efforts in cities and towns along the river, which was part of our overall objective. And of course we will continue working."

Minister of the environment, development and housing Juan Lozano recently stated in a televised debate that he will put a priority on recuperating the country’s water resources, and that maintaining a public water service and preserving the environment were aims that he shared.

If a referendum is held and voters come out in favor of a constitutional amendment, Colombia will be following Uruguay’s lead.

In late 2004, that small South American country became the first nation in the world to introduce a constitutional amendment declaring water resources a public good and prohibiting the privatization of water and sewage services.