June 2011

Water Supply in Cochabamba: Finding a Balance

With the effects of global warming and a growing population becoming apparent, how can Cochabamba’s limited water supply keep up with demand? The question of water supply in Bolivia has never been an easy one. Ever since the country’s first water law, passed in 1906, it has been clear that there needs to be some kind of regulation to share out and preserve the country’s scarce water resources.

Jessica Eastwell
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Hexham - England

Photo: Jessica Eastwell
The new water tank at Señor de Burgos.

While getting enough water to go around has always been problematic, the situation is rapidly getting worse.  The effects of global warming are already being felt by Bolivia, as can be seen in the recent bout of floods and droughts across the country, as well as changes in the duration of the rainy season. But there are worse problems in store. In 2009, it was confirmed that the subtropical glacier Chacaltaya had completely melted. While this means a sudden surge of meltwater for La Paz and El Alto (and flooding), in the long term, their main source of water has now disappeared, and this is a pattern set to be repeated across the Andes.

Another serious problem in Bolivia is water quality. This varies according to area, and often by district within the same city. In poorer areas, says Stefano Archidiacono, a representative of the Italian water charity CeVI, “they have more problems getting access to water, and often they pay up to four times more per cubic metre of water, without taking the quality into account. It’s not just a technical problem; it has a lot to do with social justice as well.” This is made worse by a lack of sanitation, and very few regulations about water pollution. Water treatment plants are unequipped to deal with the volume of waste water produced, and are often forced to release it back into the environment untreated. On average, only 10% of Bolivia’s waste water is suitably treated, according to the 2005 LENPA Forum Capacity Development Case Study.

Photo: Jessica Eastwell
A traditional offering to bless the new water tank at Señor de Burgos.


Access to water and sanitation has been highlighted as a problem in the developing world, and as such, improving the situation was made part of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. As the table below shows, while water access in Bolivia has greatly improved, sanitation still remains a problem, particularly in rural areas: according to the UN Millennium Development Goals report of 2010, 80% of people with access to clean water live in the countryside (and the figures do not take water quality, another serious problem in Bolivia, into account).

“Cochabamba’s problem is a shortage of water,” explains Mr. Archidiacono, touching on the issue that has often made Cochabamba a centre of water disputes over the years, particularly in the disturbances known as the Water Wars in 2000. While Cochabambinos were able to reclaim their water supply from a foreign company charging unreasonable rates (on average a 43% increase in charges, according to data from “Bechtel Vs. Bolivia: the Water Rate Hikes by Bechtel’s Bolivian Company”, published on www.democracyctr.org), there are still serious water problems in Cochabamba. This is mainly because the city’s population is continuing to grow, while the amount of water to go around stays the same.

In an attempt to solve this, various charities from all over the world have come to Cochabamba in an attempt to help solve the water shortage. Their main method is, according to Mr. Archidiacono, “to strengthen community water management in the marginal districts of Cochabamba, to ensure that everyone can access water.” He is also keen to emphasise that most charities want to work in a way that honours traditional Bolivian beliefs and customs: “In Bolivia, there’s already knowledge about how to manage water, for example the atajados that are used to store rainwater in the Altiplano”.

Only one thing is clear: as the city of Cochabamba continues to grow, the water problems are only going to increase. “Passing a framework water law would help,” observes Mr. Archidiacono. “So would studies about water sources and reserves, surface and subterranean. The information we have is very patchy, and to develop a complete water policy, taking the river basins into account as well, we need to have studies that allow good planning and efficient management.”


Urban (64% of population)

Rural (36% of population


Improved Water Access*




Improved Water Access (House Connection)*




Improved Sanitation*




Source: Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation by WHO and UNICEF (JMP 2008). The estimates are based on the Household Survey (2005) and the Bolivia Democratic and Health Survey (2008). The sanitation figures exclude shared latrines.

*Since 2000

Standouts: “In Bolivia, there’s already knowledge about how to manage water”

In 2009, it was confirmed that the subtropical glacier Chacaltaya had completely melted   

Monitoring the road to UN Millennium Development Goals in Latin America

The objective of the LA Ruta team was to get a better understanding of the real impact of one of the most important recent agreements of the international community, the UN Millennium Development Goals.

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