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S.O.S. from La Paz: send water, please!

Mauricio Ríos's picture
If you wonder what climate change means in real time, and how it impacts people’s lives on a daily basis, just read the news about the on-going water crisis in Bolivia.

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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Submitted by Ed Bourque Consulting on

I am no expert on El Alto and La Paz's water situation, but I think there are a few different issues that have to be sorted out.

Firstly, I am aware that the cost of source/bulk water sources was the ultimate cost behind things - all the way back to the protests El Alto/La Paz (and Cochabamba, really) in the early 2000s. Public or private this is a borne cost by any utility that has to function in these cities.

The question I have is to what extent the government hamstrung itself by not investing in source water for the utilities 15 years ago? Also, to what extent is allocation across sectors an option? Surely agriculturally used water is not at as high a per-unit value use as urban drinking water....?

Additionally, even though La Paz has 95% of the population connected to the utility, surely there is room for policies that increase connections in El Alto, where those infamous 'areas no servidas' /unserved areas under the early 2000 concessions existed.

I'm not saying that there are any easy answers, but water service delivery in these cities show so many lessons to learn from, be they investing in source water supplies or getting more people connected (so they don't pay resale prices). I hope that those policies that made resale by utility-connected households and communal standpipes illegal in the 2000s don't exist anymore...?

Lastly, to what extent has pricing been a problem. While there is a need for the social tariff (often at below-cost), there must be either cross-subsidies from wealthier paying consumers and/or a tax base that fills the gaps that the subsidies present on the balance sheets.

It's not sexy or politically correct to say this, but utilities have to function like a business. Having said this, the government can and should support input costs and support subsidized rates.

Ed Bourque

Submitted by Daniel Lindblom on

common story. Think different. Point of use solar dehumidifers by the thousands. One or two per house hold. Could make a huge dent in the problem. Could even make them in country. from no water to some water is significant. India did it with stone structures 200 years ago. Some still work today. Passive and doable.

Submitted by Eduardo Guthartz on

Water Losses: The real cost of poor quality pipes and fittings.

Regarding Actions to Reduce Water Losses and Water Conservation by Use of Long-Life Infrastructure Materials I wish to bring to your attention the progress that has been made in development of long-life, highly reliable piping materials for use in potable water distribution.

HDPE (high density polyethylene) pipes and fittings have been adopted overwhelmingly in the US, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle and Far East by the Natural Gas Distribution Companies since the beginning of the 60's, due to their resistance to corrosion, ground movement and ease of use/installation.

Today, the conservation of water resources is more critical than ever. Water loss continues to be a major challenge for water utilities across the world. Sounds very simple but the cost-effective method to tackle water loss is to install the best quality pipes and fittings. About 70% of water loss sourced in low quality house connections. Reducing NRW can significantly improve the performance of public water utilities.

Cost of poor quality (COPQ) or poor quality costs (PQC), It's easy to jump to the conclusion that better quality products cost more to produce. Investment in good quality fittings is more than offset. Indirect COPQ is difficult to measure because it is a delayed result of time, durability, quality, and financial costs incurred by water authority. These additional costs add up to NRW and therefore do not appear in the company's ledger. Once the costs of losses are known, justifications can be made to launch the efforts that will recoup these costs.

The IOT (The Internet of things) allows water leakage to be sensed and/or controlled remotely across existing network infrastructure. The reality is that high-quality pipes and fittings manufactured according to highest standards and Quality Control will avoid leaks and last longer than a lower price category. A better way to look at purchasing quality pipes and fittings like this is as an investment — an investment in the future, the " Strongbox" for the water distribution system.

Fittings costs are only 4 percent of all water infrastructure project spending. This sentence touches on a bunch of controversial and complex issues related to NRW in just few seconds. However, my conclusion here doesn't argue one way or another on the question of whether water measuring could be run more accurate. Smart Water Companies don't spend money in pipes and fittings; they invest in the best pipes and fittings.

Following the 2007 earthquake in Ica, Peru, the PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipe infrastructure for potable water and sewage was destroyed completely. Recently SEDAPAL from Lima, one of the biggest public water utilities in Latin America moved to HDPE (high density polyethylene) for pipeline rehabilitation in thousands of kilometers for Lima city.

According to Natural Gas piping experience for more than 50 years in Europe, the use of a fully welded polyethylene infrastructure is the most cost-effective solution without leaks. Try to imagine what could happen if the gas distribution networks should deal with 45% Non-Revenue Gas delivered. Could this scary scenario happen ? For more than 50 years Gas companies made and still make all the necessary actions to avoid this scenario. The same pipes and fittings used in Gas distribution according to EN 1555 are already in use for water distribution according to EN 12201, due to the very low frequency of failures over an expected lifetime of at least 50 years.

Better sooner than later the relevant decision-makers in this segment will contribute to the efforts to Reduce Water Losses.

According to the World Bank, in developing countries, roughly 45 million cubic meters of water are lost daily with an economic value of over US$3 billion per year. High levels of NRW reflect huge volumes of water being lost through leaks, not being invoiced to customers, or both.

Many drinking water utilities around the world respond to leaks only after they have received a report of water erupting from a street or a complaint from a customer about a damp basement, or other visible sign of leakage. Utilities that employ this type of reactive leakage response most likely have excessive leakage that will never be effectively contained. Most of the leaks sourced in hidden leaks 24/365 due to low quality house connections. Water Main Rehabilitation and Replacement by a fully welded system of polyethylene pipes and fittings as already adopted overwhelmingly by Gas Distribution companies will lead to the desired reduction of water loss.

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