An increasing number of the urban poor in Colombia have access to water and sanitation because of an innovative approach by the government, which shares responsibility for key services with local authorities and the private sector.

These reforms were led by the cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla. Both cities contracted operations out to “mixed” companies jointly owned by the municipality, a private operator, and local private shareholders, with the city authorities retaining ownership of the infrastructure.

Results were impressive. Access to water and sanitation services improved substantially in both cities between 1994 and 2002. More than 80 percent of the new connections were in poor neighborhoods. Services became more efficient and reliable. Metering reduced losses from unaccounted-for water and the time taken to respond to consumer complaints was dramatically reduced.

New approaches have now emerged. Municipalities are extending services to the urban poor by promoting local entrepreneurs in the water sector, creating a pool of small, local service providers who can respond more quickly to demand.

The key to Colombia’s success in improving access to water and sanitation services has been devising homegrown solutions and adapting models developed in other countries to its own conditions and needs.

Excerpted from Charting a New Course: Structural Reforms in Colombia’s Water Supply and Sanitation Sector, World Bank (2010).