By Paula J. Dobriansky, Former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs & Matthew Swift, Co-Founder, Chairman & CEO of Concordia
On September 25th, at the 2018 Concordia Annual Summit in New York City, President Iván Duque Márquez announced Colombia’s commitment to WASH in HCF – the UN program for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene in all health care facilities, – and the UN Secretary General’s Water Action Decade Plan. President Duque pledged that “for us, it is the right tool and the right mechanism to reach low-income communities, provide them water, sewer, and sanitation, and—with that—have a positive impact on health so we can reduce diseases that are transmittable.”
Each day, over 800 children around the world die from preventable diseases caused by poor water, along with a day-to-day lack of sanitation and hygiene, according to UNICEF – the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, launched the Water Action Decade Action Plan on World Water Day in March 2018 to combat these extreme challenges. This global call to action for water, sanitation, and hygiene in all health care facilities reestablished the importance of WASH in HCF programs and realigned them with the 2030 agenda, providing a framework for the next 10 years of action.
However, while water has been such a crucial issue for the modern world, it has often lacked leadership. President Duque’s show of support for WASH in HCF has been a welcome change of pace on the global stage, signifying a crucial step for Colombia on its path to a healthier and more resilient population. President Duque has risen to become a leading voice on this critical challenge and has undertaken bold plans to address the issue directly.
Currently, 20% of the Colombian population lives in rural areas with no access to potable water and wastewater treatment infrastructure. The northern coastal region of La Guajira has been hit especially hard. After a three-year drought ended in 2015, a representative of the Wayuu indigenous peoples of La Guajira confirmed that over 4,700 children had died from malnutrition over a five-year period.
Last month at a community workshop, President Duque announced the formation of Guajira Azul, an ambitious project to improve water quality levels in La Guajira from 20% to 86% and increase coverage from just 4% to over 70%. The initiative will invest 420 billion pesos over four years and bring in significant engagement from both the public and private sectors, fulfilling a major promise of Duque’s presidential campaign. This is an important step towards reducing communicable diseases in Colombia and providing desperately needed support to rural regions.
President Duque has recognized that improving water and sanitation facilities in this region will help bring Colombians together, provide critical health services, support rural Colombian livelihoods, and aid in the peace process. While the Colombian economy is improving, growth remains low and significant inequality, poverty, and corruption persists. President Duque’s initiatives in the La Guajira region can serve as an example to follow in other areas of Colombia that are also in need sustainable and consistent access to potable water, waste-water treatment, and sanitation facilities. Local and regional focused improvements should be accompanied by national efforts to build and improve WASH in health care facilities throughout Colombia. It is an important step and one that should be acknowledged and supported by the Colombian people, by foreign investors, and by the international community.
It is important for financial institutions and private sector companies to participate in these great public works projects by sharing the burden of the building costs, and by recognizing and investing in the future of a strong and increasingly prosperous Colombia. The Duque administration will do well to build partnerships with private enterprise that have the resources and ability to help drive development and tackle these important challenges for the Colombian people. With extreme weather conditions increasing in frequency, expanding essential water and sanitation facilities in major urban areas as well as building new and innovative systems in rural areas will be an important factor in Colombia’s continued growth and prosperity.
Colombia is blessed with some of the most diverse, plentiful, and beautiful natural resources in the world and harnessing them to support the Colombian people and the Colombian economy is a critical initiative for President Duque. Through a commitment to the needs of the Colombian people and in partnership with private enterprise, the administration can provide opportunities to Colombians and serve an example to other nations in the Americas.