No Running Water – Drought in Bolivia

South America is not usually big on the news, so I find that my friends in North America and Europe don’t often know what’s going on in Bolivia.  People hear about “drugs in Colombia and Mexico”, crazy parties during Carnival in Rio, and maybe cute, little Sea Turtles in The Galapagos, but that’s about it.  But how could you know more unless it’s covered by the media where you live?  Well if you know me, or you follow my blog, then I wanted you to know a little bit more about the current situation in Bolivia!

For the past few years, climate change has been having big impacts on Bolivia.  Since Bolivia is currently a land-locked country (though they used to have access to the sea in what is now Peru and Chile), there is not readily available access to water all-year round.  The north of the country is tropical rain-forest (the Amazon rain-forest extends into Bolivia and Peru), but the south is a lot drier, and even includes the biggest Salt Flats in the world (which is basically a big desert).

View of the Ajuankota water reservoir that supplies La Paz at 1% of its capacity, in La Paz, on November 21, 2016.

Image source: Getty Images – La Paz is supplied by 3 main reservoirs, including Ajuan Khota, which is only at 1% of it’s capacity.

Bolivia has just declared a state of emergency due to the intense drought situations which have caused water shortages across the country. It is the worst drought that Bolivia has faced in over 25 years. The supply is so limited that many people only have enough to drink, and cannot bathe or wash clothing.  Various organizations and companies are recommending that you take precautions in order to not waste water, or to use as little as possible over the coming weeks. All reports talk about how the rains will be coming in December, so hopefully that alleviates the problem.

TL;DR: If you don’t have time to read this whole blog post, I recommend watching this video on the water shortage to understand the issue quickly.

Note: Most photos in this post are from various articles about the drought.  The link to the source is located in the caption below each picture.

Like other countries closer to the equator, instead of a defined summer/spring/fall/winter seasonal calendar, it’s a lot closer to a hot/wet season, and a dry/cold season.  However, it is now wet season and the rains haven’t come.  Everyone is hoping they’re just delayed and will come next month, but it seems likely that the country will get a lot less rainfall than previous years.  Various cities rely on certain reservoirs that are filled with rainwater and melt water from glaciers (which have both decreased), and the impact of El Nino over the past 2 years has also been cited as a reason for low water levels across the country.

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Infographics provided by GIZ to Bolivia during the water shortages.

Unfortunately the glaciers have substantially decreased in size in the last 20 years and one of the glaciers that used to supply 30% of the water in La Paz is now completely gone.  The reservoirs are also at record lows.  For example, in La Paz (the biggest city in Bolivia), and it’s sister city, El Alto, there are 3 reservoirs that supply the city with drinking water.  These reservoirs are currently only 1%, 8%, and 8% full, so rationing has been put in place.  A boil-water advisory has been instated, and some people in La Paz have talked about how the water coming out of their tap is brown, and they wouldn’t even drink it after boiling and filtering.

In some parts of the country (3 different regions), schools which would normally close in December for the summer holidays are closing early.  Some haven’t had water in 3 weeks, and can’t properly take care of the hygiene and drinking water for their students.  Last Monday (November 21), the president declared a state of emergency.  He also stated that the water board should have been informing the government of the pending issues much further in advance, and rumor is that he fired many of the top officials in the department.

A view of the dried Ajuan Khota dam, a water reserve affected by drought near La Paz, Bolivia, November 17, 2016.

Image Soure: Reuters – Dams and reservoirs around the country are at historic lows.

Some cities are doing okay, while others face unbelievable situations.  Five of the nine departments (similar to states/provinces) are in a state of crisis, and protests have started to take place in communities that aren’t receiving enough water.  Many people in La Paz are only receiving 3 hours of water every 72 hours (3 days), so they must stock up to ensure they have enough for the next few days.  This is especially difficult in communities that do not receive the 3 hours, and must buy water for all their household needs.

The Social Public Enterprise for Water and Sanitation (EPSAS), and a recently created “water cabinet” have started to supply public tanker trucks to bring water to various communities, but each day they must wait hours in line to fill their buckets with water.  The statistics say that over 125,000 families have been affected so far.  There is also a struggle between different industries (such as miners, agriculture, and communities) over the rights to the little water that is available.  The president has called on Bolivians to “be prepared for the worst.”

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Image Soure: Getty Images – Many communities are protesting the lack of water.

The water cabinet has also asked for technical advice from foreign companies, including Korea and several European companies.  Unfortunately, many of the solutions would have had to be implemented proactively (such as additional wells, aqueducts, diverting rivers) and will not be in place until next year if they start now.  To make matters worse, after the rationing was announced in La Paz, there was a strike by all garbage collectors – an absolute nightmare for hygiene in the city!  Fortunately, the local government stepped in to quickly resolve this situation.

The drought is not only having dramatic effects in Bolivia, there are also issues in neighbouring countries.  Peru has also declared a state of emergency over forest fires that have been raging across the country do to dry weather over the past year.  Over 12,000 hectares of forest have burnt, including 5 protected areas, where endangered animals, crops, and domestic animals are under threat.  Peru claims they had no way to prepare for this type of situation but, according to the article, a group of 23 scientists sent letters to Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia about the grave risks of drought and forest-fires due to the “drought conditions over the last year”.

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Image source: EPA – People in La Paz are forced to fill up buckets and other containers from tankers that are available in the city.

The president has announced that he’s going to stop all of his other regular activities in order to devote himself fully to solving this water crisis.  He also called on Bolivians to “improve water saving practices” and reduce water consumption until the issue is resolved.

“[The government] has the obligation to mobilize economic resources to meet a human right, which is water.” – Evo Morales (President of Bolivia)

I hope that this situation resolves itself in the coming weeks.  However, I think this is a good indication of the problems to come, and a good demonstration of the types of problems faced all around the world by climate change.  Countries must prepare themselves for many different environmental changes, and people must prepare themselves to deal with the consequences.  This is not ideal, but it’s the world we’ve got, and we’ve all got to figure out how to live on it…

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My photos: This weekend in Teja Hausi (the valley beside Sucre), I saw people from the community washing food and clothes in the river because the drought has lead many people to not have enough water in their wells for household purposes.

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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3 Responses to No Running Water – Drought in Bolivia

  1. Valerie Roy says:

    Wow! A serious crisis! Thanks for the research! What we take for granted in Canada, right?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Day Trip in La Paz, Bolivia – Valle de la Luna and Mount Chacaltaya | Amanda Around the World

  3. Pingback: Don’t flush the toilet paper! – Access to basic services in Bolivia | Amanda Around the World

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