The metropolis of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia, is living on the edge of multiple water crises. Water suppliers struggle to keep pace with its rapid population growth. Its overall supply is dependent on glacial melt water, which may not survive the 21st century (as covered previously on this blog: “Bolivia’s current water crisis is the tip of a melting iceberg”). And the cities’ principal river, the Choqueyapu, is a site of dramatic pollution.
This last issue is the subject of Choqueyapu: Un río enfermo que nos alimenta (Choqueyapu: A sick river that feeds us). Bolivian newspaper Página Siete has re-released one of its most important investigative pieces of 2017 in an online comic-book format. The narrative follows a drop of glacial meltwater as it travels past industrial sites, through the city center, and out to the vegetable and fruit-growing fields that lie downstream of the city. There, farmer Eugenia Mamani explains how her downstream community has adapted: “In the early morning the clean water comes” (because polluting industries and the slaughterhouse aren’t operating). “We irrigate from 3am onwards; during the day it comes in dirty and we no longer use it. We have to make sacrifices [to make] our products.”
La Paz’s water pollution has many causes, from industrial waste to the riverside slaughterhouse to urban runoff to mining waste to inadequate water treatment. It all ends up flowing downstream. As the comic and other reporting shows, solutions like pollution inspectors, slaughterhouse modernization, and a new water treatment plant are all behind schedule. One of the few public works that affects the river, the culverting of its downtown segment in 2008 (see above photo), has only added to its problems by creating de-oxygenated segment right in the middle of its flow.
Like many environmental matters, this is a slow-motion crisis with no end in sight.
The Bolivian government has declared a “national emergency” as water shortages grip five of the country’s nine departments, and severe rationing has been imposed on La Paz–El Alto, the two-city metropolis that is the seat of government and center of highland life in the country. (Coverage: Guardian1 | 2| photos; La Razón1)
It all began in an inopportune manner on November 7, when a rumor unsettled the residents of La Paz: water was getting scare. One day later, the Public Water and Sanitation Company (Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento; EPSAS) began to apply a rationing plan that would grow harsher and harsher until this Sunday regular 72 hour cutoff of water supply were set, with just three hours of running water for 94 neighborhoods in the city.
In many cases the schedule was not kept, provoking neighborhood complaints, and now long lines of residents in the affected neighborhoods await the few tanker trucks that are available in the city.
In the last few hours, the supply plan has spread to other neighboroods in La Paz and El Alto.
Todo comenzó intempestivamente el 7 de noviembre, cuando el rumor de que el agua escaseaba en La Paz inquietó a sus habitantes. Un día después, la Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento (EPSAS) comenzó a aplicar un plan de racionamiento que se endureció progresivamente al punto de fijar este domingo cortes de servicio de 72 horas con solo tres para la dotación de agua en 94 barrios de la urbe.
En muchos casos, el cronograma no se cumplió lo que provocó la queja de los vecinos, que ahora hacen largas colas en los barrios afectados a la espera de los pocos camiones cisterna que hay disponibles en la urbe.
En las últimas horas el plan de suministro también se ajustó en otros barrios de La Paz y de la ciudad de El Alto.
The crisis combines a periodic drought, which last hit Bolivia this hard 25 years ago, and the worsening effects of climate change. The 1980s drought set off the explosive urbanization from the Altiplano into La Paz’s twin city El Alto and spurred migration to the Chapare, soon to become a coca growing center and the home base of current president Evo Morales.
