World Bank Study Proposes Solutions to Bolivia’s Water Crisis

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.”

Malia Obama Visits Andean Glaciers

Malia Obama, the eldest daughter of former President Barack Obama, recently visited the glaciers of Peru and Bolivia during a gap year before entering Harvard as an undergraduate this fall. Her guides were unaware they were traveling with the president’s daughter during the 83-day journey, although they were told that an important American dignitary was accompanying them. Malia traveled with the Colorado-based educational travel company Where There Be Dragons, along with 16 other young people, through the Andes and Amazon program.

Photos from the trip were later shared across social media. One image shows Malia in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real mountain range, which is part of the Andes. The mountain range, made mostly of granite, lies southeast of Lake Titicaca and east of La Paz, acting as a barrier between the Altiplano Plateau and the Amazon Rain Forest. The region is dense with glaciers because air from the nearby Amazon lowlands is very moist and contributes to glacier formation. The Cordillera Real also includes the iconic mountain Huayna Potosí, which is only fifteen miles north of La Paz and can be seen from the neighboring city, El Alto. It is the most visited mountain in Bolivia and is popular among climbers. Malia promised to return to Bolivia one day to climb Huayna Potosí.

Cordillera Real (source: Creative Commons).

The Zongo Glacier located on Huayna Potosí is larger than most glaciers in the Cordillera Real but is rapidly melting. In 2013, it had an area of 1.876 km² with a catchment (where snow and ice are added and removed) of 3.3 km². The glacier has shrunk significantly from 1994 to 2014, losing 7 meters of thickness and retreating by 220 meters from a nearby lake, according to an analysis done through Google Earth images.

Glaciers remain an important water resource for people in the region. The people of Bolivia are already feeling the impacts of climate change. Last November, Bolivia declared a state of emergency due to the worst drought in 25 years. Two glaciers on the mountain Tuni Condoriri that provide water for the cities of El Alto and La Paz have receded by about 40% from 1983 to 2006, at a rate of .24 km² a year. They typically provide an estimated 10% to 15% of the water for El Alto and La Paz, according to updated figures provided by Dirk Hoffmann, coordinator of the Bolivian Mountain Institute and an expert on climate change. The water is also necessary for the health of agriculture, ecosystems and hydroelectric plants in the region.

“The trip has given Malia a first-hand view of Bolivian glaciers,” Hoffmann reported to GlacierHub. “I just hope someone told her how the glaciers are getting smaller and smaller each year. What has taken thousands of years to grow – the Andean glaciers – is being lost in a lifetime.”

Illimani seen from La Paz (source: Creative Commons).

As a security measure, satellites tracked the group’s movement and 10 marines stayed within 50 meters. Eduardo Quispe,who works as a mountain guide at the company Bolivian Mountain Guides and described Malia’s trip to GlacierHub, said that the group took a five-day tour of the Eastern Cordillera Oriental, starting from Laguna Kothia, a glacier lake, and ending at the base of Huayna Potosi. The group reached heights between 4,850 meters to 5,100 meters. One Marine fell ill from altitude sickness and had to be carted back by mule. During the tour, Malia fished for trout in a lagoon, ate traditional South American foods like chuño (which consists of freeze dried potatoes) and drank coca tea.

Malia, who speaks fluent Spanish, stayed in an inexpensive room based in the agricultural town of Tiquipaya in central Bolivia. Of the president’s eldest daughter, Quispe said, “Malia was characterized by her simplicity and friendliness, shared with everyone. She was one of the group, and there were no preferences of any kind.” 

According to the website for the trip, the group traveled to many cities in both Peru and Bolivia and visited indigenous communities. In Peru, Malia traveled around Lake Titicaca and visited Machu Picchu. “Our time in Peru is highlighted by dramatic mountain landscapes, exposure to remote indigenous communities, and a deeper understanding of development trends and contemporary issues in southwestern Peru,” reads the Where There Be Dragons website.

Malia Obama, far right, in 2012 (source: Creative Commons).

“It is very encouraging to know that such an influential person has chosen the Andes and the Amazon to spend time in,” Lixaida Vasquez, a climber who has frequented the peaks in Bolivia and works at the climbing company Andean Destinations, added to GlacierHub. “I hope she has been able to become closely acquainted with these two regions. They are so beautiful and also so fragile.”

Now that Malia has returned to the U.S., she will next venture to Hollywood to complete an internship with film producer Harvey Weinstein before going away to college. She still has environmental concerns on her mind, however. She recently attended a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in January.

Hoffmann, for one, hopes Malia’s own children will be so fortunate to experience the glaciers of the region in their future. “The way temperature is rising, her children will not have the chance to see most of Bolivia´s glaciers – neither will anybody else her age,” he said.