Water Quality in Bolivia: 17 Years After Cochabamba

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BOLIVIA – In 1999, the Bolivian government privatized the water supply in the Andean city of Cochabamba, taking the earth’s most precious resource away from over 500,000 people. The Water War protests erupted over water quality and were met by a violent standoff between civilians and the Bolivian military. This is until the government finally broke-off contracts with the British investors to whom they sold the water system.

Now, 17 years later, has the Bolivian Government’s attitude towards water changed? And what does this mean for water quality in Bolivia — has it improved since the Cochabamba crisis?

Unfortunately, Bolivia’s water laws far outdate what happened in Cochabamba. According to a U.S. Army report, they have not been updated since 1906. Although lawmakers made numerous attempts to ratify the rules over the years, the government accepted none. Moreover, few federal agencies can control the water supply. Instead, regional water companies manage the water industries in the cities of La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

However, in 2001, the European Community partnered with the Bolivian Government to create the Memorandum of Understanding aimed at improving water access, sanitation and economic collaboration to reduce poverty in the country. At the inception of the alliance, the government considered enhanced water quality in Bolivia necessary for the advancement of deprived communities.

Water for People, an organization that works to expand water quality and sanitation throughout the developing world, estimates that while 88 percent of people have access to safe drinking water and 46 percent live in areas with sanitation practices. Yet, for those who live in rural Bolivia, the figures are extremely imbalanced with just 72 percent of people with access to advanced water systems and 24 percent with proper hygienic methods.

In the city of El Alto, where more than half of the population is indigenous and rely on small-scale farming for money, sewage is pumped directly into the nearby Seco river. When the river is dried out, it is filled with waste and garbage from surrounding residences, slaughterhouses and mines. When the rains finally come, the refuse flows into one of South America’s largest lakes, Lake Titicaca.

The water pollution problem of El Alto has been known for a decade, yet amazingly ignored by the government. Cleaning El Alto’s water and educating the populace about hygiene would require several million dollars. A representative from The Environmental Defense League of La Paz explains, “The things governments have done so far are like giving an aspirin to someone who has been shot.”

Bolivian officials should have learned from the Water Wars of Cochabamba that water is one of the most important means for survival. Since 1999, the government has feigned interest in water quality in Bolivia. As one of Latin America’s poorest countries, it is crucial that the Bolivian government acts to increase water access and purity, especially in rural areas home to the country’s most vulnerable.

Kristina Evans

Photo: Flickr

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