Community Perceptions of Water Access and Availability: San Andrés Island, Colombian Caribbean

Carolina Velasquez

Publication Date: 2015


Water is a valuable natural resource that has become scarce in different regions around the world, including the Caribbean region. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - IPCC, the Caribbean region can expect changes in precipitation patterns, sea level rise, and water availability. Drought refers to a season when water is reduced below the average in a particular area, and consequently there is not enough water supply to support different human needs (Trambauer, 20151). Drought is also a process that develops over time, rather than being a static event (Smith, 20132). Moreover, although it has usually been perceived as a natural phenomenon, drought is largely socially constructed. Understanding drought requires study of its social dimensions, such as how people understand, cope with, and resist changes in the availability of water. The purpose of this research is to explore how people who live or work on San Andrés Island, Colombia perceive and talk about water access and availability—with special emphasis on drought causes.

This report reviews two weeks of field work about the social and natural aspects of the “2016 Water Crisis” on the island. Semi-structured interviews (35) were conducted with a range of stakeholders, including government officials, water utility companies, private company personnel, and residents in drought-affected communities. The broad, preliminary findings suggest that interviewees perceived that the 2016 crisis was not a direct result of drought conditions, but rather a combination of two processes. On the one hand, they attributed it to a natural process related to the Niño phenomenon and the consequent decrease of precipitation and the water tables of the aquifer. On the other hand, they perceived it as a social process related to tourism activity, overpopulation, and the inadequacy of the private water company to produce, distribute, and allocate water resources among different sectors on the island.

These results suggest that there are complex challenges to overcome in drought planning when different stakeholders attribute the cause of the hazard to different processes and sources. Additionally, this study has implications for communities outside of San Andrés Island. Across the United States, for example, communities contend with various hazards, including drought, wildfire, and flood. The difficulty in addressing such hazards and mitigating associated risk becomes apparent when we recognize that various stakeholders tend to attribute the cause of the problem to different processes. A greater appreciation of the different framing of risk and hazard may help us to reconcile the disagreements across communities. Ultimately, this could lead to very different planning solutions.


Drought is usually defined as an extended period of atypically dry weather conditions leading to a severe shortage of water (Trambauer, 20151). Various researchers have contributed to definitions, analysis, and description of drought’s causes and impacts (Griggs 20143; Massinde, 19954; Namias, 19825; Wilhite, 20006). They all agree that drought is defined as a natural and temporary phenomenon that occurs repeatedly, with a reduction of precipitation to lower than average. Also, Wilhite (20006) and Maybank et al. (20157), indicate that impacts are structural, cumulative, vary in space and time, and that their repeated occurrence affects risk perception. Drought can become a disaster due to the level of vulnerability of the population in affected areas, as well as the emergence of negative, drought-related human and natural impacts. Hence, understanding drought-disasters requires both the study of its natural and social dimensions (Wilhite, 20058). Because drought is a process that develops over the time—rather than being a static event (Smith, 20132)—it can be difficult to recognize, especially in the early stages. This is one of the reasons governments may not be proactive and may react only when drought is already a disaster. Without adequate drought preparedness and notification systems, the indicator of severe impacts related to limited water access and availability becomes, as a default, complaints from community members most directly affected. It is only when society legitimizes and constructs drought as a social problem that key actors begin to mobilize. This interesting phenomena, which has not been studied in depth, may be observed in the 2013-2016 drought on San Andrés Island, Colombia where this exploratory research is focused.

The Archipelago of San Andrés, Providence, and Santa Catalina (Colombia), is a group of small islands located in the southwestern Caribbean, between 12° and 16° latitude north and 78° and 82° west longitudes. The capital of the archipelago is San Andrés Island, with a surface area of 27 km2. According to the DANE (20119) there are 69,463 people on the island. The archipelago was declared a biosphere reserve by the UNESCO in 2000 because of its biologic diversity, cultural values, and natural ecosystems. The archipelago has a traditional culture that is defined by its Anglo-Puritan/African heritage, Protestant religious tradition, and English mother tongue, which now has legal protection granted to ethnic minorities by Colombia’s Constitution of 1991. The water that currently supports life on the island comes from three main sources: precipitation, groundwater, and desalinization, with precipitation and groundwater being the primary sources. Historically, the archipelago has been a drought-prone region; more than ten droughts have occurred between 1928 and 1998. However, none of them has been declared a State of Public Calamity or have had any public reaction from the community.

