Water quality improvement through utility leadership

2004 Winner

ETAPA is the public municipal company for telecommunication, water supply and sanitation of the canton of Cuenca. The overall goal of ETAPA is the long-term provision of sufficient water of outstanding quality in the City of Cuenca. Therefore ETAPA’s environmental management department has an annual budget of some million USD. Its activities focus on an integral protection program in all water-sheds around the City of Cuenca.

Project Description

Through a participatory process involving the local communities and their organisational bodies in the upper part of the watershed, sustainable development was introduced in the fragile paramo ecosystem of the Tomebamba River watershed. Three main categories of measures were initiated by ETAPA: ecological dry sanitation, communitarian natural resource management focusing on the protection of water, and the reintroduction of Alpacas. The latter measure should help to solve the serious problem of accelerated soil erosion and water contamination due to intensive cattle production.

Country / Region

Tomebamba watershed in the southern Andean region of Ecuador contains different climate and vegetation zones and is covering an area of 300 km2. New road construction and subsequent economic development in the unprotected upper region of the Tomebamba watershed have negatively affected ecosystems and water quality.


In the Tomebamba watershed live approx. 300’000 people. Currently, 1,000 liters per second are taken from the middle part of the watershed and treated in the water treatment plant “El Cebollar”, serving approx. 50% of the city’s population (around 150,000 people).

Information about local context

In the late 20th century, a first order road was built using most of the original Inca design. Since the beginning of the Cuenca-Naranjal road construction, the buffer area of El Cajas National Park - mostly lacustrine paramo ecosystem – as well as the whole Tomebamba watershed have experienced a strong pressure for anthropogenic development. As the sustainability of the water supply basin is threatened, this ongoing process has become a critical factor for the water quality of Cuenca.

Chances / Risks

The consequent search of pragmatic strategies for watershed management delivers first outcomes as described. Although the whole impact of ETAPA’s integral approach is hardly measurable on the short term, Cuenca’s water supply depends on the success of this process. After many projects of other NGOs passing by in the region, ETAPA is determined to follow its strategy many years longer. With regard to the conflict between limiting budgets and massively growing challenges ETAPA has no other alternative than to spend every single dollar as effective as possible to reach its overall target – the delivery of sufficient water of outstanding quality.

Participation of the communities

Through a participatory process involving the local communities and their organisational bodies in the upper part of the watershed, sustainable development was introduced in the fragile paramo ecosystem of the Tomebamba River watershed.

Project monitoring

The project monitoring of progress bases clearly on defined performance indicators.

Project update - On site visit March 2006

High ambitions – high achievements About 100 local families have received advice and guidance on dry sanitation and 29 dry toilets are installed and in use. More dry toilets will be constructed in the second phase of the project. The families using the dry sanitation are the main promoters of the system, which has gained increasing acceptance. The communitarian natural resource management embraces capacity building for local leaders and beneficiaries, and environmental education for school children. Production and plantation of trees and other native plants, soil conservation and rehabilitation of the Tomebamba River are the other main activities which have been successfully taken up as per project plan. ETAPA erected fencing along more than 10 km of riverbanks and set up 15 family orchards and 320 agro forestry plantations. Only the reintroduction of Alpacas has been delayed, mainly because of the late return on investment compared to existing cattle production, besides a lack of experience in breeding these animals and some cultural resistance. ETAPA’s announcement of being a winner of the ReSource Award 2004 was very positively perceived by local and national governmental bodies as well as the local and national media. Jorge Molina, Councilor of the Canton of Cuenca, stresses the importance of the timing of ETAPA’s effort and the receipt of this award. “The announcement of ETAPA’s success in winning this international award was crucial to launch the newly elected administration – not only in terms of money but even more in terms of motivation of ETAPA’s employees”. Santiago López Guillén, Director General of ETAPA, sees a positive impact of the award for the acquisition of additional funds for future projects. “To be the winner of an international competition run by the Swiss Re Foundation is a first class reference to be presented in any future proposal”.

Submitted by: 
Empresa Pública Municipal de Telecomunicaciones, Agua Potable, Alcan-tarillado y Saneamiento de Cuenca (ETAPA)
Project period: 
Project legal form: 
Public company
Last update: 
Award year: 

Empresa Pública Municipal de Telecomunicaciones, Agua Potable, Alcantarillado y Saneamiento de Cuenca (ETAPA)
S. Barros / J. Leon / J. Dominguez