Drinking water supply and sewer system in El Pozón

Cartagena, Colombia




In 1995 Aguas de Barcelona (AgBar) entered a joint venture with the Municipality of Cartagena (represented by the Mayor and the Office of Community Participation) to create Aguas de Cartagena (Acuacar). These worked together in El Pozn, one of the Municipality's poorest districts, whose residents were represented by Community Committees (Juntas de Accin Comunal & Juntas Administradoras Locales who have signed agreements with Acuacar). MPDL, an international NGO, under contract to Acuacar, conducted surveys in El Pozn. The World Bank, via a loan to the Municipality, supported the development of water and sanitation infrastructure in Cartagena. A Bogota-based regulator and a citizen watchdog group, FUNCICAR, also played minor roles.


Project description


The El Pozn pilot project was divided into the following components: i) surveys in the community; ii) construction of the infrastructure; iii) education and awareness campaigns targeting community buy-in (and hence greater cost recovery) and iv) modifications to the customer service programme to facilitate better operator-customer relations. As part of the World Bank loan, Acuacar undertook a major $2.0m investment programme to radically improve water supply to El Pozn and a $4.3m investment to provide sanitation to the whole area.




In the 1990s Colombia experienced protracted economic recession, exacerbated by worsening armed conflict. Cartagena itself became a major destination for displaced persons, making up a high proportion of El Pozn. Colombian decentralisation gave municipalities responsibility for public services. In 1994, following many years of chronic inefficiency and poor quality of service, the Mayor of Cartagena decided to liquidate the public water and sewerage utility to create a new public-private mixed capital enterprise. The World Bank provided technical assistance to help the process. In December 1994, after a public bidding process, Aguas de Barcelona was selected as the partner of the municipality and a mixed enterprise, Acuacar, was created. The entire restructuring was strongly opposed by the trade unions - as a result the incoming management team of Acuacar needed military protection in order to enter their offices in 1995. Political and economic instability was heightened by Cartagena having four different mayors over four years. Since its creation Acuacar has achieved significant improvements in operational performance.


Project beneficiaries


At the time of the project, the number of people living in El Pozn was about 50,000. Many within the community were 'displaced persons' - deteriorating social cohesiveness is a problem and as a result local power structures were in flux. Although Acuacar enjoyed fairly high popularity due to improvements in services and efficiency, local politicians agitated against the company.

The existing pipe network in El Pozn was inadequate and insufficient - many connections were illegal. Water supply was intermittent and most residents used to buy their water from unregulated private water vendors. Other sources were an intermittent but unreliable supply of free water from Acuacar tankers, and rainwater during the rainy season.


Objectives and structures of partnership


The primary objective of the project was to work with community leaders in El Pozn to regularise the provision of water and sanitation, through experimentation in a pilot programme. The programme tested the tri-sector approach to determine if it could be replicated in other peri-urban districts. Listed objectives included the following: i) to improve the quality of life and health of 50,000 least privileged people in El Pzon quarter, south-east Cartagena; ii) to design and carry out educational campaigns for the rational use of water and to recover the service costs by subsidies; iii) to form micro-enterprises helping the inhabitants of the area to join the labour market; iv) to build aqueduct and sewerage systems to provide 100% coverage with regularised service.

Relations between the three stakeholder groups as a partnership were less formalised and more likely to be carried out as bi-sector relationships rather than an overarching tri-sector arrangement. The primary relationships between the Municipality and the Company were through the contract and the Board of Directors. The relationship between Acuacar and the community was largely carried out by a special unit in the company devoted to community affairs.


Roles and responsibilities


The Mayor was the director of the Acuacar Board of Directors and contributed to expansion and project planning decisions. In general the public sector procured and managed investment funds (from central government or World Bank - though Acuacar dispenses the WB loan). It also integrated water and sanitation into wider initiatives. The Office of Community Participation worked on a variety of initiatives - focusing on employment generation programmes (though recently more active on Water and sanitation issues). Acuacar managed day-to-day operations and was responsible for the design & implementation of expansion plans. It also supported the education and awareness campaigns. Various Juntas worked with the council (an advisory and monitoring role).


Community liaison


Community liaison largely occurs between the Juntas and Acuacar's 'Departamento de Atencin a las Comunidades'. This community liaison office was also responsible for resolving conflicts with external parties.


Communications and feedback


The continuous change in mayor and municipal staff created numerous problems in terms of partnership functioning and project implementation - Acuacar was continuously in the process of re-establishing communications with the municipality. Meetings and workshops updated the new municipal teams. The community affairs unit ensured smoother communications with the communities, though local political agitation was a problem.


Evolution and institutionalisation


Acuacar's performance and efficiency improved over the following few years, due to more reliable services and providing customer satisfaction and dialogue, whilst the severe flux on the municipality side saw Acuacar increasingly 'carrying' the partnership. Poorer communities also seemed to command increasing attention from politicians.




The water project was completed in July 2001. Poverty alleviation was monitored as a social indicator through water and sanitation connections and employment generated. The NGO and municipality undertook qualitative studies to measure perceptions, requirements and expectations, assessment of demand, and more basic community statistics to establish a baseline. Surveys were developed to determine the level of satisfaction for each element of the service. A significant strength was the commitment and appropriateness of company staff.


Wider lessons


  • High public staff rotation and shifting municipal priorities are very destabilising - a stable and consistent partner group is critical
  • Joint-venture arrangements can blur responsibilities
  • An imbalance of power amongst partners can hinder equitable partnership
  • Early buy-in from local leaders is important and may be achievable via empowerment, training and capacity building exercises.