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Successful Dutch-Colombian collaboration in water management: what’s next?

This week, Holland House Colombia, the Netherlands Enterprise agency (RVO) and the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP), joined forces at the 67th ACODAL Water, Waste and Energy Congress took place in Cartagena, Colombia.

In anticipation of the Dutch presence at the congress, Jan Willem van Bokhoven – director of Holland House in Colombia – gives his perspective on the long-term ongoing partnership of 50 years between the two countries that are committed to addressing environmental challenges.

A receptive market for European expertise
As Colombia is lacking a strong industrial base for advanced technologies, it often relies on foreign expertise. Traditionally dominated by the United States, nowadays European companies are finding a much more receptive market in Colombia. Of course there are still challenges. Last year Dutch expertise was showcased in capacity building, water management and sustainable water purification. The emphasis now lies on the Water as Leverage programme and coastal protection, especially in the face of climate change, rapid urbanisation, and environmental degradation.

Success stories and economic growth
Van Bokhoven has significantly contributed to the success of Dutch entrepreneurs in Colombia. The number of companies with branches in Colombia increased from 35 to 300 over the past seven years, and over 800 Dutch entrepreneurs began exporting to Colombia, the third-largest economy in Latin America, during the same period. Since he set up Holland House ten years ago, Bokhoven has fallen in love with the Latin American country that has hosted him. ‘A beautiful country with beautiful people and also a typical emerging market.’ The aftereffects of the financial crisis leading to budget cuts abroad pushed Dutch entrepreneurs to look beyond Europe for growth opportunities. Bokhovens’ goal was to support not only existing businesses but also guide entrepreneurs taking their first steps in new markets such as Colombia. Today, that number has grown to nearly 400 member companies.

Colombia’s agricultural potential
Colombia offers a lot of potential as a major global food producer. The country has 26 million hectares of agricultural land, with only 6 million currently in use, indicating a vast potential for growth. This growth is further supported by the peace process, which is gradually making more land accessible. ‘We do a lot with agro-logistics and the use of water in the agricultural sector. Due to the El Niño and La Niña weather phenomena, we have periods of extreme drought and periods of huge rainfall. Both drought and excessive rain require the efficient use of water.

Even in regions traditionally abundant in water, the drought leading to historic lows in reservoir levels demanded immediate action. In Bogotá, a major city with millions of residents, authorities have implemented a one-day water outage every ten days.

Importance of effective water management
In Colombia, effective water management is becoming increasingly critical across all sectors, highlighted by the ongoing drought and heightened sense of urgency. This issue is key at the ACODAL Congress. This year marks the largest delegation of Dutch companies ever, with familiar names like Nijhuis and Paques reflecting a growing interest in the Colombian market, Van Bokhoven points out. Dutch companies operate in Columbia via the Blue Deal InspirAgua initiative; a holistic approach to problem-solving that integrates public, private, academic, and community sectors where 21 water boards work together with the Dutch ministries of Foreign Affairs and Infrastructure and Water Management. The goal: to give 20 million people around the world access to sufficient, clean and safe water.

Focus on filtration technology
A significant focus is on filtration technology, essential for transforming wastewater and various water sources into potable water. This technology is crucial for treating groundwater and mountain water to ensure safe drinking water supplies. The Dutch delegation’s mix of expertise and cutting-edge technology aims to address Colombia’s pressing water management needs effectively.

The expanding group of participants includes firms specialising in water use for agriculture and decentralised water supply systems for rural and remote areas, such as the Amazon. These companies bring advanced technologies for water purification and drinking water provision and try to find solutions for Colombia’s vast and diverse geography. ‘Trade and development are not two opposites in this country,’ says Van Bokhoven, ‘they reinforce each other.’

Integrating water, energy, and waste solutions
Additionally, there’s a notable trend of integrating water management with energy and waste solutions, leveraging Dutch expertise to create comprehensive and sustainable approaches. The collaboration at ACODAL underscores the importance of innovative, cross-sector solutions to Colombia’s water challenges. ‘But’, says Van Bokhoven, ‘significant strides are being made by providing comprehensive, turnkey water management solutions. Bluecon, for instance, offers complete plug-and-play systems tailored for small municipalities, covering everything from filtration technology to infrastructure. Similarly, LIC provides fully integrated water technology solutions.’

Beyond turnkey projects: Dutch expertise in larger systems
However, the Dutch role in Colombia extends beyond turnkey projects. Often, Dutch expertise and technology are integrated into larger systems managed by other international firms. While Colombia has strong educational institutions, the country lacks a robust industrial base, making it unlikely for advanced technologies like pumps or nanofilters to be manufactured locally. Instead, local installation work remains prevalent.

Overall, while Dutch firms contribute significantly to Colombia’s water sector and create job opportunities, most high-tech production remains abroad. The mutual benefit is clear, emphasises Van Bokhoven: Colombia gains access to advanced water technologies, and Dutch companies find a receptive market for their solutions.

If you are also interested in doing business in Colombia, for example by participating in the activities mentioned above, or you want to consult someone, please contact RVO. There are various ways to support you, and we can also put you in contact with the Dutch embassy in Bogota.

See below for an impression of the Netherlands Pavilion at Acodal, Cartagena Colombia, 2024.

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