As you may have heard on the news, Bolivia is currently experiencing a water crisis. I thought I will share the information I have surrounding the problem, as well as our own personal experience with it.
The worst of the water shortage in Bolivia is in it’s capital city La Paz. The rest of Bolivia has also been affected, especially in the rural desert areas, but the large population of 2 million in the La Paz-El Alto area has had the worst of the drought. When we first got to Bolivia, the water restrictions had just been put in place. When the word came down from the government that there was a water shortage, the people were shocked! The government suddenly cut off the water and some of the population went without any water for 20+ days without any warning or time to prepare. There had been no communication from the government about any kind of water problems until suddenly they simply turned off the taps and told people that the three water reserves for the city were at 5%, 8%, and 8%. Currently, there is a 1 day on, 2 days off restriction for water usage for the La Paz population. To get water on the off days, the people have to line up with buckets behind tankers where the military distributes water.
There are many rumours circulating among the locals surrounding the cause of the water shortage. The main cause has been a lack of rain and receding glaciers. It is currently supposed to be the rainy season in Bolivia, but the whole time we have been here it has only rained a few times. In Bolivia’s already dry climate, the drought is even more noticeable. People are most upset with the government over their poor water management. Some lighter restrictions could have been imposed long before the reserves were so depleted. The bare minimum the government could have done would have been to alert the people to the fact that there was a crisis before suddenly cutting off the water supply. Some people are saying that the government diverted lots of water out of the reserves last year due to heavy rain instead of finding a way to store the extra water. Another far more scandalous rumour is that the government, despite knowing of the water shortage, has been selling large amounts of water to a Chinese mining company to use in their mine. The truth of this is uncertain, but I have heard it from a few of the locals giving me a sense that people are frustrated with the current government over more than just water.
During our first few weeks in Bolivia, we were also limited to the 1 day on, 2 days off water schedule. We only used tap water for showers and washing dishes. All our drinking water was bottled in order to avoid getting sick. The volunteer compound that our house was in had a 6000 L fresh water tank on top of a 25,000 L grey water tank which they used to recycle as much water as possible. In order maintain water supply to the volunteer compound outside of the restrictions, the grey water tank was drained, sanitized, and refilled with fresh water. Since then, we have had a consistent supply of water. Interestingly, the amount of sickness among the 15 or so volunteers increased drastically once the water restrictions were in place. We speculate that there was some sort of contamination of the water in all the confusion of the crisis.
With the glaciers continuing to recede and droughts affecting more and more countries, I do not see any simple fix to the water problems Bolivia is experiencing. Perhaps they will have to import water from other countries, or figure out how to get water from the rain forest up to the Altiplano. Currently they are building a new reservoir and trying to educate the people to be more water conscious, but if the glaciers keep receding and the trend of global droughts continues, La Paz and Bolivia will have a difficult future ahead.