Efficient use of water
Updated - Friday 01 October 2004
FAQ sheet on efficient use of water, prepared by Cinara, Colombia
In terms of water resources, South America is well supplied. As much as 28% of the world’s freshwater resources are found in South America, where only 6% of the world population resides . This creates a situation of “water abundance” that does not help the users to appreciate its value. In order to comply with the Dublin principle that water should be recognised as an economic good it is necessary to meet certain requisites. Among these is the principle of scarcity . Scarcity and abundance define the line between water as a public good and as an economic good. Water is a very important commodity since it is essential for many productive processes and to human life, and it has no substitutes. Hence, an economic paradox emerges: water is valued highly because it is a commodity that cannot be substituted and is essential to life, or it is valued very low because of its essential and unique character. The particular characteristics of water are the result of its environmental versatility and its economic and social role. Also, water has many vital ecological functions that influence the lifecycle of all living organisms.
Because of this special condition, it is necessary to develop an integrated approach towards the efficient use of water. This approach implies a multidimensional analysis oriented towards actions that tend to reduce the quantity of water used from supply systems for different activities (from the catchment area to its final discharge in the natural environment), in order to ensure its sustainability . Efficient water use includes all activities related to the improvement of the use of water resources to carry out more or the same activities with less water. Measures should be taken to enable the use of less water in all processes or activities that enhance the conservation and improvement of water resources. Efficient water use is one of the principles contemplated in integrated water resources management. Efficient water use is essential and often an important “source” in itself .
Efficient use of water supply systems for human consumption
If water supply systems for human consumption are used efficiently, they have a positive impact on the production of wastewater because the flow decreases at the same time that the concentration of pollutants increases.
This offers significant advantages for the biological treatment of wastewater because the quantity of the substratum is increased by the unit of volume, through which biological systems improve their degradation rates. At the same time, since smaller systems are required, space and the volume of the water treated is reduced. Therefore, efficient water use can be seen as a clean production strategy for the water industry, which has important economic effects in the hydrological cycle, while at the same time reducing external effects in the broader context of integrated water resources management.
Efficient water use in different users sectors
Water in cities: Cities and urban centres face different problems related to water resources, such as: exhaustion of water sources, pollution of rivers and aquifers, high cost for the provision of services for energy consumption, the ever-growing distance to safe water sources, and conflicts between different users. In spite of these difficulties, in cities there are leaks and loss of water; technologies are used that consume too much water; there is little reuse of water resources even when in some cases reuse is possible; fee collection and tariffs are inadequate and often they do not reflect the real costs of the services; there are illegal connections; and there is a great need for users’ awareness of the benefits of using water efficiently.
Efficient use in households: Water can be used efficiently at any level, beginning with households. In general, the approximate daily consumption of water per person is estimated at: 36% for flushing the toilet and 31% for personal hygiene; 14% is used for washing clothes; and the remaining 19% is divided among different activities, such as garden watering, car washing, house cleaning, recreation, etc. There are technological options on the market for all cases and uses that use water efficiently; this can mean a potential saving of 30% in water consumption .
Efficient use in the industry: In the industry, the main actions for efficient water use are: water recycling in production processes, reuse and reduction of internal water consumption. Efficient water use in the industry follows the same principles of clean production. The estimated benefits for the industry are: energy savings, optimization of processes, less wastewater and consequently less need for treatment plants, and lower water bills.
Efficient use in agriculture: In agriculture, efficient water use is oriented towards a better operation of irrigation systems. This sector uses approximately 80% of the water that is extracted for human productive activities. The implementation of efficient water programmes in this sector should be considered a priority and the actions should be oriented towards developing farming programmes, optimal use of fresh water, monitoring of soil and climatic conditions, forecast of drought and flooding, implementation of efficient irrigation techniques, the development of monitoring programmes for leakage, development and use of tariff structures/metering, and leak control in distribution nets.