On April 2, 2016, a group of people who live in the Lynval Cove neighborhood put up barricades, burned tires, shouted, and put up notices saying, “We need water.” That was the first social road protest over the lack of water on the island in 2016. This initial outcry resulted in 10 additional road protests throughout the south-center of the island, where residents are mostly ethnic-minorities. As of the writing of this report, the drought has affected more than 14,000 people (Action Plan Report, 201610). On April 15, the local Government—supported by the national government—declared a State of Public Calamity in the Archipelago by Decree No. 170, 2016. The immediate response was coordinated by the national and the local governments. This included the distribution of more than 10,000 liters of water to different neighborhoods between April and August, 2016. The government is implementing a long-term solution involving the purchase and operation of a desalination plant; the improvement of the water supply system; improvement of fire fighters’ equipment to handle the distribution of water; and the implementation of controls on hotels with high rates of water consumption. Droughts have never before been declared officially on the islands; nor have they triggered social mobilization. The risk to people who live on the island is a consequence of the actual limited availability of water—or drought—as well as the social factors that lead to differential vulnerability (Wisner et al., 200611). The 2013-2016 drought was the first drought event that involved what could be described as a public crisis, as well as a response that actually mobilized national and local resources.

Research Questions

This research investigated how, in the context of a lack of water, people define their reality and make sense of their experiences. In this case, I was interested in four main issues: (1) How and why the community defined the lack of water as a social problem at this particular time; (2) The extent to which the community attributed the cause of limited water access to social, rather than simply natural, causes; (3) If and how community mobilization legitimized the presence of drought and caused its emergence as a social problem that needs to be addressed; and (4) How the social construction of the water access problem is framed by different segments and sectors of the community, and what social factors made the 2016 drought different from prior drought situations.


This research employs a constructivist perspective, where it is understood that knowledge is collectively constructed; there is no absolute truth, but rather there are multiple realities (Best and Harris, 201312). Data collection involved a qualitative approach through which I conducted 35 semi-structured interviews; these interviews included questions regarding water access, perceptions and experiences during the drought, and community responses. Two semi-structured interview guides were used: one for government officials and private company personnel, and the other for residents in drought-affected communities. The emphasis was on capturing multiple participant perspectives, rather than looking for one main concern or category.

Participants included people from different neighborhoods where the road protests took place including Courth House, Little Hill, Barkers Hill, Loma Lynval, Loma Cove, Elsy Bar, Buenos Aires - Atlantico, and Sagrada Familia. Additionally, I interviewed officials from the public services secretariat, risk management office, fire fighter office, civil defense office, the environmental corporation, the public/private water company, owners of water truck companies, and some farmers. Participants were at first purposively sampled and then snowball sampling was used to expand the pool of potential interviewees. The drought continued during the fieldwork, which allowed me to observe as well as interview fire fighters and civil defense officials who were distributing water in different neighborhoods such as Simpson Well and Barack. Because this research is exploratory, it was not my intent to reach a saturation point in data collection. Rather, the project should be considered as providing a foundation for my dissertation research.

Preliminary Findings and Interpretation

This preliminary research examined how a variety of stakeholders on San Andrés island defined their reality and made sense of their experiences related to water shortages. This broad question can be generally addressed by the following insights gathered from interviewees. Study participants explained that the distribution of water on the island is carried out using two methods: (1) the aqueduct that is a public utility, whose operation is outsourced to a private water company, and (2) the water trucks belonging to multiple, small private companies. Community participants described that during the 2016 water crisis, the water was primarily distributed by water truck companies that considerably increased the water price from $80,000 to approximately $130,000 (Colombian pesos). Interviewees consistently shared complaints about the cost of the water because it created an important adverse economic impact on their daily lives. Because the trucks are expensive and residents require big cisterns to store the water, not everyone could afford to buy it. Some interviewees described situations in which people bought water from their neighbors who have large cisterns, explaining how those with large cisterns resold the water in small quantities using hoses or small tanks. During the field work, I noticed differences among neighbors in the access to water that seemed to generate a type of stratification of power within neighborhoods, based on economic and technical capacity.

According to the participants’ responses, the roots of the water problem have existed for several years. They perceived it as a long-lasting problem and they claim that the protests worked successfully to call the government’s attention to it. A majority of the community respondents indicated that the water crisis would continue to be an issue if a desalinization plant is not built and they were anxious to see what the government would do. One said, “If it is necessary, we are going to do another protest tomorrow and put up barricades,” and others agreed. Community participants expressed a variety of emotions when they talked about the water problem and the protests, using words such as horrible, desperation, upset, distrust, solidarity, and resignation. On the other side, some public officials were surprised about the aggressive and violent way people engaged in the protests. They expressed how the process of distributing water among the different neighborhoods was difficult. They also highlighted the necessity to improve the water storage tank system of each household, since some of them had low capacity; inadequate, dirty or damaged tanks; or did not have any tanks at all.

