Bolivia’s ‘city of eternal spring’ has a history of water struggles. Now some neighbourhoods that lack piped water are taking matters into their own hands
On a parched hill in central Bolivia, a blue tanker winds its way past half-built houses carrying water to Alto Buena Vista, a hillside settlement in the south of the city of Cochabamba. For this particular neighbourhood, trucks like this are the only source of water.
But just a couple of valleys away in the community of Maria Auxiliadora, hundreds of households have a steady, piped water connection thanks to a community-run well. The 69-metre well taps into an aquifer and the water is pumped to the top of the hill, from where it is distributed to around 370 households.
Cochabamba has a history of water struggles and the tale of these two different approaches to water dates back to 1999 and 2000; the city hit international headlines after protests broke out when its water system was privatised and rates were hiked. The privatisation was overturned, but sixteen years later the city is expanding and the municipal water network has still not reached newer, poorer areas such as Alto Buena Vista, leaving residents dependent on trucked-in water.
“We don’t know where the trucks get the water from, but we still have to drink it,” says Aurora Colque Gabriel, who built her house in Alto Buena Vista two years ago. One of Cochabamba’s poorest neighbourhoods, it is developing fast; under temperatures of more than 30 degrees, workmen cobble unpaved roads and dig trenches for gas pipes.
The arid barrio has no piped water connections or wells, and it rarely rains here. This means no showers or washing machines. “Sometimes my children go to school without even washing their faces because of the lack of water,” says Colque Gabriel.
But in Maria Auxilidora, families have water meters and pay for what they use at an office nearby. The well was funded half by a Swiss NGO PAMS-Suiza and half by the community. Each person paid a quota of $60 but as not every lot of land was occupied at the time the water system was being built, the community took out a loan from NGO Pro Habitat. Unfortunately, the interest on the loan meant that some people arriving in the community later had to pay more than others.
Maria Auxiliadora is one of around 700 neighbourhoods with community water projects in Cochabamba and its surrounding towns, according to Stefano Archidiacono, whose NGO CeVI works with Cochabamba water rights organisation Fundación Abril. The size, water quality and reliability of these projects varies, he says, and “almost no one [in these projects] has support from the government”.
“Before the well, it was all water trucks,” says Juana Aguilar Zeballos who has lived in Maria Auxiliadora, which was set up in 1999 as a co-operative community, for 10 years. “That was more difficult, especially for the families at the top of the hill. The trucks didn’t want to drive up.”
Getting your water from trucks is an expensive system, currently costing between 30 and 35 bolivianos (roughly £3 to £3.50) per 1000 litres. For those using the community well, the price is just two bolivianos per 1000 litres plus 18 bolivianos per month for maintenance. Depending on the size of a family (and how frugal they are with water), one family might only use 1000 litres a month, while others might use 10,000 litres or more.
Water from the trucks is also less reliable. Tests by hygiene and sanitation organisation, Fundación SODIS, show that the water can contain bacterial contamination far in excess of the limit for human consumption. This contamination comes from dirty tanks, the ground, and instruments used to drill the wells, according to Jeremy Maes, the foundation’s associate director. Those hardest hit by drinking contaminated water are children under the age of five and pregnant women. “Illness leads to absence from school, and it’s very difficult for the children to catch up,” says Maes.
Maria Auxiliadora’s system has been licensed by the Bolivian state as an entity providing water and sewage services, meaning that there is a protected area around the community in which nobody else is allowed to drill. Some locals, though, are still concerned that the protection could be violated. “One worry is that the water could dry up, or that someone could drill into one of the veins feeding our water pocket and absorb the water,” says Aguilar Zeballos.
If the well dried up, the village would have to revert back to water tanks and wait for the Misicuni dam, currently under construction around 22 miles north-west of Cochabamba. Scheduled for completion next month, the dam will collect water from the mountains surrounding the city. To receive water from Misicuni, Maria Auxiliadora would need connections to Cochabamba’s municipal system, a process which could take a long time.
Managing the water supply locally is not easy; disagreements over who controls the water have created problems in Maria Auxiliadora recently. Nonetheless, the community would not want municipal water provider Semapa to take control of their system, says Aguilar Zeballos. “When we built it, we were proud. We were the only neighbourhood in our district to have water and sewage.”
For Marcela Olivera, the Latin American coordinator for Food and Water Watch’s Water for All campaign, most people view provision of services such as water as a choice between state provision and private enterprise. Community water management represents a third option. “People don’t see that there can be another way: community-run,” she says. “Maybe large-scale projects are not the solution. Maybe the solution is small.”
The Guardian | Amy Booth