Guatemala has improved access to water and sanitation services over the last 20–25 years but significant challenges remain. A high fraction of the population still lacks access to such services, particularly in rural areas, and many regions of the country face serious water-supply problems, which has led to conflicts between sectors and between users.
National censuses show that 74.6% of Guatemalan households had access to improved water sources in 2002 with large disparities between rural (59.6%) and urban (89.5%) areas . Access improved by 2018 to 77% countrywide, but regional disparities remained , ; access was 63.2% in rural zones versus 87.0% in urban zones and 34.3% of rural households had to use unimproved or surface (i.e., rivers, streams, etc.) water sources.
Access to improved sanitation facilities is even poorer. It was 41.9% in 2002, countrywide , with 72% in urban areas and only 11.5% in rural zones. Access improved by 2018 to 55.6% countrywide, but regional disparities remained , : it was above 85.8% in the Guatemala and Sacatepéquez departments, but less than 27% in the Petén, Alta Verapaz, Quiché, and Totonicapán departments. Some 4.8% of the population lacked any sanitation facility in 2018 and likely dumped their waste in rivers, channels, or practiced open defecation.
Wastewater generation is not monitored. Guatemala’s water account 2001–2010 ,  estimated that some 15,536 million m³ of water were returned to the environment after having been used in the country’s economic activities in 2010. About 37% of these contaminated wastewater and water effluents come from industrial coffee processing; 32.5% from electricity generation; 20.4% from agriculture, livestock raising, forestry, hunting, and fisheries; 6.4% from the industry sector; and 2.2% from domestic use. Particularly worrisome are the wastewaters from industrial coffee processing operations, due to their heavy pollutants load.
Wastewater collection is highly insufficient. Household and industrial wastewaters should be collected by municipal sewerage services. However, existent municipal systems were able to collect domestic wastewater from only 44.9% of the country’s households in 2018, with large disparities between regions , . Coverage was higher than 78% in the Guatemala and Sacatepéquez departments, but less than 25% in the Petén, Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, Quiché, and Totonicapán departments. Information on the coverage of sewerage systems for industrial facilities is not available.
Wastewater treatment seems to be very limited. As of 2018, a total of 320 wastewater treatment plants were reported countrywide, in only 134 of the country’s 340 municipalities . Data on the volume of wastewater treated are not available; it is thought ,  that only 5% of all the municipal, industrial, and agro-industrial wastewaters receive any treatment prior to being discharged into water bodies. The remaining 95% would be discharged untreated into the ground, waterbodies, or the sea.
The lack of proper sanitation and sewerage collection and wastewater treatment systems is, the main cause of the microbiological and chemical pollution found in many of the country’s rivers and lakes. For instance, the Amatitlán lake and Las Vacas River are highly polluted due to the continued discharges of wastewaters from the Guatemala City Metropolitan Area. Pollution of these and other water sources limits their use for human consumption, recreation, or other uses that involve primary contact, and might compromise the wellbeing of aquatic ecosystems.
Overall, limited access to safe drinking water and sanitation services affects the country’s social and economic wellbeing, as it exacerbates poverty and malnutrition, increases morbidity, and negatively affects school attendance. For instance, amoebiasis and infectious diarrheal disease were, respectively, the fifth and sixth leading causes of morbidity in the country during the 2012–2020 period . The incidence of these diseases is highest in the North-western part of the country , the departments where access to improved water sources and sanitation services are the lowest. In fact, the mortality rate attributed to unsafe water, unsafe sanitation, and lack of hygiene (SDG indicator 3.9.2) in Guatemala was estimated at 6.3 per 100,000 people in 2016 , the second highest rate in the LAC region.
Guatemala’s water supply issues are due not so much to the availability of water resources but rather to the highly heterogeneous and conflicting geographical distribution of water resources and those of the population and economic activities. Access to water and sanitation services issues are, on the other hand, due to the insufficient financial and technical resources commanded by local governments as well as to the lack of a dedicated policy, regulatory, and institutional framework.
With an average annual rainfall of about 1,966 mm, the total amount of renewable water potentially available every year is 217,300 mm³; which would allow some 8,269 m³ of water to be available per person per year on average (as of 2013), well above the water stress threshold of 1,700 m³/person/year.
This water is unevenly distributed across the country. The country’s territory has been subdivided into three major hydrographic regions: the Pacific slope comprises 24% of the country’s area and gets 25.3% of all the renewable surface water available countrywide; the Caribbean slope comprises 34% of the country and holds 31.7% of all the water; and the Gulf of Mexico slope comprises 42% of the country’s area and holds 42.3% of the water.
Water consumption by the various user sectors is not sufficiently measured. Countrywide total water demand was estimated ,  to be 20,373.8 mm³ in 2010. Most (37.5%) of this water was used by the industrial sector (including agro-industries, particularly industrial coffee processing); crop irrigation, livestock raising, forestry, and hunting utilized 31.9%, followed by human consumption (2.3%); the main non-consumptive use of water was for electricity generation (24.8% of total water demand).
The basins with the highest per capita availability of water are areas with very low population density located in the northern and western part of the Petén department (e.g., sub-basins of the Candelaria, Hondo, and Usumacinta rivers), as well as the sub-basins in the Northern Transversal Strip (Icbolay, San Román, Machaquilá, Sarstún, Mohó and Pojóm). The basins with lowest per capita water availability are densely populated zones located in the Dry Corridor.
Over 4.2 million people were living under conditions of water stress in 2015, each having less than 1,700 m³ of water available per year. About 1.9 million people residing in the sub-basin of Las Vacas River (part of the Motagua River basin) suffer extreme water stress having a per capita water availability of only 496 m³/person/year. Over 2.3 million people inhabiting the sub-basin of the Pixcayá River (part of the Samalá River basin), the Lake Atitlan basin, and the María Linda River basin live under conditions of moderate water stress.
The very limited collection and treatment of wastewater are due to the highly insufficient, unequally available, and poor state of the infrastructure. The coverage of municipal sewerage systems was only 44.9% countrywide in 2018, with high coverage (> 78%) in the Guatemala and Sacatepéquez departments, but very poor coverage (<25%) in the Petén, Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, Quiché, and Totonicapán departments. A total of 320 wastewater treatment plants were reported countrywide in 2018, but in only 134 of the country’s 340 municipalities .
Perhaps the major underlying issue is the lack of a comprehensive national policy, regulatory, and institutional framework specifically devoted to water management. No General Water Act that regulates the use of the country’s water resources and preserve their availability and quality is currently available. In addition, it is a multiplicity of actors, including national ministries (health, environment, and agriculture) and municipalities that participate, at various levels, in water and sanitation activities, often with no coordinating mechanism.
Key policies and governance approach
An integrated policy, regulatory, and institutional framework for regulating the use of Guatemala’s waters and for watershed management and conservation is still missing.
The National Constitution recognizes the crucial importance of water and declares the public property of water whose use is to be granted by law in accordance with social interest. The Constitution also mandates that a dedicated law on water should be formulated. Although a number of water bills have been proposed since 1950, none have been passed. As a consequence, the country's water resources management rests on a complex set of scattered policy instruments and regulations that govern various specific aspects and involve a number of actors, rather than on an integrated framework.
There are two general policy instruments that aim to govern water management. The first, is the National Policy for Integrated Management of Water Resources which includes four strategic lines: (i) Building and strengthening capacities for the integrated management of water resources; (ii) Sustainable management of water resources; (iii) Coordination and communication; and (iv) Climate change mitigation and adaptation mechanisms in the management of water resources. The second, is the National Water Policy and Strategy which aims to adopt a comprehensive vision of drinking water and sanitation, improving the coverage and functioning of public services, promoting the participation of indigenous peoples and women, and managing water resources knowledge.
Policy instruments addressing specific water management aspects include: the Irrigation Policy, implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture; the National Policy on Drinking Water and Sanitation, focused on improving the coverage and functioning of water and sanitation services, including the surveillance and monitoring of water quality; and the Policy for the Strengthening of Municipalities, aimed at strengthening the municipalities’ capacities for managing public services (such as water and sanitation) that impact public health.
In the absence of a comprehensive, dedicated law on water resources, a number of instruments regulating specific water issues exist. These include, for instance: the 2006 Regulation on the Discharge and Reutilization of Wastewater and Disposal of Sludge , which sets the criteria and requirements that the discharge and reuse of wastewater and sludge disposal should meet in order to protect the receiving bodies, aims to restore the receiving bodies undergoing eutrophication, and promote the integrated management of water resources; the Regulation of Wastewater Discharges in the Lake Atitlan Basin seeks the same purposes as the previous but specifically for the discharge of wastewater into receiving bodies in the Lake Atitlan basin; the Ministerial Agreement 573-2011 issued by the Ministry of Health, regulates the design of rural systems for the disposal of excreta and wastewater, with the purpose of preventing environmental contamination, and protecting public health; and the Government Agreement 129-2015 which requires all municipalities to have wastewater treatment plants in place to counteract pollution of the receiving bodies.
