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Colombia: providing access to water during armed conflict

03-04-2009 Interview

For some communities, the lack of a reliable water supply is, the result of isolation and poverty. Armed conflict can also limit access to water. Honduras Motilona is a settlement in north-eastern Colombia, an area that has been severely affected by the conflict. In 2008, the ICRC worked with the community and the local authorities to build an aqueduct. ICRC water and habitat specialist Paola Ximena Cárdenas describes the project in more detail.

Why did the ICRC decide to build an aqueduct in Honduras Motilona?

The aqueduct project came into being because people needed better access to water. Residents used to take their water from the streams, but there was not an adequate year-round supply. In summer for example, the streams dried up, and the water they used was very polluted because of the cesspits and piles of rubbish nearby. ICRC health teams worked here for nearly three years, and there was mounting evidence that the water was causing skin and intestinal problems. So the community made this a priority and that was when the ICRC decided to build an aqueduct, with the help of the residents.

What impact did the armed conflict in Colombia have?

Honduras Motilona is isolated because of its geographical location, but also because the area has been severely affected by the armed conflict. There are few State institutions, and basic infrastructure has been neglected. This is why constructing an aqueduct for this particular community became a priority for the ICRC.

How did work progress once the ICRC arrived?

To ensure that it is able to carry out projects on behalf of communities, the ICRC, in accordance with its principles of neutrality and independence, establishes contact with all parties involved in an armed conflict. Af ter receiving the necessary security guarantees, we were able to enter the area and begin working with the community, scheduling visits and developing designs. When the work was finished, the aqueduct was handed over to residents so that it could become a sustainable project. The community and the local authorities agreed to manage the system to ensure that this goal would be met.

Did you experience any problems or difficulties?

We encountered a few problems in the winter last year. There was a lot of rain which led to flooding. But working with the community we managed to repair the aqueduct and the water supply returned to normal. The adverse weather conditions also affected the initial stages of the building work: I remember having to go and rescue the vehicle we used to transport the materials, because it had got stuck in the mud. That was when we realized how committed the residents were to the aqueduct project, because they were working hard to help us overcome these problems.

What is the role of the local authorities in a project like this?

It is essential that the ICRC establish contact with the local authorities to inform them of the community’s needs and of the plans to build an aqueduct. In this instance, the authorities then hired someone to draw up the plans, which were passed over to the ICRC. We checked the accuracy of the designs and the data, and then carried out the work. Once the aqueduct had been handed over to the community, the mayor’s office made a commitment to help the them maintain the system.

Honduras Motilona, Colombia. Storage tank for the new aqueduct. 

Honduras Motilona, Colombia. Storage tank for the new aqueduct.
© ICRC / N. Frelechoux

How did the community participate in the process?

The community was involved from the beginning, as soon as the ICRC went out to the field to establish contact with both parties. The ICRC then offered support in the form of transport and delivery of materials, and also monitored the safety of those working on the construction site. The community meanwhile provided the unskilled labour, and once the aqueduct was operational, the ICRC suggested that a management committee be set up, formed of members of the community and a representative from the mayor's office. The committee hired a plumber, who is responsible for checking and maintaining the aqueduct.


Honduras Motilona, Colombia. Upper areas. 

Honduras Motilona, Colombia. Upper areas.
© ICRC / P. Cárdenas

What effect has this aqueduct had on the community?

It has had a very positive impact. I remember in particular how pleased everyone was when the aqueduct was handed over. City dwellers take these things for granted, but for rural inhabitants they seem an incredible achievement. The school children felt the same; they were thrilled that they could have proper baths thanks to the water supplied by the aqueduct.