A strong political symbol. This is what Bolivia’s highest authorities expressed by setting out water as a “common good” subject to a principle of “non-commidification” in the Bolivian Constitution, which was approved by referendum in 2009, and subsequently by asserting itself at international level to have water recognized as a “global common good”.
Water has brought a number of tensions in the country to the surface since the early 2000s. For example, in Cochabamba, the third largest city in the country located on the plain of the Pre-Andean region of Chapare where water resources are scarce, “a water war” broke out in 2000 following the delegation of the service to an international consortium.
In addition to the transfer of the exclusive ownership to the multinational for all the water resources in the metropolitan area, water tariffs increased significantly for users of the service (by 35% to 150% depending on the case). In 2005, it was the turn of El Alto, a sprawling city in the heights of La Paz, to experience strong social mobilization in reaction to the privatization of water services. This was followed by a return to a public management of the capital’s water services, a recognition of community forms of water management, and the creation of a dedicated ministry (from 2006 to 2009).
A vulnerable country worth studying closely
While Bolivia is not one of the countries the most exposed to water stress, its high vulnerability to climate change (melting glaciers, increase in the El Niño phenomenon, etc.) is highlighted by researchers. This is especially because Bolivia’s population growth, increasing urbanization and socioeconomic developments mean that there is an ever-increasing need for this resource.
“Urban water in Bolivia crystalizes a number of issues which are interesting to study”, explains Sarah Botton, a research officer at AFD and coordinator of this project. The coordination between the various levels of government (local/national), urbanization processes, the impact of climate change and the alternation of periods of drought and flooding, and the methods for organizing water distribution services are all fields worth studying. “We work with local researchers for this: several research institutes are specialized in water, particularly in Cochabamba”, continues the researcher.
More recently, the water crisis in La Paz in 2016 proved particularly telling in terms of the various natural or social shocks affecting the country. 94 neighborhoods in the city’s South area found themselves deprived of drinking water services for several weeks. Beyond the increasing fragility of the water resources supplying the capital (climate change affects the melting of glaciers which historically supply the region with water, although it also has substantial groundwater resources), the research led by AFD has shown that this crisis was taking root at other levels: technical and political.
Effective alternative distribution services
“This research has highlighted the resilience and effectiveness of alternative small water distribution services in certain neighborhoods”, sums up the research officer at AFD, “They are of particular interest to us, as their modes of governance and the way they operate can be analyzed as Commons.” The Commons place users and citizens at the heart of regulation and management processes and have been subject to extensive research by AFD for some ten years now, particularly in the water sector.
“Of course,”, Sarah Botton continues, “we need to maintain a realistic vision: the Commons approach does not resolve everything. For example, there is rivalry between irrigators and urban water cooperatives, as everyone is seeking to appropriate the resource.” It is also interesting to look at how these common water services operate at different levels: small community structures, but also large cooperatives.
For example, AFD is studying one of the largest cooperatives for water and sanitation services in the world, which is also located in Bolivia. The objective? Analyze its technical and social performance, its operating and decision-making methods, but also analyze the role of the “Common” in the cooperative governance of water services.
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