Needs and opportunities for water and sanitation in Latin America and the Caribbean

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The Latin America and Caribbean region still faces significant gaps in water supply and sanitation provision. Kala Vairavamoorthy and Daniel Nolasco outline some of the strengths and opportunities in the region, and ways that the International Water Association can support progress.


Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) can claim its fair share of diversity as a region of the world – the expanse of Brazil and Argentina, the small island states such as St Kitts and Nevis, the height extremes of Chile and Peru, and the abundant per capita water resources of sparsely populated Guyana.

There is diversity between countries and diversity within countries, but against this backdrop, headline figures for the region nonetheless highlight the current status and needs as far as water is concerned.

LAC is a region with a high degree of urbanisation. According to UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the region’s population was 644 million in 2017, of which 80% lived in urban areas. In general, there is good coverage in terms of water supply.

“Sewage treatment coverage is surprisingly low, given the region’s levels of income and urbanisation”

As elsewhere, sanitation lags behind. Regionally, sanitation coverage is put at 66% in terms of the population connected to a sewerage system. Less than 40% of the wastewater collected is treated. A parallel concern is shown in a recent review on the functioning of wastewater treatment plants by WaterAid. This highlighted evidence gathered by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation showing only 12 out of 194 plants in the Mexican state of Chiapas were functioning.

This is the picture today, but it is not a static one. The UNDESA 2018 estimate on urbanisation prospects puts the total population in the region at 718 million in 2030. Alongside this, we must add the impacts of global climate change. LAC will need to absorb its own set of implications, spanning the heights of the Andes, to river delta cities, to the island nations of the Caribbean. The point is that there is a need to anticipate the ongoing shift that must shape the water solutions pursued in the region.

Responses and opportunities

Such figures suggest some broad lines of thinking about the future of water in LAC.

One of the clearest is to note that sewage treatment coverage is surprisingly low, given the region’s levels of income and urbanisation. Wastewater management and treatment levels do vary significantly across countries, with the regional average masking this significant variation. But the general message is that the treatment deficit is a concern in terms of its impact on public health, environmental sustainability, and social equity.

Estimates of the investment required to meet the sanitation Sustainable Development Goal are in the range of $3 and $12 billion per year for the period 2016–30. LAC countries are indeed embarking on massive programmes to collect and treat wastewater in order to improve the wastewater situation in the region. This presents a huge opportunity for IWA to work in partnership with local and international institutions devoted to the water and sanitation fields. IWA members can get involved and contribute to the cause of cleaner water environment through aspects such as technology, innovation, professional exchanges, and conferences.

The general good coverage for water supply means there are numerous areas in which IWA and its network can contribute on this side of the sector too. These opportunities include the reduction of non-revenue water, management of intermittent water supply, development of adequate tariff systems, and implementation of energy recovery and energy-efficient distribution systems, to mention a few.

Sewage and the circular economy

The sewage treatment gap is of particular note; it provides an opportunity to take practical steps towards implementing a circular economy model. It is an opportunity to ensure that investments in wastewater management are made in the most sustainable and efficient way possible. It is also an opportunity from which other regions of the world can potentially learn.

The region’s high level of sewage collection but low level of treatment means there is a real chance to deploy alternative collection and treatment processes.

It is for this reason that in 2018 the World Bank launched the ‘Wastewater: from waste to resource’ initiative in the region, to raise awareness of wastewater’s potential as a resource (see separate article).

The initiative identifies key actions to achieve a paradigm shift. These are to:

  • Develop wastewater initiatives as part of a basin planning framework.
  • Shift away from wastewater treatment plants to water resource recovery facilities.
  • Maximise the use of the existing facilities by process evaluation and optimisation.
  • Explore innovative financing and sustainable businesses models.
  • Implement policy, institutional and regulatory frameworks to promote the shift.

The initiative notes that the LAC region already has very good examples of water resource recovery facilities.

More than this, there are already efforts under way within the LAC region to progress the circular economy approach. For example, in Brazil (see separate article), the National Institute of Science and Technology on Sustainable Sewage Treatment Plants (INCT Sustainable STPs) was created in 2017. This aims to realise a paradigm shift in sewage treatment in Brazil, built in particular around the use of anaerobic treatment technology. It is pursuing a model of closed cycles to make sewage treatment more sustainable and increase access to sanitation, and to deliver results of relevance to the wider LAC region.

The assessments made to date have looked at both small and large sewage treatment plants. They support the view of them as revenue generators, connecting with local economies through local supply of gas for household cooking and the production of sanitised sludge for use in agriculture, for example. The Brazil project also illustrates how IWA is fortunate to benefit from the participation of and contribution from key individuals in the region.

Connections and partnering

There are many actors in the LAC region – those within it and those coming from outside. IWA can use its network-based approach to connect these different actors in a way that supports change across key issues and themes.

IWA offers access to a network of exceptional reach and depth. The focused expertise of our Specialist Groups covers highly relevant themes. Our vibrant Young Water Professionals community challenges, informs, and helps spread thinking on evolving solutions. Our programmes and international partnerships provide acknowledged international best practice that guides practical action, such as Water Safety Plans and the IWA Principles for Water-Wise Cities. Knowledge and expertise are shared through events, publications, online resources, and through the direct peer group interactions of the diverse groupings that form under our flexible and adaptable structure.

Our potential to effect change, strengthening and expanding competence in the region, is multiplied through partnerships.

