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December 6, 2018

Household Water Treatment Trends in Colombia

Region/Country : Latin America & Caribbean

contributor: Grace Burleson

Encuentre aquí la versión en español de este informe.

Across Colombia, efforts to provide Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage (HWTS) solutions have focused on emergency and humanitarian efforts, for example by the U.N and Oxfam, in response to displaced individuals due to armed conflict. For communities without centralized water, locally-manufactured sand and ceramic filters are common HWTS solutions, however the government did not formally recognize alternative water treatment technologies until 2016. In collaboration with the Instituto Colombiano de Normas Técnicas (ICONTEC), the Colombian government is developing two norms: one focusing on recommendations for technology selection, which is projected to be approved relatively soon, and a second focused on technology validation.  In addition to significant progress on water quality policies, implementers, such as Acción Contra el Hambre (working mostly in Putumayo) and Ekofil (a ceramic producer based in Cali), recognize the need to invest in improving the credibility of local supply chains, which will lead to project longevity. Additionally, the government does not always enforce industrial pollution and sewage treatment laws, further exacerbating issues regarding clean water access.

Country Statistics

Figure 1: Clean water access in Colombia.12

Located in the northwest corner of South America, Colombia is one of the most socially and environmentally diverse counties in the world with nearly 65 recognized indigenous languages1 and one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity, second in the world only to Brazil.2 Although Colombia is one of the most water-rich countries in the world,3 only 71% of the population has access to safely-managed water. Specifically, in rural regions (~20% of the population), only 40% have safe access. It is important to note that for Colombia, there is little reliable data on access to water, and the JMP4 (Figure 1) is the most comparable data available.


Government Policies for HWTS

Passed in 2007, Resolution 2115 established two levels of nationwide water quality standards: Basic and Complementary. Basic standards include acceptable levels of turbidity, visible color, pH, free residual chlorine, total coliforms, and E. coli while Complimentary standards include additional physical, chemical, and microbiological characteristics such as cryptosporidium and giardia. Resolution 2115 was built from Decree 475 in 1998, which established methods for measuring levels of water quality risks including the IRCA, IRABAm, and Risk Maps (an adaptation of Water Safety Plans developed by WHO).

However, these methods are highly focused on water treatment solutions for centralized and urban settings, rather than rural. One example, the IRCA (Índice de Riesgo de Calidad del Agua), is a calculated score representing the level of risk posed to the user, which includes parameters such as pH, E. coli, nitrates, residual chlorine and aluminum; among others. The calculated score of a specific centralized source or technology then falls under one of five categories, ranging from “unviable for health” to “without risk.” One of the challenges with using the IRCA is that residual chlorine is an important factor affecting the risk. Therefore, water that is not disinfected with chlorine (which includes most of HWTS technologies) will represent a high index of IRCA even if water is free of bacteria.

Established in 2014, Conpes 3810 promotes entrepreneurship of water and sanitation solutions for rural communities. To improve the sustainability of interventions, the policy specifically encourages investments in technologies that consider the geography, cost, social context, and local demand. In 2016, Decree 890 established a national plan for the construction and improvement of rural housing in Colombia. The policy focuses on promoting appropriate technical solutions to improve access to clean water and reliably manage waste water. HWTS using local materials, such as ceramic and sand filters, chlorination, solar disinfection, and boiling are commonly implemented across the country.5

The most important normative linked to HWTS is Decree 1898 (2016) that recognizes the use of alternative solutions as a substitute when centralized traditional systems are not viable. However, the Decree does not yet offer particular recommendations regarding specific technologies. As of 2018, the Ministry of Health is also working to create a differential normative for water quality surveillance, where there will be a progressive way of measuring water quality for the rural context. The aim of this new guideline is to allow alternative HWTS solutions a way to become certified.

