Towards Sustainable Urban Water Management in Latin America and the Caribbean

Tratamiento Agua

Tratamiento Agua

The article was adapted from: Saravia-Matus, S. et al. (2023) “Urban water management challenges and opportunities in Latin America and the Caribbean”, Global Water Security Issues, N° 4, pp. 193-209.

Safely managed drinking water and sanitation services are only available to 82.3% (drinking water) and 37% (sanitation) of the urban population in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the lack of treatment being the main source of contamination of water sources at the urban level. This problem has increased in volume due to the concentration and growth of the population in cities and the reduced capacity of operators to offer the necessary services. Thus, there are barriers and opportunities related to the application of circular economy principles and nature-based solutions in the urban water and sanitation sector, which could offer a potential to promote a sustainable and resilient model of drinking water supply, sanitation services and their subsequent treatment in Latin American and Caribbean cities.

Challenges and barriers to sustainable urban water management

In terms of challenges by sub-region, in South America, most urban areas report low levels of access to drinking water, and the main challenge lies in sanitation, especially in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru. In Central America, all cities present medium or high levels of water risk, but the main challenges, again, center on sanitation services, especially in Nicaragua and Guatemala. In the Caribbean, cities face risks in water quantity and quality, with Haiti showing worrying deficiencies in coverage, with 20% of the urban population without access to improved sanitation systems, and 10% without access to improved drinking water. Smaller islands, such as Dominica and St. Kitts and Nevis, experience extremely high risks, mainly due to saline intrusion linked to sea level rise.


                                                Diagram 1. Urban Water Management Policies in Latin America and the Caribbean
Water management
Source: Adapted from Saravia-Matus, S. et al. (2023)
Note: The diagram shows results of the policy analysis in terms of frequency of themes, from left to right and, from top to bottom, the frequency of specific policies within each theme.

In terms of progress, a variety of urban water management policies in the region are in the process of being designed, developed or implemented (see diagram 1).

Thus, barriers to efficient urban water management include weak governance systems and lack of regulatory support, with institutions lacking credibility, as well as water tariffs that do not encourage efficient use. Another barrier lies in the scarce support from public instruments, generating conflicts and lack of regulation in prices and behavior. A third barrier refers to the lack of sustainable financing to address gaps and operating costs, despite their attractive cost-benefit ratio. Finally, infrastructure problems in storage and distribution, as well as significant losses in the network, contribute to the inefficiency of the system.


Thus, both technical and governance innovations are required for the development of urban water management systems with sustainable models. Here are the recommendations that are seen as robust alternatives for the development of sustainable management in the region:

  1. Promote the adoption of the circular economy approach, which can address environmental issues, provide valuable resources, and promote sustainability in urban water management.
  2. To bet on the development of solutions based on nature, which seek to change the current paradigm, moving from using rivers to living with rivers and building with nature, promoting sustainability and equity in the region, while offering the opportunity to promote the inclusion of minorities in a participatory manner, rescuing local and ancestral knowledge in its implementation.