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Santa Marta Fails to Solve Water Shortage


Santa Marta water shortages
The project of the Mayor’s Office of Santa Marta to solve the water shortage failed – Photo: Santa Marta Mayor’s Office

The Mayor’s Office project in Santa Marta, Magdalena department, to solve the city’s water supply problem has definitively fallen through. The administration of Mayor Virna Johnson, whose term ends on December 31, has failed to secure a bid for its flagship project aimed at addressing a decades-long issue that has left a significant part of the city, especially lower-income areas, without water service.

The project allocated 1.6 trillion pesos for the improvement of the El Curval Water Treatment Plant, an ambitious initiative that was supposed to link the abundant rivers Guachaca and Buritaca to the city. However, after the bidding period for the project ended, the tender has remained vacant as no company submitted a concrete proposal to undertake the mega-project.

The upcoming change in the mayoral office, with conservative Carlos Pinedo taking the helm of the city, anticipates a radical shift in the project aimed at ending the water scarcity in the department’s capital.

The discarded project

The city’s plan involved harnessing water from the Guachaca and Buritaca rivers with two filtering intakes, two pumping stations, a loading tank, an automated treatment plant, along with 130 kilometers of distribution networks and over 120 kilometers of pipelines for supply and conveyance.

The project was divided into two phases: the first, with an investment of 1.6 trillion pesos, was to be executed over 36 months starting January 2024. This phase would have seen the construction of 13 of the 16 components of the system to deliver 2,400 liters per second. The total project timeline established a three-year period.

The second phase, scheduled for 2027 with an investment exceeding $30 billion, aimed to construct the new aqueduct for Bonda, located on the outskirts of the capital, and 24 neighborhoods traversed by the conduit that transports water from El Curval to the city. This stage also included the construction of the Buritaca intake, its pumping station, and the booster pipeline to reinforce the 2,400 liters per second supply from the Guachaca River.

A few months ago, the Mayor’s Office unveiled the mega-project amid great anticipation. “We are negotiating with Governor Carlos Caicedo for the nation to contribute 600 billion pesos, distributed over three terms starting next year, to have National Government resources and offset the funds obtained by the District,” Johnson said back then. However, all these efforts have now come to naught, and the project no longer has the option of being re-tendered.

Santa Marta water shortages
The Buritaca River rises in the Sierra Nevada and is used for tourist activities – Credit: Melissanati / CC BY-SA 4.0

The incoming mayor’s proposal

Santa Marta’s mayor-elect, Carlos Pinedo, wasted no time in commenting on the situation. “Declaring the bidding process for the $1.7 trillion project seeking a solution to the potable water shortage in Santa Marta void corresponds to what we had requested. In my government, we will immediately process the proposed alternatives, without much demagogy, so that the people of Samaria can have access to quality water and basic sanitation,” Pinedo stated on his social media.

Nevertheless, the future local leader has not specified on this occasion what those “alternatives” would be for a serious problem affecting thousands of city residents who experience interrupted water services for days, posing sanitation issues in a city that regularly exceeds 30 degrees Celsius.

A few days ago, upon confirming his appointment as mayor-elect following the annulment of Jorge Agudelo’s winning candidacy in the local elections, Pinedo had already announced plans to change his predecessor’s proposal. The future mayor intended to bring water from the Toribio and Córdoba rivers, an idea previously rejected by the neighboring town of Ciénaga.

“With this, we would solve the problem for the entire southern corridor, in addition to connecting El Roble with Mamatoco and creating the El Curval plant. This would cost us around 480 billion pesos, much less than the exorbitant figure they sold to the city for 1.6 trillion,” Carlos Pinedo stated.

Investigation into the mayor and governor

It has also been reported that the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the entity responsible for investigating and penalizing irregularities committed by government officials in Colombia, will investigate both the outgoing mayor of Santa Marta and the regional governor, Carlos Caicedo, from the same political party as the mayor.

The investigation’s motive is precisely the possible improper handling in awarding the contract for the El Curval aqueduct, valued at more than 14 billion pesos. The entity aims to determine whether the environmental impact on the rivers in the Sierra Nevada was taken into account in the preliminary studies.

The investigation also evaluates whether those responsible for the El Curval aqueduct contract disregarded a prior technical study advising the use of water from the Magdalena River as an alternative to minimize potential ecological damage to the water sources in the Sierra Nevada and prevent adverse impacts on communities settled along its banks.

In this regard, the public body asserts that if the project had been approved, the city’s finances would have been committed until 2052, representing a risk to Santa Marta’s public heritage.

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