By Juli Kraszewski
Bolivia is a land of mountains, high plateaus and great natural wealth in the form of mineral deposits and natural gas. But these resources are hard to obtain, and difficult to get to the world’s markets because Bolivia is a landlocked country nestled in the Andes Mountains with no seacoast for shipping.
While 90 percent of the nation’s export income comes from mining, almost half of the work force makes their living by farming. This is difficult since much of the farming area lies in extremely high, cold and dry regions of the country. Centuries ago, the highland Indians of Peru and Bolivia learned how to make a living under these conditions. They domesticated the llama to supply meat, milk, hides, fuel and wool. They also developed hardy food plants such as the potato and highland crops such as quinoa and canagua.
Seven and a half million people live in Bolivia, where three primary languages are spoken. More than half are Indians, mainly of Quechua and Aymara language descent. There are also some 50 tribes of forest Indians. The mestizos (of mixed Indian and Caucasian heritage) make up almost 40 percent of the population, while the remainder are of European descent (mainly Spanish). Most of the largely rural native Indians live in poverty on the bleak altiplano—a high plateau located at 13,000 feet.
The population in Bolivia is growing rapidly, by more than 2.5 percent a year. If this growth continues, the population will double in less than 30 years. Bolivia also has the highest infant mortality rate in Latin America. About 170 children die out of every 1,000 born. Lack of health services, unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation practices have led to high incidences of infectious diseases. Children are most commonly affected by upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal diseases, diarrhea and parasites. Only about 30 percent of the rural population have access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
Rural water issues
Communities living in rural areas of Bolivia are plagued with water-related issues and disease. Thirty-seven percent of the population don’t have access to safe water and 42 percent don’t have access to latrines. In most areas, municipalities and government officials dismiss the rural populations and focus on the larger more pronounced semi-urban and urban issues. Therefore, with little knowledge or capability, rural communities are forced to find their own water source.
A few years ago, it was common to see a village use open seep pits to bathe their children, wash clothing, water animals and then use for their own drinking water supply. Oftentimes, these seep pits filled only during the rainy season and were saturated with salt during the dry season. Today, however, non-governmental organizations are empowering rural villages to lobby municipalities for proper water systems. In addition, communities are starting to utilize small hand pumps and sand infiltration galleries to aid in finding safer water. And health and hygiene education is making an impact in areas where diarrhea disease and parasitic infections used to be endemic.
Urban water conflicts
Water has been a major problem in Cochabamba—Bolivia’s third biggest city—for the past 10 years. With a population of almost a million people, the city has only two hours supply of water per day during the most critical months. This is not to mention the fact that the enormous cost is a heavy burden on the city’s poor.
Earlier this year, it appeared a solution to the water crisis was near. With the privatization of the municipal water company (SEMAPA), residents were hopeful. However, they soon realized a 35 percent increase in tariffs but no increase in quantity of water. And rumors began to surface about the credibility of the new consortium of Aguas del Tunari, which had taken over SEMAPA. The citizens of Cochabamba revolted. An eight-day strike paralyzed the city. Roadblocks were everywhere and people demanded that Aguas del Tunari be exiled from Cochabamba. Surrounding rural areas also joined in the protest against the new national water law, which was about to be implemented. On the eighth day, the government agreed to the people’s demands and the contract with Aguas del Tunari was terminated.
Water For People in Bolivia
In 1992, Water For People (WFP)—the global assistance outreach arm of the American Water Works Association (AWWA)—began working in Bolivian rural communities. The majority of work here focuses on villages around the Cochabamba area in western Bolivia, high in the Andes. Each year, WFP supports 10 to 15 communities, helping approximately 5,000 people obtain safe drinking water, sanitation facilities and health and hygiene education. Typical projects cost between $1,000 and $8,000 and include hand-dug wells, gravity-fed water systems, storage tanks and latrine construction projects.
WFP works with about 12 water, sanitation and health partner organizations in addition to the Peace Corps and the Bolivian government organization CERES. With WFP’s support, partner organizations work with the benefiting communities to plan and manage projects. It also has an in-country coordinator who works with each partner organization and the community to design, plan and implement projects throughout Bolivia.
Examples of projects
Laca Laca, Household Handpumps, Phase II—Laca Laca, a community of about 400 people or 80 households, is located about 120 miles by dirt road from the town of Oruro. The residents, indigenous people of Incan descent, have no access to latrines, and suffer high rates of gastrointestinal illnesses. The WFP project improved shallow wells dug by individual households by sealing the wells with concrete slabs. A hand pump was then installed atop the slabs. Training in hand pump maintenance and a health and hygiene education campaign were included.
Rodeo Adentro, Bathrooms and Showers—The 100 residents of the Rodeo Adentro area of Bolivia are extremely poverty-stricken and have little or no access to clean water, hygiene education or health care. As a result, water-washed illnesses such as scabies are common. During this project, WFP worked with the Integrated Community Center for the Campesino Formation and Capacitation (CCIFCCA) where four latrines and two showers were installed in the school’s facilities. CCIFCCA is a school that offers young people the opportunity to learn life skills and employment opportunities to help break the cycle of community poverty. By constructing showers and latrines, students were provided the basic health necessities to be successful in school.
Sunchu Pulpera, Water Project—The 130 residents of Sunchu Pulpera were accustomed to fetching drinking water from hand-dug wells and springs approximately two kilometers away. The newly completed water system brings water from about 3.6 kilometers away from the village. The water is piped to a storage tank, which then distributes it to 10 public tapstands in the community. CIAPROT, WFP’s partner organization, supervised the project and helped the community establish a village water board to organize the work and manage the completed project. CIAPROT also conducted community workshops on health and hygiene education and how it relates to water and sanitation.
UNICEF—www.unicef.org/—estimates that 1.1 billion people in the developing world don’t have access to safe and plentiful drinking water, and 2.9 billion have no adequate sanitation systems. Water-related diseases contribute to nearly 11,000 child deaths each day.
In most of Bolivia many people, mainly women and children, walk miles a day to collect water that’s often unfit to drink. Food production is low, work is scarce and the incidence of water-related diseases is high. Even under these circumstances, there exists strong and motivated people willing to help themselves as well as others.
WFP succeeds only when local people and organizations work in partnership to determine needs, design systems and implement project goals. Only when communities have ownership over a project does the work become sustainable.
About the author
Judi Kraszewski is Water For People’s community relations manager and has been with the organization for more than two years. She has a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the Metropolitan State College in Denver, and has over 20 years of experience in corporate and nonprofit communications. She can be reached at (303) 734-3494 or email: [email protected]. You can also visit the organization’s website: www.water4people.org