The majority of public officials were concerned about the water problem on the island because people called and requested water every day, noting that free distribution of water might become a permanent responsibility if the water problem is not solved. One public official complained that free water distribution is fostering a “no-pay” water culture in these neighborhoods. There is a fear that these requests will never stop and that they are a burden to the local government—specifically the firefighters and the risk management office. Most of the public officials maintained that their response to the public calamity was appropriate and prompt. Although the 2016 crisis situation took them by surprise, they believed that the institutional response was good and that it was well-coordinated between the national and local governments.

Interviewing participants from different sectors allowed me to understand the controversy among the national government, local government (including the risk management office, firefighters, and public services), environmental corporation, the public-private water company, and the islanders. Prior research on this topic seemed to revolve around the lack of effective governance and the inefficiency of private water companies to produce and distribute water. However, based on the interview data gathered in this study, I argue that the controversy is primarily related to the growth of tourism and the ways in which this trend has contributed to the water crisis. Generally, community interviewees perceived overpopulation and mass tourism as the main drivers of the water crisis. They believe that the increase in the number of residents and tourists is straining water resources; moreover, they directly blame the private/public water company and the government for prioritizing tourists’ needs for water over locals. Community participants insisted that there should be limits on the number of tourists and that the island’s infrastructure needed improvements to accommodate the growing tourism industry.

The majority of public officials contended that the situation is more the result of an extended period without precipitation, and they were inclined to link the water problem to climate change and the El Niño phenomenon. The environmental corporation officials explained, for example, that the crisis was a complex problem caused by the disequilibrium between the supply and water demand that is exacerbated by the lack of technology to use seawater to produce fresh water. They perceived mass tourism as a problem, but they also pointed out that there is a disconnect between the national water shortage warning system and the climate in the island. One official explained, “The national government turned on the alarms in 2014 when the corporation had already started to restrict the water exploitation from the aquifer because San Andrés was already showing a decrease in precipitation since 2013.” According to this information, the drought on San Andrés island might not have started in 2016, but rather may have begun in 2013 and not shown its impact until 2016.

Another important point in this debate is the environmental justice issue in water management that manifests itself through the protests over water. Community respondents perceived inequalities with respect to their access to water resources. On multiple occasions, interviewees wondered why some parts of the island have 24-hour access to water and others do not; some of them used the words “unfair and unequal” in this context. They reported having seen water trucks taking water from their land (aquifers), to support the tourism industry. One said, “The water that is under my house (aquifer) is not for me but is for the tourists who come and take our resources and leave.”

Regarding this issue, the local government and the public-private water company personnel explained that the current approach to distributing water is the result of an agreement signed in 2005 between the local government and the private water company. This agreement established that water services would be maintained 24 hours a day for the hotels, Sarie Bay, and San Luis sectors, but that in other sectors of the island such as Loma and Cove (areas severely affected during the water crisis) water would be delivered only once every twenty days. According to community respondents, however, during the first half of 2016 the private/public water company even more severely limited the water distribution to Loma and Cove, which went approximately two months without water.

Based on an analysis of the agreement document, it appears that the justifications for water distribution are based on the necessity to provide a remedy for a shortfall in the amount of funds available for subsidizing water cost for low income residents. This could have motivated officials to direct efforts to the tourism companies who have more ability to pay water bills than community members. However, this issue requires more research. I did observe that the areas that do not have consistent, 24-hour access to water are the hills and the south part of the island, which are areas mostly inhabited by an ethnic group called the Raizales, and poor neighborhoods. Overall, I identified three factors as necessary to investigate equity in the distribution of the water: frequency, quality, and coverage.

Community members perceived that the water crisis that occurred on San Andrés Island in 2016 was not directly related to drought conditions and some of them did not even acknowledge the presence of drought in the island. On the one hand, they attributed it to a natural process related to the Niño phenomenon and the consequent decrease of precipitation and the water tables of the aquifer. On the other hand, they perceived it as a social process related to tourism activity, overpopulation, and the inadequacy of the private water company to produce, distribute, and allocate the water resource among different sectors within the island.