Efficient use in the river basin: The river basin, considered an integral water unit, is where all needs and benefits of efficient water use are clearly reflected. Water should be guaranteed for ecosystems in terms of quantity and quality. Some measures can entail water saving from different users (water for human, agricultural and industrial use, for producing energy and for other uses).
In different evaluations carried out by Cinara, UNIVALLE, it is evident that there is a need to approach this topic. In the rural zone of Pereira (47 systems serve 104 communities), 92% of the sources show that throughout time the quantity of water has decreased and that 58% of the systems require more water or a quantity equal to the source’s capacity. The gross capacity has extreme values between 37 //h/d and 5060 l/h/d and 59% show more than 400 l/h/d . A participatory evaluation carried out in 40 water systems in Ecuador indicated that 55% of the communities complained about the quantity of the water and the interruption of the service . The same study revealed that half of the catchment areas that supplied the systems were in critical condition, which affected the capacity of the sources during the dry season. Eighteen percent of the systems that were evaluated demanded more water or a quantity equal to the source’s capacity, a gross capacity between 50 and 600 l/h/d and an average of 195 l/h/d. Twenty percent of the sources could not supply the water required by the system. In 15 systems evaluated in Bolivia, 73% of the catchment areas showed diminished capacity and 60% of the users said that the lack of water at the source is one of the system’s main problems . This study also showed that in 60% of the systems evaluated the demand for water is greater or equal to the source’s capacity and the quantity of water per user that is delivered by the systems is greater than the quantity intended in the design.
- Reuse of water
- Saving water
- Application of efficiency and educational criteria.
What to do
- Study potential uses and demands in terms of cultural, social and production practices
- Incorporate and develop clean production strategies in the different users sectors
- Metering and consumption control
- Metering and leakage control
- Establish settings for water systems according to future drinking water and wastewater demands
- Study the discharge of wastewater by the users
- Study the re-use of wastewater and its environmental impact on water discharge and superficial sources Look into the provision of equipment and tools for data collection and storage
- Identify formal and informal training needs for strengthening capacities on the efficient use of water
- Provide updated, good quality information to the different users sectors
- Estimate economic benefits and their impact on investments and the efficiency of the companies that provide services
Source:  (adapted).
Strategies for the efficient use of water
Developments related to the efficient use of water imply progressive information dissemination, training, conceptual development and research at various levels: institutions, organisations that provide services, users, makers of sector’s policies and norms, NGOs, consultants, etc. Also, consideration should be given to collaboration between organisations that provide services, users, research and development institutes, financing agencies and NGOs. The box below illustrates different forms that can be adopted when an efficient use of water programme is initiated.
It is necessary to establish priority topics in order to make progress in this concept:
1) Impact on water sources in terms of quality and quantity;
2) Expected impacts on health and on human settlements situated downstream of the catchment area and on the discharge points of wastewater;
3) Decline of the quantity of water extracted from the sources and the reduction of wastewater;
4) Wastewater re-use or recycling;
5) Cost efficiency of the operation and maintenance of water systems, including drinking water and wastewater plants;
6) Efficiency of the different user sectors, especially the agricultural sector;
7) Identification of use and demand patterns, in terms of social, economic and cultural variables; and
8) Capacity building, information supply and research development for the different sectors of water users.
Finally, the purpose is to ensure that all users adopt the principle of “do more with less water” to guarantee the resource’s sustainability.
 Global Water Partnership (2000). Manejo integrado de recursos hídricos. Integrated water resources management. TAC Technical background papers, No. 4. GWP Technical Advisoray Committee, Stockholm, Sweden.
URL Spanish version: http://www.gwpforum.org/gwp/library/TAC4sp.pdf
URL English version: http://www.gwpforum.org/gwp/library/TACNO4.PDF
 Garduño, H.; Arreguín Cortés, F. (1994). Uso Eficiente del agua. Montevideo, Uruguay: UNESCO, Regional Office for Science and Technology for Latin America and the Caribbean (ORCYT). URL: http://www.unesco.org.uy/phi/libros/uso_eficiente/indice.html
This publication contains technical documents that were presented during the international seminar on Efficient Use of Water, held in Mexico City on October 1991.
