Protecting Colombia's public water supply

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Access to clean water is one of the most basic human needs. But growing populations and new development are putting water supplies around the world in danger. The problem is especially acute in the developing world. Now in Columbia a private conservation organization is setting up an innovative project to protect the public water supply of the capital city Bogota. It's based on an idea that's familiar to us here in the US but is still foreign to much of the world ? making water users pay to protect the land from which the water flows. The World's Marco Werman has our report.

MARCO WERMAN: This story actually begins here in my hotel room bathroom in Bogota. Jose Yunis Mebarek, the country director for the Nature Conservancy, assured me that the water in Bogota these days is so clean and clear that you can drink it right out of the tap. So here goes. [TAKES GULP OF WATER] Indeed it is clear. It is clean. And it's very tasty.

Okay this story about Bogota and its water really begins here just outside Bogota in the Andes.

I'm riding with Jose Yunis Mebarek of the Nature Conservancy into Columbia's Chingaza National Park. We're at nearly 10,000 feet passing through clouds and rain. Access to the park is tightly controlled. That means many Bogotanians have never visited the park and seen one of the main sources of their water ? the Laguna de Chingaza. It's a sacred and serene lake in the middle of the Chingaza Park.

JOSE YUNIS MEBAREK: Chingaza provides the water for the 8 million people that live in Bogota. And the lake that we are seeing right now that is pure, that is undisturbed and everything is where the water comes directly to Bogota.

WERMAN: The ridges of the Andes in this part of Columbia are different from elsewhere in South America. Here, outside Bogota, there's no snow or ice to melt and flow down to the city. Instead fragile mosses and likens cover the mountains. It's a unique echo system called the paramo. The ground cover acts like sponges absorbing rain and mist. When the moss is saturated gravity takes the overflow down to the capital. Chingaza is one of several protected areas in this unusual watershed around Bogota. But over the past 30 years many of them have been damaged by human activity especially grazing of cattle.

MEBAREK: When they come into place like this, when they step on it and they smash it or something like that. You damage it then the sponge loses its purposes to keep the water here.

WERMAN: That leads to more rapid runoff, greater erosion, and sedimentation downhill and that has meant increasing problems for Bogota's water supply. So Mebarek and the Nature Conservancy came up with a scheme to protect the paramo. It's based on a fairly simple idea.

MEBAREK: We would like the people in Bogota to pay people up here to you know change their activities because some activities are not that good for the environment. So the deal is guys change your activity. We'll pay for that because it's more valuable for the whole society to pay for that. And that's what we have been setting up.

WERMAN: A simple idea but a largely unfamiliar one here in Columbia. As in much of the developing world, until recently, water in Bogota was essentially free ? at least to those who had access to it. In 1996 when the city started charging for water as part of a plan to expand the water system Bogotanians protested outside congress and the president's office. That's partly why the new Bogota water fund, as it's called, is voluntary. It's funded by the Bogota water authority and some local businesses including the country's biggest single water consumer.


WERMAN: Bogota's Bavaria's brewery produces the popular Club Columbia beer. The brewery uses more than one and a half billion gallons of water a year so they were a natural to be the Nature Conservancy's main commercial partner in the water fund. Bavaria is kicking in $150,000 to help get the fund started. The company's manager for corporate social responsibility is Christina Hanneberg. She says the contribution is something of a down payment on a healthy water supply in the future.

CHRISTINA HANNEBERG: Right now we do not have a water crisis but we do have breweries that in the next 15 or 20 years could have a problem in the quality of the water they have to take for the product and maybe even in the quantity. So this is part of being proactive and looking ahead and starting working from now in what can be a problem in the future.

WERMAN: The Bogota water fund is one of 18 such projects sponsored by the Nature Conservancy in South America. Their part of a growing effort to find new ways to protect fresh water resources in a time of growing populations, rapid economic development, and a change in climate. The Nature Conservancy hopes the water funds will serve as a model for watershed conservation across the region. If the basic idea of getting water users to pony up to protect their watershed sounds familiar that's because it is ? here in the US. Brian Richter is the director of the Nature Conservancy's Global Freshwater Program. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. That city is a primary steward of its watershed lands. So are cities from San Francisco to New York.

BRIAN RICHTER: They're spending literally billions of dollars to try to purchase the watershed lands that feed into the reservoirs that supply the city of New York's water supply.

WERMAN: But in Bogota the Nature Conservancy has to do more than just spend on conservation. They also have to consider the future of those cattle farmers we spoke of earlier. Brian Richter says funds like this will only work if viable options are offered to subsistence users within the watersheds.

RICHTER: Something on the order of about two billion people on the planet are directly dependent upon freshwater ecosystems. And if we develop these water resources without paying attention to the subsistence uses we can actually impoverish people that are dependent upon the natural freshwater ecosystems.

WERMAN: And that could be the biggest challenge for the partners in the Bogota water fund. Even as a fund ramps up to being fully operational this month it hasn't yet closed the loop with the farmers who graze their cattle in the paramo watershed. No one can say just yet what those farmers might do instead. It's a fundamental question. But if the Nature Conservancy and its partners can find the right answer they won't just be protecting the unique watershed here in places like Chingaza National Park, the Bogota water fund might do nothing short of changing how Columbians think about water. For The World I'm Marco Werman, Bogota, Columbia.

MULLINS: We've put some of Marco's photos of the Chingaza National Park and the cows in it at TheWorld dot org. In case you are wondering, Marco didn't get the least bit sick after drinking all that Bogota tap water.