According to government officials with whom I spoke, as a result of the 2016 water crisis, in May 2016, the local government signed a new agreement with the national government for more than seven billion pesos to purchase a new desalination plant that will have more capacity than the current system. The majority of both community participants and public officials interviewed for this study considered this to be the most appropriate solution. Most study participants talked about this technology optimistically, as they perceived it as essentially unlimited, flexible, and rainfall independent; there were no comments about possible environmental impacts.

During the interviews, it became clear that desalination offers not only a solution for solving domestic needs, but also is a potential opportunity to address the water needs of the tourism industry. With that said, the prospect of a new desalination plant raises other concerns for the island. As Shiva (199113) claims, technology has been covered with immunity and sacredness, and the social and environmental problems, the lack of sustainability, and the high ecological costs that it may produce are invisible. In addition to potential social problems, there are also important negative environmental impacts of desalination highlighted by March (2015), such as the management of brine discharge, feed water intake, and intensive energy use by desalination plants. These increase greenhouse emissions, decrease biodiversity, and reduce San Andrés Island’s autonomy with respect to water management. Schumacher (197314) suggests that transfer of technology won’t solve the problems, but instead will cause environmental degradation and deterioration of local cultures.

Finally, in the case of San Andrés, desalinization is currently producing two separate markets in the island: (1) expensive, available, and high quality water and (2) lower priced, scarce, and lower quality water. The private water supply company has focused on the more expensive market where the profit margins are higher. Additionally, fostered by the presence of the private water company, the island is now dependent on a foreign corporation. The water industry and tourism have emerged as powerful political and economic forces on the island. If the current water situation continues—where the water company and the government do not take the frequency of extreme El Niño events seriously and do not incorporate equity principles in the water-agreement—a further escalation of further water scarcity and its various consequences can be expected.

Implications and Future Research

In the United States drought is increasing in frequency, intensity, and magnitude. It has caused severe impacts on key economic sectors and the environment. Although the natural and sociocultural characteristics of the causes of drought in the Caribbean are quite different than in the United States, there are multiple important aspects to examine and learn from small islands that might be considered in drought preparedness processes. The U.S. is currently working on changing its approach from crisis to risk management to cope with the drought hazard (Velasquez, 201515). Drought preparedness is emerging as the primary defense against drought (Fontaine, Steinemann, and Hayes, 201416). For example, there are now a variety of guidelines for drought planning including inter-organizational coordination; training and education; problem solving and financial support; interaction among researchers and practitioners; and promotion of opportunities for participation, education, and exchange of ideas to identify and resolve conflicts between key water use sectors (Velasquez, 201515). Along these lines, this research provides new insights about innovative micro-water markets; new dimensions of debates surrounding water and conflicts among key water use sectors; issues of environmental justice in relation to water access and availability; and the influence of economic activities such as tourism as drivers of water crises. These topics require more empirical research to inform drought planning.

Other important future lines of inquiry include research to advance understanding of the different characteristics of Caribbean drought situation for better early warning systems, drought preparedness, and appropriate international cooperation with this region. According to the environmental corporation officials interviewed for this study, there is a disconnect between the national government early warning and the local climate. This is because the Caribbean region has a bimodal annual rainfall regime that exhibits two maxima (May-June and September-October), separated by what has been called a midsummer drought (MSD) (July-August) (Gamble and Curtis, 200817). According to the literature, there are three types of drought in the Caribbean characterized by “a dry–wet season (April-June or September–November), a dry-dry season (July-August or December–March), or a dry year (lower than average total rainfall across all seasons)” (Gamble and Curtis 2008:26618). Consequently, droughts in the bimodal Caribbean climate are more complex than droughts in other regions (Velasquez, 201619). In order to be more prepared and to promptly respond to the effects of drought, management plans must take this complexity into account.

All of these issues require further research to advance theory and to learn more about how these findings can be applied to enhance the well-being of those affected by drought in settings ranging from small islands like San Andrés to rural and urban communities in the United States. Finally, this exploratory research shows how various stakeholders attribute the causes of the drought hazard and its consequences to different processes and sources. These are not related to just one discipline; rather, they require transdisciplinary studies.

This research was funded in part by a grant from the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center through its Quick Response Grant Program, which is funded by National Science Foundation grant #CMMI1030670.


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Suggested Citation:

Velásquez, Carolina. 2015. Community Perceptions of Water Access and Availability: San Andrés Island, Colombian Caribbean. Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 264. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at:

Velásquez, Carolina. 2015. Community Perceptions of Water Access and Availability: San Andrés Island, Colombian Caribbean. Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 264. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: