World Bank Study Proposes Solutions to Bolivia’s Water Crisis

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A recent photo of drought conditions in La Paz, Bolivia (Source: Alan Farago/Twitter).

Bolivia is currently in the midst of the worst drought in twenty-five years following decades of intense water crises, including an infamous “water war” in 2000 in the city of Cochabamba in which tens of thousands of Bolivians protested the privatization of water. To cope with the current situation, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales has declared a national state of emergency, imposed stricter water rationing, and even fired a top water official, but can more be done to alleviate the crisis?

In a recent report for the World Bank Group, Sarah Botton et al. cover the current crisis and explain how a blend of “big system” water infrastructure, in which a single operator manages the piped system, and “small system” infrastructure, in which individuals informally control water resources, can help conditions in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, and El Alto, a large adjacent city known for its high elevation and largely indigenous population. 

Botton et al. present a case study of water management in La Paz and El Alto to consider the benefit of future water management strategies in the region. The central and oldest neighborhoods of these Bolivian cities have traditionally had better access to water, with poorer communities suffering from noteworthy shortages or decreased access, according to Botton et al. As a result, both cities have gone through cycles of public and private management before changing back to a public management system in 2007. 

Dirk Hoffmann, a professor at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences in Germany and an expert in glacier change and glacier lake outburst flood risk in the Bolivian Andes, explained in an interview with GlacierHub that the immense population growth in La Paz and El Alto further complicates water management issues in the area. He indicated that the urban area of the metropolis of La Paz and El Alto is growing 40,000 to 50,000 people each year. 

“The water supply system in La Paz and El Alto has not kept up with the population growth,” Hoffmann told GlacierHub. To make matters worse, Hoffmann explained that there is a 40 to 50 percent loss of water as it travels from the source due to old water pipes, open canals, infiltrations, and (illegal) access by users.

In 1997, while under public management, 95 percent of the La Paz population was connected to the drinking water system and 80 percent to sewers, according to Botton et al. In El Alto, where the population is poorer and more heavily indigenous, only 65 percent of the population was connected to drinking water and 25 percent to sewers. In order to provide more dependable water to the indigenous people, the decision was made by the government of El Alto in July 1997 to move the governance of the water system to a private company. La Paz similarly made the decision to privatize.

A contract was signed by both cities with Aguas del Illimani, a subsidiary of the French company Suez. However, problems with privatization arose because the company lacked the resources to equip the poorest households with water. Aguas del Illimani was ultimately replaced in 2007 by Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento (EPSAS), a public utility.

EPSAS dealt with a major setback in 2008 in which a landslide caused by heavy rain destroyed the pipes in the Pampahasi system, which supplied water to the southern and eastern part of La Paz. The area went without water for three weeks because repairs were delayed and EPSAS could not afford the US$450,000 s to repair the damage. They required a loan from the municipality and the national government.

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A photo of a public faucet that serves 1,000 families in El Alto, Bolivia (Source: Stephan Bachenheimeri/World Bank).

President Morales and water experts maintain that climate change has contributed to and continues to exasperate the current water crisis in Bolivia. Bolivian glaciers have shrunk by 43 percent between 1986 and 2014, according to a study recently published by the Geosciences Union journal. Meanwhile, glacier meltwater in the region remains a crucial source of drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower, with two million residents in La Paz and El Alto reportedly receiving about 15 percent of their water supply from glaciers.

As water resources diminish in Bolivia, conflicts over their allocation will only intensify, Botton et al. explain. Hoffman emphasized to GlacierHub that, ironically, Bolivia is a big contributor to climate change due to deforestation in its lowlands, when counted on a per capita base. Deforestation brings smoke particles to the glaciers, accelerating their melting (although the exact magnitude still has not been established). In this sense, Bolivia continues to contribute to climate change, which has negatively impacted it own water supply.

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La Paz residents wait in line to fill water buckets (Source: Water Mark/Twitter).

Botton et al. analyze the differences between “big systems,” like the ones used in La Paz and El Alto, which are maintained by a single operator that manages the pipes of the entire municipal water system, and “small systems,” which offer an alternative management option.

In small systems, inhabitants of a rural area informally control the system and turn the resource into a service for the community. The operators are required to register with the Ministry of Water, but many currently do not because of onerous procedures involved.

In La Paz, small systems are located on the western slopes, which are considered “non-constructible” for big systems. These small systems provide water without undermining the big system, which lacks options for expanding. Another positive of small systems is that they rarely need repairs, and when they do, those repairs are done more easily with a technically simple approach. Botton et al. concur that future solutions for La Paz and El Alto water issues will require coordination between big and small systems.

Hoffmann agrees that there needs to be more coordination among all of those involved and that there remains significant disagreement on who should have access to water or how it should be utilized. Many of the reservoirs used in La Paz and El Alto are on rural lands belonging to indigenous people, for example, who want to use the water for irrigation purposes. The indigenous people claim these natural resources are theirs. However, Bolivians living in the city want to use the water for drinking. 

Hoffmann concluded, “The many actors involved are slowly becoming more convinced that they need an agreement between urban and rural populations.”

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