telesur | 21 March, 2017
Bolivia is in throes of one of its worst droughts in history. Last November, the government has declared a national state of emergency over the shortages, which rolled out a water rationing program across the country. For World Water Day, teleSUR delves deeper into the current crisis and looks at how access to water in Bolivia has long been a political, social and economic battle and is increasingly wrought with environmental challenges brought on by climate change.
Low rainfall and the effects of a changing climate have helped fuel Bolivia’s worst drought in 25 years. The drought has parched many of the country’s resources, quickened the drying of lakes, devastated crops and livestock and is estimated to have already claimed around 40 percent of the country’s glaciers, pushing many to migrate to urban centres.
Political pressure and scapegoating from the Bolivian opposition led to the resignation of the country’s Environment and Water Minister, and President Evo Morales sacked a top water official for not warning of the impending “water crisis.”
While climate change has been seen as a major factor for the drought, many have pointed out that the management of water and the country’s ongoing reliance on water intensive extractive industries such as mining has also fueled the problem of water scarcity.
In October, President Evo Morales approved a US$250 million emergency fund to support those affected by the drought and a month later declared a national state of emergency. The majority of the country’s municipalities had previously decreed their own emergencies, triggering water rationing in many cities.
The effect of water rationing has been most strikingly seen in the capital of La Paz and the capital’s poorer sister city El Alto. In El Alto, the problem has also been compounded by a huge increase in population, driven by an influx of residents from drought-stricken rural areas. In 2009 the city was already projected to exceed its water supply, while its population is expected to double to 2 million by 2050.
After the declaration of a national emergency, water was cut to 94 percent of the barrios in La Paz, forcing hundreds of thousands to line up for small government rations of often murky water.
When taps were not turned back on, the news was met by protests and disagreements over who and where water should be allocated. The majority of water trucks coming into neighborhoods are now controlled by the military, leading to ongoing clashes between thirsty citizens and authorities.
Speaking to teleSUR, Gabriel Zeballos, a Bolivian researcher and PhD student of Geography at Ohio State University, noted that while the majority of neighbourhoods in La Paz were hit by the latest water outage, a small number who rejected offerings for privatized water in the 1990s and remained connected to their traditional spring water supply experienced few problems in the face of the drought crisis.
“Only those neighborhoods that kept the cooperative organization survived the water outage with no problem. Maybe is time to put communitarianism from discourse into action,” Zeballos said.
While Andean people living in Bolivia have been able to adapt to dry spells and changing climates for thousands of years, the threats from the drought and climate change present a new challenge.
Zeballos said that “nobody really knows today what to expect about the climate,” but added that questions of Bolivia’s minimal resources, environmental impacts and climate change should be ignored in favor of falling back on the excuse of being “a poor country.”
“There is absolutely no useful information about how much water is being polluted by the mines and cities, not even how much water is being used in the hundreds or thousands of micro-irrigation projects along the whole country,” Zeballos said.
The current “water crisis” and drought has seen intense political debate focusing on its effects, but Zeballos saw that this debate is distracting many and being used as a political chip.
“Central administration and the political opposition keep using the climate change impacts more as a way to harm each other’s credibility, rather than actually finding real solutions to this problem,” he said. “It is clear that not politicians, nor the population are aware or conscious of the possible impacts that the climate change can actually produce.”
Who controls water has long been a significant political question in Bolivia, most starkly demonstrated in the Cochabamba Water War in 1999 and 2000. A government plan to privatize water brought the prospect of huge price increases and threats to traditional water management, setting off a series of protests in the country’s third biggest city, Cochabamba.
When the standoff ended, the government reversed the decision to privatize the area’s water and the communities surrounding Cochabamba managed to maintain the authority to manage the vital resource locally, directly and democratically.
Many see the Water War as a key event in changing the course of the country’s politics driven by outside imperialism, steering instead towards the self-ownership of resources, particularly when the government was being pressured to privatize state-controlled industries and resources by the World Bank and the IMF in exchange for economic aid.
In recent years, while Bolivia passed in 2010 the Law of Rights of Mother Earth — which granted legal personhood rights to all natural biosystems, including water — upholding this precedent-setting legislation has proven difficult.
Daniel Andrade, head of BILD, a Bolivian social enterprise that works to increase people’s access to safe drinking water, said that while the constitutional change protect water “as a basic human right” is a step in the right direction, it needs to be supported with proper planning and innovation.
“I think structurally the water crisis in La Paz earlier this year points to the need to look at things from a more structural perspective,” he said. “From all angles — urban and farming water consumption, macro urban planning and a holistic environmental perspective that includes reforestation, better investment in climate resilience etc.”
Looking forward to the election, Andrade expected that the opposition parties will focus on Morales’ governing MAS — Movement Toward Socialism — party’s narrative for a rights-based approach to mother earth, while still being “comfortable with extraction, fossil fuels and predatory behavior, both at the urban and rural level.”
Andrade said that in regard to the current water crisis, “organization on both the political and social movement side is still luke-warm at the moment,” and he expected that as Morales’ MAS may lose some of the political space.
But he hoped that the other actors that fill this void will move to “seduce” voters in the 2019 election — which Morales participate in — into pushing for “contextually-based” solutions to environmental problems.