Over the past six weeks, hundreds of thousands of people living in El Alto and La Paz -the world’s highest capital- have been subjected to constant water shortages and cuts, which are now reaching dangerous limits: more than 90 neighborhoods are getting water only every three days, and for three hours only. Others don’t see a drop for more than a week. And the luckier ones are getting water for two hours daily. (I know this because my extended family lives there).
The administration of President Evo Morales recently declared a state of emergency to cope with one of the worst droughts in the last 25 years. But the water situation has been deteriorating for a long time given that around 25 per cent of the water supply for La Paz and El Alto comes from the rapidly shrinking glaciers in the surrounding Andean Cordillera. Other cities around the country are also being affected by water shortages due to the climate-induced drought.
Add to that the fact that three main dams that supply water to almost two million people in the highlands are almost dry, and no longer depend on the glaciers’ runoff.
But climate change is not the only culprit here. The other one is a lack of vision and planning from the authorities to prevent this situation from happening in the first place. The critical water situation was flagged in various studies from a myriad of local and international organizations over the past few years. In this context, the Morales administration needs to assume urgent actions to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further.
All this water rationing has already ignited street protests, and the sacking of the head of the water company. Protesters are now asking for the heads of the ministers of Environment & Water, and of Health. (And in Bolivia this could have a literal meaning) In the meantime, army trucks are distributing water in various neighborhoods, some communities are drilling emergency wells, and in well-off neighborhoods south of La Paz –the most affected by these shortages- households and apartment buildings are purchasing water to fill up their reserve tanks.
A grave situation
We all know that this crisis is much more than just having enough water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Glaciers and mountain water systems are also critical for agriculture, power generation and overall natural ecosystems surrounding La Paz and El Alto. Furthermore, some food companies and hotels are stopping their operations, while some restaurants are opening but without providing access to restrooms, which could cause major health-related disasters.
Thus, the situation is indeed grave and could cause violent unrest. The government has already announced some investments, and organizations like the World Bank are already on the ground helping assess the situation and trying to come up with short, medium and longer term solutions. So far, however, the only real hope is the start of the rainy season in December, which should help fill up the dams and bring some respite to an already stressed population.
All this is living proof that climate change is a ticking time bomb, particularly without proper planning or preventive action for mitigating its worst impacts, or for adapting to its most pervasive effects. The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) recently noted, for example, that if climate predictions of a two-degree rise in temperatures by 2050 are accurate, small glaciers will completely disappear, and others will shrink dramatically.
Bolivia has already witnessed the disappearance of the world’s highest ski resort on the Chacaltaya Mountain, and of the whole Poopó Lake in the Altiplano. Furthermore, the two glaciers that provide water for El Alto and La Paz lost 39% of their area between 1983 and 2006 – at a rate of 0.24 sq. km per year, according to the SEI.
The SEI also notes that climate change, in the form of droughts, floods, or bad harvests, can increase migrations from the countryside into cities like El Alto, where demand for water is already exceeding supply. El Alto is expected to double its population to two million by 2050.
No easy answers
So, how to best tackle the water crisis in Bolivia? There are certainly no easy answers. It is evident, however, that more effective planning and preventive strategies for managing water demand/supply are critical. And this is true not only for Bolivia but for many other countries around the world.
And in the face of climate change uncertainty, efforts to conserve, recycle, and reduce water usage –particularly by major industries- will all have to play a role. The OECD, for instance, projects that global demand for water will increase by 55 percent by 2050.
It may not be a coincidence then that at the recent Budapest Water Summit 2016, titled "Water connects", World Bank Group Managing Director and CFO, Joaquim Levy, warned that water shortages could have huge economic and social costs, as well as trigger conflict and migration.
Indeed, the links between water supply, peace and security are becoming more evident.
This is certainly a major challenge for the current administration, and for its “Movimiento al Socialismo” (MAS), the party of President Morales, which gained much notoriety back in 2000 during the so-called “water war” in Cochabamba, which pitted its residents –in a violent confrontation- against the then government’s intention to privatize and increase the price of water.
The current water crisis, if not addressed effectively and holistically, may also have huge social, economic, and political costs not only for the Morales administration but for the whole country.
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