Climate change is the slower, but more inexorable threat. As a World Bank report, Turn down the heat: Confronting the new climate normal, observed:
Major population centers, such as Bogota and Quito, rely on páramo water as a significant supply source. The melting of the Andean glaciers, increasingly unpredictable seasonal rainfall patterns, and the overuse of underground reserves are affecting the urban centers of the highlands (e.g., La Paz, El Alto, and Cusco), which rely to some extent on glacial melt for dry season water supplies and are already facing dire shortages. The arid coastal plain of Peru faces similar challenges. Water shortage has become a huge risk and a source of tension in Lima, which is dependent on water from the Andes. (v. 2, p. 92–94)
The high altitude of the Andes Mountains has allowed significant glaciers to exist for thousands of years, even in the warm Holocene epoch when human civilization flourished. As we enter the Anthropocene, however, industrial changes to the atmosphere are likely to clear nearly all permanent ice cover from the tropics of South America. Glaciers are now declining at 3%/year throughout the region (see graph, right from p. 57 of the World Bank report).
Even optimistic scenarios for climate action leave little hope for tropical Andean glaciers. Between 66 and 94% of the ice mass from Venezuela to Bolivia is expected to be gone by 2100, provided that global warming is limited to 2C. A 4C warming would complete eliminate tropical glaciers, and leave just half of the Patagonia ice in Argentina and Chile by 2100 (p. 58–59).In the coming decades, glacial meltwater may temporarily offset some water crises, if supplies are managed effectively and kept clean.
In the long run, however, the Altiplano capital’s vital resources are in question. As climate scientist Simon Cook asks, “Most glaciers will be gone or much diminished by the end of the century – so where will the water come from in the dry season?” Bolivia’s recent and long-term history has been marked by massive internal migration among its regions. The last of these has quadrupled the size of La Paz–El Alto metropolis. It remains to be seen whether the twenty-first century climate migrations that are likely in the region will come in the form of sudden tragic crises or a collectively managed transition to sustainable living. This month has offered cautionary rather than hopeful signs.
Photo above: The dried-up reservoir of the Ajuan Khota dam near La Paz. By David Mercado-Reuters.
In the second week of February, the federation of street vendors (or Gremialistas, which literally means “guild members”) in Bolivia’s capital La Paz carried out a brief campaign against a street redesign project that would rework the busy intersection known as the Garita de Lima. In the course of this struggle, elderly vendor Teodora Velasco de Quispe died.
The Garita de Lima is a congested intersection in central La Paz (a photo search for the site yields an image titled “vehicular chaos”). It’s also a workplace: over 200 people sell food and goods from stalls on the sidewalks, streets, and central island, while the municipality counts 299 different transport routes, most of them served by vans or small buses, that pass through the intersection. Under two administrations led by a center-left political party, the La Paz municipality has combined concrete, traffic engineers, architects, and savvy searching for funds to solve “problems” like the Garita de Lima. Their proposed redesign continues this strategy, remaking the current oval into a bridge between two plazas. The logic of the redesign is simple and clear: reduce travel delays and uncontrolled pedestrians crossing into the street while maximizing public space. To do this, they used the vertical dimension for crossovers while expanding open space horizontally.
The gremialistas are one of hundreds of sectoral organizations in La Paz. A trade unions for workers without an employer, they mobilize collectively in much the same way a union does, although they must use vigils, shop closures, blockades, and building takeovers where employees could use strikes and pickets. Solidarity and compulsory collective action are the backbone of their influence. The ghostly absence of their working-class presence—the tarps they string up, the blankets they sit on, their large pleated skirts, and gregariously space-taking bodies —from the architectural rendering shows the social distance that separates them from those who organized the project. Like many poor Bolivians, the gremialistas are accustomed to fighting for the marginal space on which they eke out their living. No wonder that they looked at this project with suspicion. As organizer Julia Manuela Hilarión said, “It is by fighitng that we have won our vending posts and now we are surprised that they are kicking us out of this place. [Luchando hemos conseguido nuestros puestos de venta y ahora nos dan esta sorpresa en la que nos están botando del lugar].”
On February 11, over a hundred vendors protested outside City Hall. They vowed, as per Bolivian tradition, to “go forward unto to the final consequences” in their protest, and put forward the maximum demands as their first bargaining position: no seller should be moved from her (or his) post. A conflict broke out with the local neighborhood association, who requested and backed the project; the local neighborhood association leader was injured. Vendors put up signs rejecting the project and sellers went on hunger strike at their posts. One of them was Teodora Velasco de Quispe. Early on the morning of February 13, she died of a heart attack.
