EL TIEMPO, March 24, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The Constitutional Court has reminded us that there are persistent failures in accessibility and quality of water supplies.
The United Nations has warned that Colombia’s progress will not accomplish the Objective of Guaranteeing Sustainable Development of Potable Water.
Two days ago, on March 22, at a time when we are reminded of water’s importance as a key in the struggle against the pandemic of the new coronavirus, the World Day of Water was celebrated.
Even though one of the most important weapons in the fight against Covid-19 is maintaining hygiene and washing your hands, the right to water is not guaranteed to all of the communities in this country. Today many people are seeing that something necessary to maintain their health is not available, or if they have it, it’s of poor quality.
To guarantee water throughout the pandemic, President Iván Duque announced that water service would be reconnected for one time without payment for nearly one million people whose water supply has been disconnected for nonpayment, so that they will be able to obtain water throughout the emergency.
That is not enough however. In Colombia, according to the Master Plan for Water and Basic Sanitation 2018-2030, residential public water service covers 92.4% at the national level. In the cities, according to the government, coverage is 97.4%, while in the rural sector it is 73.2%.
According to government statistics, however, among the people who have connection to water service, there are at least 3.8 million for whom the water comes to them through piping that is not free of risk, i.e., the water isn’t safe to drink. Of the 1,102 municipalities in the country, only 529 have a water supply that is not a threat to health.
And even though many towns have water service connections, not all of the municipalities have that service for 24 hours a day. Among provincial capitals, Riohacha, Santa Marta, Buenaventura, Quibdó, Mocoa, San Andrés, and Leticia only have water between 10 and 18 hours per day.
Besides that, only 42% of the municipalities have sewage treatment plants.
Using these measurements, and considering the current rate of progress in furnishing water in this country, the United Nations has warned that Colombia will not meet its sustainable development objective number 6, related to guaranteeing clean water and sanitation. These Objectives of Sustainable Development (ODS in Spanish) are very important now that the water shortage affects more than 40 percent of the world’s population.
It’s because of these kinds of indications and analysis, and because of the World Day of Water, that the Constitutional Court this week noted the importance of this right, a right guaranteed by Article 366 of the Constitution.
In its history, the high court has issued several different decisions to protect the people who don’t have access to this vital liquid. In a decision from last year, for example, the Constitutional Court held that the government has the duty to guarantee access to potable water to people deprived of their liberty.
It was the case of an inmate of the prison in Yopal (Casanare Province) who claimed that while in prison his health was at risk, not only because of the lack of medical attention, but also because of the lack of potable water, the bad condition of the sewage pipes, and the shortage of toilets, among other deficiencies.
This case led the high court to note that water is a universal right, since human beings need it in order to live. It is also an unalterable right because it can’t be reduced or modified beyond objective biological limits; because it is a condition for the subsistence of every individual, and therefore every person has a right to access to this service in a manner sufficient to satisfy thirst and keep clean.
Furthermore, water that is fit to drink has to come to homes and places where people reside. That was decided, for example, when the Court received a civil rights action from a man suing the City of Ibagué and several agencies because of the water being furnished to a community residence he had purchased in 2017.
The situation was such that, according to the Risk Index of Quality of Water for Human Consumption, the water being drunk by the people living there had had a high level of risk for several months, and was a danger to health.
For that reason, the Court said, in order to carry out the guarantee of the right to water, they had to guarantee its quantity, availability, and quality.
With respect to quantity, even though this country’s Constitution does not speak of a minimum of water that right has been recognized internationally. It happened in 2002 in the International Agreement on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, where is was established that availability of water that is sufficient, healthful, acceptable, accessible, and affordable is a condition necessary to guarantee other rights, such as the rights to life, health, and a balanced diet.
Thus, according to the World Health Organization and the Constitutional Court itself, a person must receive a minimum of between 50 and 100 liters of water each day.
With regard to availability, the Court has held that the supply of the liquid to every person must be continuous and sufficient for personal and domestic use. So water service may not be intermittent or episodic.
For that reason the Court has also said that, in special circumstances, failure to pay for public services cannot result in turning off a person’s service, because that violates the right to availability of water. If people’s water service is suspended, there is a failure, in a disproportionate manner, to recognize their rights and the effect on their living conditions.
A third element of the right to water is its quality, because it must be healthful and must not contain microorganisms or chemical or radioactive substances that constitute a threat to health.
In order to be sure that this right reaches everybody, moreover, the Court has said that the provision of potable water service may be in the hands of the government itself, organized communities, or private entities.
Service cut for failure to pay:
The first area is the scenario where water service is cut off for failure to pay. In this situation, the high court has said that in the homes classified as level 1 by the Unified Vulnerability Assessment and Identification System for Social Assistance (SISBEN in Spanish), failure to pay does not justify disconnection of water service. Neither may service be suspended for a subsequent failure to pay if the disconnection violates due process or affects rights of specially protected people, or if it affects protected establishments or the material conditions of existence for a group.
In the cases of specially protected people, such as the elderly, children, persons with disabilities or the sick, the Court has said that they are responsible for stating how the service cut will affect them, and how the failure to pay is because of circumstances that are “involuntary, insurmountable, or uncontrollable.”
Absence of pipelines or shortage of water:
The Court has held that the right to water is violated when service is discontinued, or when there is no water because there is no pipeline. It also establishes that water service may not be suspended in emergency situations. Because of this holding, people can file civil rights actions, for example, and the Court may require public or private authorities to guarantee service if they have interfered with the right to water.
Effects of contamination on water sources:
The Court has held that contaminated water puts at risk the rights to life, to a decent home, to health, and to a decent life. Because of that the government has a duty to guarantee environmental sanitation so that water resources will be potable.
Moreover, if a sewage treatment zone is close to water sources that are intended for human consumption, this situation contravenes the right to water.
And in cases of environmental contamination, the citizens must be able to take part in the decisions that affect them. While the problems of contamination of water sources are in the process of being resolved, the government must guarantee that there will be systems to furnish water to the people. There is also an requirement that those who contaminate a water source must clean it up.