By Abraham Aruquipa

In rural Bolivia, a toilet is seen as a beautiful thing—a fancy luxury that is much too fine to be used for its intended purpose. Instead toilets might be used to store potatoes or even live chickens. To have a toilet is a status symbol, whether or not it is operational or even outfitted with running water or pipes. These kinds of attitudes are typical of the special challenges faced in working to improve sanitation in the country.

Four out of every five rural Bolivians do not have access to improved sanitation. This statistic gives Bolivia the unfortunate distinction as one of the few Latin American countries not on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve the percentage of people without access to improved sanitation by 2015.

In the Western Hemisphere, only Haiti has lower sanitation coverage. The sanitation challenges facing Bolivia, and many other countries in Africa and Asia, led to the designation of 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation (IYS), which aims to spread awareness and advocate for investment in improved sanitation worldwide.

International Year of Sanitation
The five messages of IYS are very clear:

  • Sanitation is vital to health.
  • Sanitation makes economic sense.
  • Sanitation improves social development.
  • Sanitation helps the environment.
  • Sanitation is achievable.

The International Year of Sanitation was launched in Latin America at the Latino San Conference in Colombia at the end of 2007. Many promises and declarations were made that are now being put forward. New approaches to sanitation were taught, focused on providing various solutions to communities within countries like Bolivia to adopt sanitation solutions that fit with their own economic and technical realities.

Not only is the coverage of sanitation extremely low in Bolivia but also construction of sanitation facilities has not led to their sustained and hygienic use. If a dent is to be made in the huge coverage shortfall, the needs, cultural sensitivities and realities of the people need to be understood.

For example, the people feel that the word latrine means something for poor people, while a bathroom (whether or not the unit has running water or a bathing facility) is something of which to be proud. Therefore, when sanitation work is discussed in Bolivia, the word baño is used instead of letrina.

Bolivia solutions

A Bolivian baño, complete with a 500-liter water tank on its roof, offers a shower.

The challenges to improving and sustaining sanitation in Bolivia are several:

Lack of political will to support sanitation projects. Bolivian law emphasizes decentralization of government and stresses that communities should decide how some local government funding is allocated. Many local governments interpret the law to mean that projects must serve communal needs. A water system is seen to be communal, but sanitation is seen as a personal choice, which means there is little local financing available for sanitation.

Social and cultural contexts. Many of Bolivia’s indigenous people believe that digging and defecating in the earth is wrong. Mother Earth, or Pachamama, is to be respected, not used as a toilet. Moreover, homes are respected centers of cleanliness. A toilet (or ‘little house’ as it is sometimes viewed), is not to be used for defecation and urination.

Demand. When there is demand for improved sanitation in rural areas, it often comes from families that have migrated to (and returned from) Argentina or Spain, where household water-based plumbing is common. Piped plumbing is seen as the ideal and other environmentally, technically and financially feasible systems are not desired. Bolivians rarely seek improved sanitation systems for perceived health benefits. It is often status and convenience that motivate them to invest in improved sanitation.

Cost. The costs of water and sanitation services are higher in rural Bolivia than many other countries because the population is so dispersed.

Inappropriate technical designs­. I have seen water-based sanitation systems installed in communities that have no water service. There are water-based toilets with intermittent water supplies, creating an extremely unhygienic situation. Appropriate technology is very important when designing a sanitation program in Bolivia.

Addressing the challenges

In rural Bolivia, having a toilet is a status symbol, whether or not it is functional. Here, a non-functioning toilet is used to store valuables.

Water For People in Bolivia is addressing these challenges in several ways:

Expansion of technical options. This year, three different sanitation options are being offered to communities: an improved pit latrine, a water-based option and a dry/composting option. Communities can choose the solution that meets their personal preference and financial resources.

Regulations for water-based systems. If a community selects a water-based solution, families must pay a minimum tariff of five Bolivianos (US$0.67) per month to ensure they are able to sustain the system. The water system must provide water at least 12 hours each day to ensure there is enough to meet community needs, including water for sanitation.

Incorporation of new sanitation methodologies. People often talk of different sanitation technologies (pit latrines, pour-flush latrines, etc.), but there are also different approaches to sanitation. Participation in the first Latin American Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) workshop last year led to the incorporation of some of the innovative methodologies presented. CLTS promotes the idea that communities can and should solve their own sanitation issues through reflection and action. The goal is to establish open, defecation-free communities, not just the construction of latrines. Sanitation programming begins with a facilitation of community reflection and leads to a discussion of multiple options.

Ecological sanitation. This non-water-based approach to sanitation views human waste as a resource. Great success was achieved with this approach in the Santa Cruz area, where eco-san toilets were introduced eight years ago in response to constant flooding. Now ecological sanitation is an included option everywhere.

Partner training. The 2008 Water For People Ware Fellowship Program is focused on Bolivian partner organizations. This will provide the resources to create more in-depth training on specific sanitation approaches and technologies.

Innovation and experimentation are changing from a country where 80 percent of rural inhabitants lack access to adequate sanitation to one where all people have the dignity and health benefits that come with improved sanitary facilities. The goal is ambitious: to provide 4,845 people with improved sanitation in 2008. That is 30 percent more than the number of people targeted to receive water access.

About the organization
Abraham Aruquipa is Country Coordinator for the organization Water For People in Bolivia. Founded in 1991, Water For People is a nonprofit international development organization that supports safe drinking water and sanitation projects in developing countries. The organization partners with communities and other nongovernmental organizations to help people improve their quality of life by supporting sustainable drinking water, sanitation and health and hygiene projects. More information is available at www.waterforpeople.org.

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