Fourteen associations of gremialistas from across La Paz marched on City Hall, carrying forward the struggle and memorializing Teodora Velasco (video). Forty of them began a sit-in demanding negotations with the municipality. Some city officials were unable to leave and pledged they wouldn’t hold talks under such pressure. Nonetheless, four days later they met with Mayor Luis Revilla himself. He pledged none of them would lose the ability to sell in the zone, and the city’s markets coordinator offered to explain the logistics involved. They also agreed to a new process of public comment (or “socialization”) of the project before it was implemented.
This is not the first such project to occasion temporary displacement of vendors in La Paz, or to cause them to fear for their livelihoods. Two downtown markets (the Central and Camacho markets) were built in the last decade, both bringing about conflicts and city-funded temporary housing for shops during construction. These experiences do not seem to have made the city sufficiently proactive or the vendors more patient or less strident in their initial demands. Even now, their opposition to the new Garita de Lima has not been dropped, although history suggests they will get along with the planners and reopen for business during and after construction.
Was Teodora Velasco de Quispe’s death necessary? Almost certainly not. The question of who is responsible for this loss is more complex. Her passing in the middle of the night is one of a significant number of deaths that accompany Bolivian protest without being caused by violent or consciously lethal actions, but which are nonetheless an inseparable part of protesters’ experience. Others have started vigils and marches their bodies were not prepared to survive, or been trapped on the wrong side of a blockade from the medical assistance they needed, or died of cold, exposure, or disease while their community was mobilizing. Such losses of human life stand alongside deaths that provoke outrage and generate cries for official investigations. They do, however, galvanize the commitment of those who lived and struggled beside them. Almost like martyrs, but different, the burden of their deaths is carried by their comrades who struggle on.
Eighteen months ago, when I was applying for funds to conduct research in Bolivia, one of the criticisms I had to respond to was this: How do you know that mass protest events will be going on while you’re there? In the end, I resorted to putting a table of recent events of large-scale space-claiming protests in my two focus cities in my proposal to make this point: there has not been a 12-month period without such protests since last century.
And here we are again.
On the day after Christmas, the Vice President (then acting president since Bolivian law requires that the office must always be filled by someone physically in the country) announced that the Bolivian government would remove all subsidies on fuel: primarily gasoline and diesel, and let the prices float to international levels. Fuel prices went up 70-80% overnight. This was not the first time that such a drastic move has happened in Bolivia, but it was the first time that the popular movement-linked MAS government had taken the step. In fact, the MAS had led major protests against exactly the same move less than a decade ago.
The politics of subsidies in general and the gasolinazo in particular are fascinating, and fully getting the arguments requires putting aside everything that Westerners are taught about prices, markets, and subsidies, but that’s a whole other post (several pages of which are in my notebook waiting to be typed into an article).
In any case, the social movements that brought the MAS to power, including Evo Morales’ coca grower base, did not hesitate to mobilize against the gasolinazo. (And the transport sector quickly moved to double fares.) Despite some pressure on their leadership, the Neighborhood Councils, Factor Workers, labor confederation, and others mobilized mass protests. The scene in El Alto in particular, especially on December 29 and 30, brought back collective memories of the mobilizations that toppled presidents in 2003 and 2005, even though the numbers were not yet as great. Evo and Álvaro reversed course, and returned fuel prices to their former levels.
However, the price hike genie was out of the bottle. While some in the government promised the gasolinazo was over, others have made it clear that the prices will be raised in smaller doses over the coming year. Several weekends in January and February, there has been panic buying in La Paz over rumors of an imminent price hike.
