Water, Water, Nowhere, and How to Get Enough to Drink in the Andes

water system in a yard

Cochabamba   We met Marcela Olivera of Food and Water Watch  and squeezed into a taxi to go to the south of the city, where living is hardscrabble.  There are over a 100 different water “communities” that have formed in the south to collectively finance, supervise, and deliver, as best they can within their own resources and hydrology, potable water to their communities.

The community we visited at length has about 1200 families in the sector and 600 users, who pay for water and the services.  We met with the administrator of the system.  There are five total employees and two wells that they own and have dug.  The problem is that their existing wells are “over the hills” so to speak and run about 7 kilometers from their area.  They lose more than half of the water they pump out of the wells over that distance to theft, leaks, and low pressure.  Another problem they shared is that the demand for water has tripled over the last 20 years or so.  They are well organized and provide water so cheaply relatively that others were getting their water and selling it, so now they have limited it to domestic use only.

They are just barely able to keep up with their system largely because the road paving in this new area keeps forcing them to re-dig the pipes over and over at $40000 grand a shot.  They are also starting to lay some sewer pipes, but in asking questions, this was secondary, if on the list at all, according to Marcela, for many communities that are so focused on getting water to live that sewage has become an afterthought and a huge, looming problem.

The administrator reported good news was coming.  Some Korean hydrologists had found that they had water on their own property which would solve many problems.  It would cost some $25000 and take 3 months.  Then they said they were going to Potosi to see a similar well that the Koreans had dug, and it became clear that the Koreans were selling wells, rather than being dispassionate or objective advisers to the community.  Gulp!

One of the Organizers’ Forum delegation mentioned as we left how depressing this meeting had been.  These were great people doing a vital and important job, but they didn’t have the resources or the help to adequately deal with all of the challenges they were confronting.

We had debriefed from our week in Bolivia the night before.  We were exhilarated at the power of social movements and humble to their tasks.

the hydrological problem faced by the community