Culverting of the Choqueyapu River, under construction in 2008

La Paz’s water pollution crisis, as retold by comic book artists

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.



Bolivia’s current water crisis is the tip of a melting iceberg

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: Guardian 1 | 2| photos; La Razón 1)

As La Razón reports:

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)

screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-9-48-44-amThe 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.

Climate scientists have recently offered stark warnings to the Bolivian government on the threat of climate change to generate flash floods and to imperil water supplies.

The Bolivian government seems to have been caught off guard by the current crisis, however. Research documenting new mining concessions on the ice of La Paz’s iconic Mount Illimani has touched off public alarm and official denials. (Additionally, the venerable Cochabamba-based research group CEDIB has suffered online harassment in the wake of its revelations).

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.

Cochabamba’s water system since the Water War: DIY blooms, Public utility stalls

Cochabamba’s Water War in 2000 was the beginning of a long and upward climbing story of the country’s resistance to neoliberal policies. That story joins the defense of the right to grow coca leaves by farmers nearby in the Chapare and near La Paz in the Yungas, resistance to the privatization and export of Bolivia’s gas resources, demands for greater indigenous self-governance, and calls to rewrite the constitution. The forms of pressure pioneered or revived in the Water War played a key role in all of them.

But what became of the water? Bechtel’s demands for international arbitration after it was kicked out of Cochabamba dragged on from 2002 to 2006, when it was the first such international case to be withdrawn under popular pressure. Cochabambinos got a public water system, managed by a municipal company called SEMAPA. And Bolivia’s new constitution proclaims water as a human right.

Yet, on the ground, things are more complicated. The first, critical thing to understand is the massive role of neighborhood water associations play in supplying water here. The municipal water service only provides water to about half the city’s burgeoning population, mostly in the central area and the wealthy northern zone. In  the massive Zona Sur, few people have direct water connections. Instead, neighbors have organized themselves into associations to build their own tanks, pumps, wells, and cisterns that supply water locally. Nearly all these systems have some kind of holding tanks and distribution pipes, but not all have their own water sources. Those that don’t rely on outside water to be trucked in, and then distributed.

Much of this week’s Water Fair was an opportunity for these groups to network and also to showcase their operations. Three sides of a soccer field were surrounded by tents that hosted each of these associations, most with their own scale models of their neighborhood and the self-financed apparatuses that supplies its water. A great deal of ingenuity is going into repurposing automotive motors to run pumps, to finding water sources and maintaining wells, to keeping the neighborhood organized.

And it was these organizations members that blockaded the southern entrances to Cochabamba in 1999 and 2000 when they were threatened with privatization. (The concession owned by the Franco-American corporation Aguas de Tunari included the infrastructure created by numerous water committees.) Their members went from building and maintaining pipes or paying into a local cooperative to fighting in the streets to maintain what they built. And, most surely thought, to reclaim an accountable, publicly-owned water utility that would provide for all.

SEMAPA has fulfilled its half of that dream. The company has been plagued by mismanagement, failure to invest in major expansion, and internal corruption. Thursday night, a panel on SEMAPA since the Water War was primarily an opportunity for former directors, a former community board member, engineers, and investigative journalists to describe what has gone wrong. It was, to be fair, also a remarkable opportunity of the kind of transparency that a utility that was won by the public is subject to: the managers offered a level of internal detail that would be shockingly frank in the United States. But coverage of the city remains around 50%, while the company only bills about half the water it supplies, with much of the remainder clandestinely siphoned by industrial users or received without payment by parts of the municipality.

Nowadays, when the water committee members dream of the future, they do so outside of SEMAPA. There is an association of the committees called ASICA-SUR, engaged in running trucks with water to supply the source-less committees, maintaining water quality standards, facilitating new committees, and planning for universal access. Cochabamba uses more water than flows in its own valley, and an Italian-backed project is under construction to supply water from the Misicuni River. When that water is coming, ASICA-SUR would like its own direct connection, outside SEMAPA.

The idea of a universal public service, accountable to all, is not necessarily just a dream. But it has proved elusive here in Cochabamba. Small-scale alternatives based on community involvement have been a real, viable alternative, and the way that much of the Zona Sur receives its water. The bottom-up organization of ASICA-SUR has found a secure foundation in local groups that require the direct involvement of neighbors. Without economies of scale and piped connections, however, they do so at a higher price that other Cochabambinos, and that is when they don’t rely on trucks to move their water or private middlemen to supply it. Large-scale decisions remain to be made, and large infrastructure is a major part of the city’s water future. Meanwhile, the pollution of underground water sources is putting some of the community-based water systems at serious risk, particularly around the unregulated municipal dump Kara Kara. In the end, the Water War has to be fought again and again, in local organizations, in planning discussion, and in pressure on the streets.

Thursday’s march celebrates Water War, kicks off International Water Fair

Many here in Cochabamba are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Water War, a series of protests against the newly-privatized water utility and its French and American owners in 2000. Back then, privatization was taken on faith as an all-purpose solution by Bolivia’s national government. Rate payers, who saw 40 to 200% hikes in their bills, and water supply committees that coordinate local water systems (which the new corporation claimed as its own) disagreed, strongly. Sectoral protests found a new form, a cross-movement coordinadora that brought them together, and caught fire. Two major confrontations in February and then April 2000 saw protesters take over the central streets of Bolivia’s third largest city. In Bolivia, the Water War came towards the beginning of a series of massive mobilizations that redefined politics. It was the first globally visible reversal of neoliberal policies imposed by the IMF and World Bank (the package of such policies, including privatization and “fast money” or easily reversible foreign investment, was called the Washington Consensus).

Thousands march in Cochabamba ten years after Water War

So, on Wednesday a march was held to celebrate the anniversary and to inaugurate a three-day conference on water rights activism globally. At the Factory Worker’s Union complex, speakers from four continents talked about the inspiration that the water war provided for their movements, doing such things as mobilizing against the privatization of municipal water systems in Italy, advancing a national referendum on public water in Uruguay, and protecting irreplaceable (in human lifetimes) aquifers from bottled water manufacturers in Maine.

More photos from Wednesday are on flickr here.

Blogging from Bolivia…

I’ll be in Bolivia for at least the next four weeks, and Ecuador after that. I’m flying to the Andes to get an up-close look at the very remarkable social changes that have been going down here since 2000. I’m feeling very curious and optimistic, and here’s a bit of why…

In January 2000, with many of us freshly back from the WTO protests in Seattle, we were still thinking in terms of cracks in a monolith of corporate-backed power. A “Washington Consensus” imposed policies on Latin America that would be unthinkable in the U.S.–rolling back guaranteed social services, accelerating the growing extraction of oil, gas and timber, privatizing resources like water, and assigning the costs largely to the poor. It was called structural adjustment, because it was negotiated to make the debts owed by the countries of the South payable, but with everyone selling off their country at lower and lower bids, it never even balanced the books.

Ecuador’s January 2000 national uprising was the first of many to topple a neoliberal government, even if only for a few days. It wouldn’t be the last time mass unarmed movements succeeded in doing so. A few months later, tens of thousands in Cochabamba, Bolivia occupied the center of their own town in the culmination of a months-long conflict with Aguas de Tunari (owned by San Francisco’s Bechtel), who had assumed private control over the cities water supplies and proceeded to double (or more) the bill. The privatization was reversed and the city’s water system is now a massive experiment in a community controlled utility.

Life in both countries has simply gotten a lot more interesting each year since. Stay tuned for the latest.