Cities in the Andes: threats and hopes

The Andes region of South America encompasses Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Among the region’s unique features are its varied climate and its considerable environmental and biological diversity.
By Elsa Galarza and Rosario Gómez, Centro de Investigación, Universidad del Pacífico

The region is facing unprecedented urban growth. In 2003 the total population was reported as 119 million inhabitants, with 1.8% annual population growth for 1994-2003. Colombia, the most densely populated country in the region, accounted for 37% of the total population.

With the population doubling between 1970 and 2001, the number of city dwellers increased nearly threefold over the same period, growing from 32 million to 85 million inhabitants (1). In 2003 the urban population accounted for 76% of the total regional population, up from 71.6% in 1994 (2). The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that city dwellers will account for 79% of the total population by 2015.

There are two types of urban development. “Decentralised” urban development is characterised by the presence of several large cities in a given country that offer a variety of services (healthcare and education, for instance) and opportunities for employment. Services and the availability of jobs are the main incentives for individuals to migrate to urban areas. This type of development is encountered in Colombia, with several large cities such as Medellin, Cali, Cartagena and Barranquilla, as well as the capital Bogota.

“Centralised” urban development characterises countries that have only one major urban area, such as in Peru, where 29% of the country’s population is concentrated in Lima. This type of development places increased demands on public services, housing and infrastructures and generates increased pressure on the environment (a lack of or inadequate sewage treatment reduces water quality; increased solid waste without the appropriate disposal systems affects soil and air quality).

The rural poor who migrate to urban areas often live in shanty towns, generally built on vacant land from light construction materials such as wood. The underlying ground (sandy hills, for instance) is often unstable and structures are often built with no technical guidance. The resulting situation generates additional pressure on the environment.

As in other developing areas, poverty is a crucial issue. Venezuela has the highest proportion of people too poor to afford even food (23%), followed by Ecuador and Colombia (20% each). This type of extreme poverty is also a source of environmental pressure.

A sustainable urban area is one that can provide its population with a stable, profitable economy, social cohesion and a healthy environment. However according to this definition, sustainability is difficult to achieve, due to factors such as population size and growth rates, income level, the spatial dimension of environmental issues and the role of local stakeholders. Cities in the Andes region face a number of environmental issues. But three are particularly important: water availability and quality, air pollution and solid waste disposal.

One third of the world’s renewable water resources are located in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ideally they should meet the needs of 90% of the total population in the area. Nevertheless, 38 million urban dwellers do not have access to adequate drinking water supplies. Recently cities in the region have improved access to water. On average 88% of the population of the Andes region has access to this resource, and 79% has access to drainage systems. However, access to water is critical in the shanty towns on the fringes of these urban areas, which are largely inhabited by the poor. In such areas, the scarcity of water has an enormous impact on children, exposing them to many diseases such us diarrhoea, parasitic fever or hepatitis. The Andes region has high rates of child mortality, with extreme levels reported for Bolivia and Ecuador, where 20% of children under the age of five die from gastro-intestinal illnesses.

Water quality is also a major issue. Between 70% and 80% of waste water is channelled back into the water system without any treatment. Despite decreasing availability and quality, little effort has been made to provide adequate water treatment. Waste water treatment rates are only 30% in Bolivia, 11% in Colombia, 5% in Ecuador, 14% in Peru and 10% in Venezuela.

Air quality is also very poor in many countries in the region, exceeding World Health Organization thresholds for pollutants dangerous to human health. The continuing deterioration of air quality has resulted in increases in respiratory illness, allergies and other ailments. This has led to increased spending on healthcare and a drop in the productivity of workers.

There are two types of air pollution: point-source (industry) and mobilesource (motor vehicles). The major problem affecting the region in terms of air pollution is transport systems that allow the use of outdated, low-capacity vehicles. Maintenance is at best inadequate, all too often non-existent, and fuel quality is poor. Some countries have nevertheless tried to remedy this situation. For example the city of Bogota has launched Transmilenio, a massive public bus transportation system, with articulated buses each carrying 160 passengers. It has also implemented a number of other policies including the conversion of cars from traditional fuels to natural gas, motor vehicle certification and cycling programmes.

Two additional problems faced by cities in the Andes region are the generation and disposal of solid waste. In the last 30 years the amount of solid waste generated by Latin American cities has doubled. Furthermore the composition of the waste produced has changed, with a decrease in organic matter and an increase in non-biodegradable materials which may also contain toxic substances.

The coverage provided by solid waste collection services is low, with inadequate equipment and fees that do not reflect the true value of the service. In Ecuador 53% of the population has access to waste collection services; in Peru the figure is 60%. Often when collection services are not available in some areas of the cities, solid waste is dumped on riverbanks or burned. At other times, the final disposal sites are the very places where poor people live. Local people sort and sell paper, glass, plastic and other waste materials to scratch a living in an underground economy that represents the only chance for survival for some families.

In the Andes region, sustainable urban development is a major challenge. The key environmental issues affecting the region are complex and go far beyond the environment itself. Despite these difficult conditions, some creative initiatives have emerged that promote the integrated management of all the various components of an environmentally-sustainable urban area. The idea is to ensure that policy decisions generate synergies across a range of sectors. For example the City of Lima has developed an anti-drug programme for street children aged 12 to 17 convicted of petty theft. The goal of the programme is to increase the children’s self-esteem and thus prevent future drug abuse and crime.

One group of 120 children received landscaping training. They were put in charge of maintaining the parks and landscaped areas they had previously used to hide from the police or to use drugs. They received a salary and a uniform. Most of the children who participated in the programme stopped stealing, remained drug-free, and gained a sense of pride in the work they had accomplished while contributing to improving the urban environment.

Building urban areas that can sustain long-term growth demands an efficient institutional framework, comprehensive regulation and enforcement, and active participation by local stakeholders. The number of cities in the region that manage participatory budgets has increased. Local stakeholders play an active role in decisionmaking, setting priorities and allocating financial resources, in the fight to solve the issues plaguing the region’s cities.

In the Andes region, an average of 18% of the urban population is living in extreme poverty. These people are the region’s most vulnerable; they are more likely to live in high-risk areas and contract environment- related diseases, with greater exposure to natural disasters such as floods. In this sense, poverty, the environment and economic growth are closely interrelated. The key to solving these problems is to set up incentives to promote the kind of programme development and investment that will generate long-term economic, social and environmental benefits.

1. Andes Community General Secretariat, Sub-regional Statistical Information System. Decision 115. 2. Based on Andes Community population data at

< Previous  |   Next >