As a consequence of the lack of an integrated policy and regulatory framework on water, no institution dedicated to water management exists, but various government agencies and institutions participate in and share the responsibility of water management. The Ministry of Agriculture (MAGA) implements policies and formulates plans, programs, and projects aimed to improve food production, based on irrigation. The Ministry of the Environment (MARN) governs the quality, use, and exploitation of water resources and is responsible of formulating water policy and watershed management. Municipal governments are responsible of providing drinking water and sanitation services. The Ministry of Public Health (MSPAS) formulates and implements policies on drinking water and sanitation.
Guatemala’s major water issues and conflicts stem from, or have been favoured by, the fragmentation of policies and regulations, lack of institutional coordination, regulatory gaps, and weak governance of the water sector. This has led to conflicts and competition between different users, rivers diversion, unregulated discharge of untreated wastewaters by industries and municipalities, etc. and hampers the orderly and regulated water management. Implementation and enforcement of the policies and regulations currently in place involve the participation of various actors and institutions, often leading to overlap or duplication of functions and operational inefficiency.
SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
As has been recognized repeatedly , , , , , , Guatemala lacks the necessary political, regulatory, and institutional frameworks for properly regulating water resources. Information on water resources is extremely limited; no comprehensive policy or formal mechanisms for systematically collecting, organizing, analyzing, and disseminating information on water resources is in place. The water and sanitation infrastructure is highly insufficient to meet the demands/needs of human consumption, agriculture, industry, energy, etc. Sanitation services are mainly limited to the major urban centers of the country. The institutional framework for water is precarious. The lack of a dedicated regulatory framework has led to the lack of an entity directly responsible for the integrated management of water resources.
Not surprisingly, the country fared poorly in its latest progress report on SDG indicator 6.5.1 – the degree of implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). It scored well below the regional average in all or most of the indicators of the four dimensions of IWRM (enabling environment, management instruments, financing, and institutions and participation). In fact, it scored worse in 2020 than in the 2017 report and it remained at a Low level of implementation.
Initiatives and Development Plans
In February 2021 the Vice-ministry for Water was created within the Ministry of the Environment with the purpose of managing the country’s water resources. A set of Mandates for promoting the protection and conservation of Guatemala’s hydrographic basins  were issued also in February 2021. Such mandates include conducting or updating diagnostics of the country’s hydrographic basins to inform the formulation of natural resources management plans aimed at solving environmental degradation issues.
Goals and Ambitions
Goals of Guatemala’s National Development Plan K’atun 2032  include that, by 2032, a Water Act incorporating the integrated water resources management approach is in place; at least 30% of wastewaters are treated and reutilized; all the country’s watersheds show good water quality; inter alia.
MARN’s Institutional Strategic Plan 2017–2021  aims at fully enforcing existent wastewater regulations (e.g., the 2006 Regulation on the Discharge and Reutilization of Wastewater and Disposal of Sludge ) in order to protect the receiving water bodies, promote integrated management of water resources, and promote the conservation and improvement of the country’s water resources.
- Efforts to amend the lack of integrated policies and regulatory frameworks for water have been recently made or are currently ongoing (e.g., the recent creation of the Vice-ministry for Water and the Mandates for promoting the protection and conservation of Guatemala’s hydrographic basins) but these are still to be effectively implemented.
- Perhaps the major issue to address is constructing an integrated regulatory (e.g., a General Water Act) and institutional framework for properly regulating water resources.
- Information on water resources is extremely limited. Financing the large investments needed for improving and expanding the infrastructure for wastewater collection and treatment to meet the current and future demand will be challenging, given the limited resources and capacities of local governments.
 Instituto Nacional de Estadística. Bases de datos. Estadísticas ambientales. Retrieved November 2021
 Carrera, J.L., Gálvez, J., López, E. 2012. Recursos hídricos: Mucha agua, poca gestión. In: IARNA. Perfil ambiental de Guatemala 2010 - 2012: Vulnerabilidad local y creciente construcción de riesgo. Universidad Rafael Landívar.
 MSPAS. Sistema de Información Gerencial de Salud. Veinte primeras causas de morbilidad general. Retrieved December 2021
 World Health Organization Data. Retrieved October 2021