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A transformative recovery in Latin America and the Caribbean with basic drinking water and electricity services as key sectors.

18 December 2022|Briefing note

The impact of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine has increased the vulnerability of people without access to basic water, sanitation and electricity services in the region. Pre-existing inequalities have been exacerbated by post-pandemic job destruction, income reduction and rising energy costs. As part of an inclusive and transformative recovery in the region, these basic sectors must be prioritized.

Currently, in Latin America and the Caribbean, 17 million people do not have access to electricity and 75 million lack access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking. At the same time, 161 million people (1 in 4) do not have adequate access to safe drinking water, and 431 million (7 in 10) to safely managed sanitation. Deficiencies are associated with problems of access and affordability, for example, difficulties in paying for or the absence of infrastructure. However, there are significant differences between countries.

First, people without access to these basic services belong to the lowest segment of the national income distribution. Thus, the most vulnerable populations must make a proportionally greater economic effort, up to 2.5 times more than the wealthiest, to assume the cost of these services. Second, this economic inequality is compounded by geographic and social inequalities with rural, indigenous, and Afro-descendant populations being the most deprived. Finally, the quality and structure of housing also influence access to these basic services. In the region, 15% of the population living in precarious housing does not have access to electricity.

Latin America and the Caribbean: proportion of the population without access to electricity by quintiles. A quintile represents population groups of 20% of the total, ordered by income distribution (from lowest to highest) of income (rural, urban and total), latest available year.

Source: ECLAC. Based on the latest Household Surveys of the countries.
Countries included: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, 2017; Honduras, Mexico and Dominican Republic, 2016; Guatemala, Nicaragua and Venezuela, 2014.

Inequality in access to drinking water and electricity has increased people's vulnerability.

Inequality in access to these basic services, accentuated by the impact of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, has increased the population vulnerability in the region, impacting millions of people physically, socially and economically. On the one hand, people with less access to clean water and sanitation at the beginning of the pandemic were at a higher risk of contracting the virus. On the other hand, due to the reduction in income associated with the loss of employment due to the pandemic. With the increase in fossil fuel prices in the current war context, the ability of households to pay for these services has worsened.

During the pandemic, almost all countries in the region took measures such as partial reduction and postponement of charges. However, once these measures are completed, the energy costs of drinking water and sanitation service providers could amount to 40% of their total operating expenses. It is important to take these factors into account to guarantee the satisfaction of basic needs and to ensure resilient systems.

Differences in access to basic drinking water services in selected Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Source: WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Hygiene and Sanitation (2022) [database online]!/

Potable water and electricity policies to drive a transformed recovery

To address the growing vulnerability of the poorest population, ECLAC assumes an important role in the transition and proposes a 10-year investment policy to universalize these basic services. It would involve investing 2.6% of the regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually (1.3% to achieve SDG 6 and 1.3% for SDG 7) and would have multiple positive effects:

  • Reduction of COVID-19 infections and health improvements. 
  • Reactivation of the regional economy through job creation. 700,000 new jobs in the development of new energy infrastructures, and 3.4 million associated with the drinking water and sanitation sector, per year.
  • Reduction of air and water pollution, through a transition to more efficient and cleaner energy sources, with circular approaches.

To this end, institutional, planning and regulatory strengthening are necessary. Together with a more relevant role for cooperation agencies and banks.

Latin America and the Caribbean (18 countries): summary of investment required to universalize drinking water, sanitation and electricity coverage and its benefits.