HWTS in the Private Sector

In Colombia, two of the more common HWTS solutions are ceramic filters and Biosand filters. Ceramic filters can be in the form of a clay pot, such as the Arcifiltro and Ekofil, or ceramic candles within a plastic vessel, such as the Stéfani Filtro Flex. For products with ceramic candles, using two candles can increase the filtration rate compared to a single candle, however, the effectiveness of microbial reduction is the same and double-candle products are costlier for low-income households and require additional maintenance.6 Often, the clay is impregnated with silver or activated carbon to improve the quality of water filtration, which can reduce the occurrence of diarrhea in a household by up to 60%.7 Overall, ceramic filters are cost-effective, locally-sourced, and easy to maintain for low-income rural households.8

Locally-produced sand filters, such as the Biosand filter (BSF), are commonly implemented throughout the country. For example, CAWST´s clients have distributed 5,000 BSFs to communities including Bolivar, La Guajira, Cordoba, Tolima and Santander. BSFs average a 1 log (90%) reduction of bacteria9 and, when used and maintained correctly, are a low-cost and accessible method of water treatment in Colombia.

Other types of filtration, such as membranes, have not been as universally adopted across the country. A study found that, although the Lifestraw® was more effective than a basic ceramic pot filter at reducing microbiological contamination, the pot had a longer lifetime, was more socially accepted, and easier to maintain in rural communities.10

In addition, chlorinating and boiling water are other forms of HWTS in Colombia, although they require reoccurring costs of chlorine or firewood/fuel. Another alternative is coagulation via Moringa oleifera, a plant-based powder that clumps small particles together that can be more easily separated from water. Since Moringa grows in Colombia, it could be an efficient and cheap water treatment solution for rural communities.11


Although Colombia has many policies encouraging appropriate water technologies and sand and ceramic filters are in high demand, there are no quality regulations for locally-manufactured filters.12 Standards and regulations are an important part of ensuring safe and quality products for end-users. While the water sector could benefit from increased technical knowledge regarding HWTS solutions, there is increased need for implementers to take a multibarrier approach to achieving universal access to clean water, including supply chains, policies, and social barriers. Access to appropriate HWTS technologies and sustainable supply chains, particularly in rural communities, is a challenge for ensuring longevity of implementation and impact. Lack of water quality surveillance and ongoing follow-up of projects has also been a concern in the country. Additionally, pollution and lack of sewage treatment in some regions exacerbates drinking water issues. And, although Colombian law regulates these pollutants, noncompliance and lack of enforcement is a common issue across the county.3 Implementers and policy makers should aim to alleviate these barriers in order to achieve universal access to clean water technologies in Colombia.


  1. Colombia país multicultural y multilingüe, Portal de Lenguas de Colombia: Diversidad y Contacto.
  2. La biodiversidad en Colombia, Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt.
  3. In Colombia, Abundant Water Brings No Security, Stratfor Worldview, June 7, 2016.
  4. Joint Monitoring Programme UNICEF/WHO, 2017
  5. TÍTULO J: Alternativas Tecnológicas en Agua y Saneamiento para el Sector Rural
  6. Pérez, A., Díaz, J., & González, G. (2014). Estudio comparativo de dos sistemas de filtración casera para el tratamiento de agua para consumo humano. Ingenium, 8(22), 11-20.
  7. Clasen, T., Garcia Parra, G., Boisson, S., Collin, S. (2005). Household-based ceramic water filters for the prevention of diarrhea: a randomized, controlled trial of a pilot program in Colombia. American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 73(4), 790-5.
  8. Daniel Alberto Lerma Arias, Filtros Cerámicos, Una Alternativa de Aqua Segua, Universidad Tecnológica de Pereira, 2012 (Thesis)
  9. Tecnologías apropiadas para el suministro de agua en situaciones de emergencia. Colombia: OPS, Publicación 2010. 68 p. ISBN: 978-958-8472-15-7
  10. Andrea Pérez-Vidal, Jaime Díaz-Gómez, Karen L. Salamanca-Rojas, y Leidy Y. Rojas-Torres. Evaluación del tratamiento de agua para consumo humano mediante filtros Lifestraw® y Olla Cerámica. Rev. Salud Pública, Vol.18 No.2 Bogotá Mar./Apr. 2016.
  11. Hildebrando Ramírez Arcila, Jhoan Jaramillo Peralta, Agentes Naturales como Alternativa para el Tratamiento del Agua. Revista Facultad de Ciencias Básicas, 11(2).
  12. Rayner, J., Skinner, B., Lantagne, D., (2013) Current practices in manufacturing locally-made ceramic pot filters for water treatment in developing countries. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development, 3 (2), 252-261.

Grace Burleson

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