IWA has long and strong connections with the LAC region. Indeed, IWA was formally launched at our World Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2000. Further recent activities and fruitful partnerships have seen IWA achieve a considerable growth in recognition in the region in recent years, amply demonstrating the scale of our future opportunity.

IWA’s very successful Water and Development Congress & Exhibition in Buenos Aires in 2017 represented a landmark event. We are working to collaborate on events with organisations in the region, such as Associação Brasileira de Engenharia Sanitária e Ambiental (ABES), the Brazil Chapter of regional sector association AIDIS.

IWA has been also active in the development of close ties with AIDIS Chile, and recently agreed to cooperate with sector regulator SISS to progress the IWA Principles for Water-Wise Cities in the country. SISS has led development of Chile’s 2030 Water and Sanitation Agenda, presented at an event in December with participation of the country’s Minister of Public Works and Minister of Housing and Urban Planning. IWA Strategic Council member José Luis Inglese and SISS head Jorge Rivas signed a public letter in which SISS endorsed the Principles and the intention to work with IWA to follow the Principles and the SDG framework to achieve the aims of its 2030 Agenda.

AIDIS Argentina, AIDIS Chile and ABES have indicated that they will join IWA as Governing Members, and there are other tangible signs of progress.

Supporting utilities

The power of strategic partnerships and the part they can play in the region is highlighted by the work IWA has done to support utilities there, through a strong partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The AquaRating system for evaluating water utility performance was developed through a collaboration of IDB and IWA. The system has been designed to support utilities in transforming their management towards more efficient services delivery. To date, more than 60 utilities across the spectrum of utility sizes have gone through the AquaRating process. Among these, IDB has successfully implemented AquaRating with AySA, the water utility for the city of Buenos Aires and surrounding areas, which serves more than 14 million people. This full utility application of AquaRating represents one of the largest so far in the region.

This represents an influential contribution in its own right. IWA in partnership with IDB plans to take this further, by establishing a global AquaRating Community of Practice. With more than 700 practitioners around the world working with AquaRating, there is an opportunity to bring these together to support and accelerate learning on how to improve utility performance. This initiative will feature an online resource documenting the applications of cases. Significantly for the LAC, not only will the Community of Practice provide a platform for practitioners in the region to develop their expertise and share it with others in the LAC, it will open up the experiences in the region to others around the world.


IWA’s work on regulation, in the LAC region and more widely, is a particularly important opportunity, especially given the on-going needs for governance and institutional improvements in the region. It is again an opportunity in which partnerships can play a vital role.

This activity includes working with the Association of Regulators of Water and Sanitation of the Americas (ADERASA). In November 2018, IWA and ADERASA signed a memorandum of understanding to support operational improvement and commercial efficiency of water utilities in the region and strengthening of the LAC water sector through professional and capacity development of regulators and water professionals.

“The LAC region presents a tremendous opportunity for IWA and its membership to contribute to water and sanitation progress in the region”

This was followed in March 2019 by the creation of a Joint Commission of members from IWA and ADERASA, coordinated by the IWA Secretariat as part of its work on water policy and regulation. The commission’s three-year workplan focuses on capacity development, policy, and collaboration on innovation. The first part of the workplan was delivered during 2019 through a partnership with IDB, assessing regulators’ roles and regulatory frameworks for realising the human rights to water and sanitation in the LAC region.

In April 2019, at the Conferencia LatinoSan (Costa Rica), IWA held a session on human rights and launched the Spanish version of the ‘IWA Manual on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation for Practitioners’. In August 2019, IWA was invited to speak at the ABAR Congress in Brazil, organised by the multisector network of regulators of Brazil. There we launched the Basin Action Agenda in cooperation with ANA, ADASA and young water leaders.

IWA’s regulator-focused activity has included hosting a regional Water Regulators Forum in partnership with ADERASA, at the FIAR Ibero-America Forum on Regulation in Colombia in October 2019.

Ongoing activities in the water policy and regulation area include building on the first part of the Joint Commission workplan, developing and implementing a second phase focused on developing country-focused training and capacity building.

Supporting the opportunity

In sum, the LAC region presents a tremendous opportunity for IWA and its membership to contribute to water and sanitation progress in the region, particularly in the context of the 2030 target for the UN SDGs.

Given this tremendous opportunity, IWA will undertake a strong push in the LAC region over the coming 18 months in order take our contribution to the next level.

Practical steps IWA will take to support this include increasing the availability of Spanish/Portuguese translations of IWA publications and materials, to help improve access to our rich and authoritative knowledge base. We will also work more broadly than this to deliver bilingual platforms in order to extend our reach further. These may include, for example, working with regional partners to create bilingual websites for IWA Specialist Groups having a particular relevance to the LAC region.

IWA is also considering a regular, ideally biennial, event to be held in the LAC region – one that helps foster progress and innovation, and IWA is looking to do so in partnership with IDB.

These actions will all support progress with the many water-related opportunities in the region, not least around that for a Latin American leap to a circular economy approach to sewage treatment.

IWA’s strategic approach is to build partnerships with the already strong local actors. Working cooperatively through these partnerships, IWA is poised to have an effective and relevant impact in the region.


Dr Kala Vairavamoorthy is CEO of the International Water Association.

Daniel Nolasco is President of NOLASCO y Asociados SA and Chair of IWA’s Strategic Council