The thirst of Bogotá’s poor

Antonio writes*

While reading about the water supply problems in Bogotá, I encountered a quote that applies to water-related challenges in many places of our planet, including Bogotá: “The thirst for water is above all the thirst of the poor” (attributed to the Uruguayan geologist Danilo Antón).

Bogotá has around eight million inhabitants and is rich in water to the east and west where the ‘cerros’ – a chain of hills part of the Andes- delimit the city’s borders.

Towards the south is one of the most astonishing ecosystems, a core regulator of water flows, and the biggest of its kind: the Páramo de Sumapaz (paramo appears to translate as “moor”). This holy place for the native indigenous communities Muiscas is the natural source of most of Bogotá’s water wealth and the source of the city’s most precious river: Río Tunjuelo.

As a result of the health and water problems of the late 19th century (e.g. dysentery outbreaks), the Sumapaz moor was stripped of its indigenous symbolism to become a scientific response to the need to obtain water for the city through the largest river, the Tunjuelo. Its waters supplied the first modern aqueduct to Bogota, and the river’s basin was then urbanized in less than 100 years, turning it into the home of two-fifths of Bogota’s population. As the direct solution for water problems at the beginning of the last centuries, the aqueduct from the river was initially planned to provide clean water to the growing capital city. However, it has failed in doing so.

Despite being a magical source of life, the Tunjuelo River is also the source of the thirst for equality. It passes through the south of Bogotá, where only people of the social strata 1 and 2 live (the two poorest in Colombia’s social stratification ‘support’ system). The river’s water is pumped to supply this part of the city. But, an increase in industrialization since the 60s has had two spillover effects: significant pollution and lack of clarity in water rights, leaving thousands of families without access to the rich, drinkable water of the river.

Industries producing detergents, tanning hides, producing concrete and  mining (illegally) have dumped pollutants into the river over time. In 2022, the presence of illegal mining practices in the sectors surrounding the Tunjuelo River affected around one and a half million people who live and work in this part of the city due to the high sediment deposits produced by these industrial practices. So, instead of rocks, the riverbed shows a tapestry of disposable containers, dead animals, car tires and plastic bags tangled on the bank because of irresponsible and non-regulated commercial activities. And what is the effect? Thirst. Thirst for those who are excluded from having clean water.

But even this is a secondary problem from which only the most privileged among the poor in the south suffer. This part of the city still represents the thirst among the poorest among the poor in water-rich Colombia. Around 20,000 families live without any water service in more than 10 irregular settlements in the districts near the Tunjuelo River.

Bottom Line: Despite being rich in water resources, Bogotá’s poor have a big thirst for water.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “The thirst of Bogotá’s poor”

  1. Hi Antonio,
    It seems like a lot of water issues come from poor water management, depletion of water resources, as well as pollution from industries. I was wondering if the government or the municipality has implemented some policies and regulations to improve water access between the different social strata of the city and if not, if corruption or lobbying from industries could be the reason why.

    1. Dear Julie,
      Thank you for your comment!
      Bogotá is a city with a lot of inequality of access and opportunities in general. I’m passionate about the history of Colombia and Latin America. One of the core problems and trends that we see is that big cities like Bogotá grew exponentially due to informal settlements of inner refugees in search for new opportunities.. Colombia, for instance, has suffered from a very violent war since 1964 and violent periods in its history since 1948. The country is centralised, which caused that people from so many regions have decided to move to Bogotá, and I think the city was not planned or prepared to receive that many people. For that the infrastructure isn’t enough for the entire population.
      To support people earning the minimum wage, the state put in place a system of subsidies that the people with a higher income pay with higher utilities rates. It works as a system of cross-subsidy. But of course, scaled up, it doesn’t work as well as planned.
      I hope I answered your question 😉

  2. Hi Antonio!
    It was exciting reading about Bogota, and the contamination of its largest river, the Tunjuelo.
    The contamination through illegal mining resonates greatly with my case-study city, La Paz, where most of the tin, copper, and tungsten residues end up in the city’s drinking water system. Do you know, in the case of Bogota, if there are any ongoing projects to solve this? And, as in the case of La Paz, families prefer buying water from informal vendors for its quality?

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