August 2017

Is Semapa way the only way?


By: Jeffrey Coleman
Projects Abroad Volunteer

It is no secret that water issues are a high priority in Bolivia, and Cochabamba is no exception to this general rule. While the citizens of Santa Cruz maintain the SAGUAPAC water cooperative and remain a high profile example of well-run cooperative service strategies, cities like Cochabamba still struggle with water service provision by municipal systems in an ever expanding city. While the Misicuni dam project moves forward, peripheral communities in Cochabamba and the core city itself continue to use creative solutions to address the issues of reliable and consistent water service.

If we consider water a human right, therefore, we will always be left with the problem of insuring that all people have sufficient water.
Photo: by Luscy Wittir

In the interest of full disclosure, as a citizen of the United States in general and Minneapolis, Minnesota in particular, my personal experiences with water issues on a municipal level is admittedly limited.

The name "Minneapolis" literally means "City of Lakes" and our particular municipal water system is the envy of many other cities in the nation. Historically, a water "crisis" to me has consisted of running out of hot water after five minutes of taking a shower.As veterans of the Water Wars 17 years ago, Cochabambinos are grizzled "ex-combatants" of water crises. As most will generally agree, privatization presents many problems in addressing municipal water issues. For most, this generally means a state-controlled municipal system that provides water for the designated service. While SEMAPA establishes a foundation of water services for many residents, too many communities are still dependent on water that is trucked in or on inconsistent service provided by the utility. Three main models have been provided as alternatives to the SEMAPA system: privatization, a regional cooperative like SAGUAPAC, or small water collectives providing independent service to their members. To determine other viable options, it is first important to establish whether we consider water a commodity provision service or a human right.

Too many communities are still dependent on water that is trucked in or on inconsistent service provided by the utility.
Photo: by Kris Krüg

From an economic standpoint, service provision is substantially different when a product or service is considered a right versus a simple product to be provided. Goods that work well in a private market are goods that are both "excludable" (can be denied people based on their ability to pay) and rivalrous (goods with competition for a limited amount of the product). Because water as a private good is both excludable and rivalrous, people unable to pay will always be left with little, if any, water.

As a limited resource, however, water will always be rivalrous. If we consider water a human right, therefore, we will always be left with the problem of insuring that all people have sufficient water. While the Misicuni dam promises to provide more of this limited resource, methods for providing water to Cochabamba's residents must be examined in this light.As Cochabambinos are well aware, privatization, the first option, has significant problems associated with it. As is the case with all privatized goods, unless regulated to insure adequate service provision, people without sufficient money will invariably be left without sufficient water. The water wars of 17 years ago were a product of this simple fact, although the privatization project was soon abandoned as a consequence of public protest. On a small scale, many communities without access to municipal systems currently function in a privatized water economy with water trucks providing water to the community on a for profit basis.

The SAGUAPAC cooperative in Santa Cruz provides another model for water service provision. As collective owners of the water utility, SAGUPAC members are responsible for both paying for service provision and collective conservation. This model addresses the fundamental problem of sharing a limited resource. In an environment of mutual responsibility, rivalrous goods are provided effectively as, rather than rivalry, members commit to paying for and using their fair share. While the amount of the resource provided must be sufficient to provide for its citizens essential needs, the citizens also take responsibility for insuring that the needs of all cooperative members are met.

A third potential option is for individual communities to take collective responsibility for water provision when outside the SEMAPA service area. Some communities have already taken this route by financing the drilling of independent wells and creating cooperatives that are collectively responsible for service provision for their members. While this is an attractive option for many communities, it does run the risk of individual collectives being rivalrous with each other for the limited water resources. This could lead to communities with the resources to invest in better technologies overusing aquifers or other water sources to the detriment of less affluent communities and the larger city.

Is Cochabamba ready to take the giant step towards a water cooperative? Only time will tell
Photo: by Kris Krüg

Though the Misicuni dam project promises dramatic changes to the water supply issues faced by Cochabamba, how water is to be supplied to the communities remains a point of considerable debate. Although privatization provides one solution, it is a deeply flawed one and likely a cultural and political impossibility in today's Cochabamba. A SAGUAPACstyle cooperative may holds promise but, it too would confront social and political hurdles. The water collective model has shown promise, but still confronts the problem of poor communities with few financial resources to start a collective and the competition between collectives.

In the end, the question of how to provide water to the city must be answered with an eye towards the future. What is the best method to provide a sufficient amount of this limited resource to the citizens of Cochabamba? On the surface, the citywide cooperative model seems the most effective. This would, however, require regular additional infrastructure investment on the part of the cooperative and a commitment to collective conservation. The addition of millions of gallons of water to the city by way of the Misicuni dam creates a significant increase in the quantity of this precious natural resource. Is Cochabamba ready to take the giant step towards a water cooperative? Only time will tell.

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