 Visscher, J.T. ; Bury, P.J. ; Gould, T. ; Moriarty, P.B. (1999). Integrated water resource management in water and sanitation projects : lessons from projects in Africa, Asia and South America. (Occasional paper series / IRC; no. 31 E). Delft, The Netherlands : IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre.
The relationship between IWRM and water and sanitation projects is discussed in this publication. It includes study cases from eleven projects in different countries of the world, including Colombia. It contains important findings on how to integrate an IWRM vision into water and sanitation projects.
For more information and to download the electronic version see:
 Ministerio de Desarrollo Económico, Colombia (2000) Uso eficiente y ahorro del agua. Cultura del Agua. Jornadas Educativas. Cartilla No. 5.
Handbook developed by the Ministry of Economical Development of Colombia, as educational material to promote the rational use of water.
 Empresas Públicas de Pereira, Universidad del Valle-cinara, (1997). Situación de los sistemas de abastecimiento de agua y saneamiento en la zona rural del municipio de Pereira.
 Visscher, J.T., Quiroga, E., García, M., Madera, C., Benavides, A. (1996). En Búsqueda de un mejor nivel de servicio. Evaluación participativa de 40 sistemas de agua y saneamiento en la República del Ecuador. Serie Documentos ocasionales No. 30 del IRC. Cinara, Cali, Colombia.
This document outlines the process and findings of a participatory evaluation carried out in water and sanitation systems constructed between 1978-1993. The evaluation was oriented towards the sustainability of forty water and sanitation systems in eight provinces in Ecuador’s Andean region, putting emphasis on the existing situation and on community management.
 Quiroga, E.; García, M.; Sanchez, l.; Madera, C.; Garavito, J.; Visccher, J.T.; Camacho, A. (1997) Evaluación participativa de 15 sistemas de agua y saneamiento en la República de Bolivia. Serie de Documentos Ocasionales No. 31, del IRC. Cali, Colombia, Cinara.
 European Commission (1998). Towards sustainable water resources management : a strategic approach. (Guidelines for water resources development co-operation). Luxembourg, Luxembourg : Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. http://europa.eu.int/comm/development/body/publications/water/en/tableofcontents_en.htm
This book provides guidelines for the implementation of the strategic approach to the integrated management of water resources. The guidelines are based on the project’s cycle and on the principles for the integrated management of water resources. It contains a comprehensive glossary and different tools and checklists to guide the project’s development.
Bibliography and additional reading
On the following Web sites you will find important information on the subject.
Cap-Net: CapacityBuilding Network for Integrated Water Resource Management. URL: http://www.cap-net.org
This site provides excellent links to water resources institutes and networks. Information in English and Spanish.
- Programa de uso eficiente del agua. (Water Efficiency Program) IMTA, Instituto Mexicano de Tecnología del Agua. Accessed on 9 July 2003. http://www.imta.mx/otros/uso_eficiente/ . Information in Spanish.
- Water Use Efficiency Program . US Environmental Protection Agency. EPA. Accessed on 9 July 2003. http://www.epa.gov/OW-OWM.html/water-efficiency/. Information in English.
- Ing. Luis Darío Sánchez, M.Sc. Instituto Cinara. Colombia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Ing. Leonel Humberto Ochoa M.Sc. Instituto Mexicano para la tecnología del agua IMTA. Mexico. E-mail: email@example.com
Date written: 29 September 2003
Date revised: 27 January 2003 (link update)
Authors: Luis Darío Sánchez T, Miguel Peña V., Arlex Sánchez T., Universidad del Valle, Instituto Cinara. Cali, Colombia
Reviewed by: René van Lieshout, senior professional officer at IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre, Delft, The Netherlands