More pressingly, this year’s extremely late rainy season (normally beginning around November 1, it didn’t really kick in until the New Year) and other factors have led to a national sugar shortage, grain price hikes, and a squeeze on the milk producing industry. The national government’s response was first to use its agricultural production support company, Emapa, to supply sugar directly at low prices to the cities, in an attempt to push the price down. However, Emapa itself abruptly raised prices in late January, and the government has been embarrassed by former ministers and senators illegally wholesaling government sugar out of their homes. Finally this month, the transport sector has moved to increase urban transit fares in a half dozen cities, and began charging the new fares without official approval.
The economic situation has brought multiple sectors into the streets, although without unified demands. Buyers and sellers of the same product are both mobilizing. Ideologies conflict as well: some are demanding the enforcement of the free-market principals of Supreme Decree 21060, while more are calling for it to be revoked. Shopkeepers demand that Emapa be abolished, while neighborhood councils in Oruro demand that it distribute basic goods directly to neighborhood suppliers. And in Cochabamba, drivers demanding higher fares and factory workers and neighborhood council marchers who oppose them have each attacked the property of the other side.
On February 18, the national worker confederation known as the COB (Bolivian Worker’s Central) carried out a 24-hour strike. And when Bolivians strike, they march. That included a 10,000+ worker march down the main highway from El Alto to La Paz. The COB is demanding either wages or wage increases in line with a study it performed on the cost of basic goods in the country. However, this analysis showed that the baseline cost of living is 8,300 Bolivianos per month for a family, about $1200. This is above and beyond the typical Bolivian’s earnings, leading the government to disqualify the study as anything more than a pipe dream for workers.
A second march on the 18th, led by the more radical teachers’ unions of La Paz department brought an harsher indictment of the Evo Morales-led government. Placards, chants and speakers labelled the government “incapable” and committed to neoliberal policies like the gasolinazo. Once again the slogans of seven years ago rang in streets, and a working-class crowd was calling for the indigenous peasant union leader who is president to resign and make way for “a government born of struggle in the streets.” Such a government, radical unionists claim, could guarantee larger wage increases for workers by expropriating transnational corporations in extractive industries and redistributing their wealth to enlarge workers’ salaries.
It is not so much that this rhetoric is new as that it has migrated from the pamphlets of the radicals at sides of the march to the main stage. Like a stopped clock that is right twice a day, those who are always skeptical that the government has sold out the public, and turned against the grassroots are now in sync with at least a large portion of the popular mood. And they can speak to broadly shared concerns about the cost of living, the subcontracting of work, and the lack of sufficient investment in the industries that provide employment and public revenues to Bolivia.
Five years of MAS rule, and two years since its decisive victory over right-wing resistance to the project of a new, plurinational constitution have allowed a lot of tensions, mistrusts, and frustrations to accumulate within the party’s diverse grassroots base. Movements that always knew how to mobilize on their own have frequently been in the streets in the past years. Unfortunately, the first response of the MAS government has often been to accuse those who mobilize of being aligned with, misled by, or even “infiltrated” by the right-wing opposition. If anything, it now seems that independent protest and even independent opposition has been made more likely by these accusations.
[June 12] It snowed yesterday in El Alto. Not what I expected when I took the microbus (read: minivan with signs) up to the University there. Verdict: winter is real.
The event that the snow and bad directions made me miss was held again down here in La Paz around dinner time… A professor and a Vice-Minister of Justice talking about redefining policies of criminalization in a plurinational society. The first talk was very provocative–lots about how criminal law (and incarceration) are a last resort for resolving conflict, and we need to think first about the mechanisms creating for mediating conflict. Also, a question I’ve never heard asked before in such a forum: how do we solve the problem of those in prison always, under any type of government, consisting almost entirely of the poor.
There’s a lot of through-the-looking-glass style experiences of ideas you’d never expect to come out of an official’s mouth.
And then there’s the altitude (which has slowed me down, but hasn’t thrown me for a loop yet), the sudden lack of daylight hours, and being in a very different city. But I’m well, and housed for the next week or so here in La Paz (two floors above the crazily beautiful but excessively spacious place I looked at a couple days ago).