Latin America Advisor Featured Q&A: How Should Bolivia Deal with its Water Shortage?

AIN’s Kathryn Ledebur participates in Featured Q&A. Excerpt from the Inter-American Dialogue’s newsletter, the Latin America Advisor for December 12, 2016. For the full version, please see the Inter-American Dialogue’s website.

Q: Bolivia’s government has declared a national emergency amid a drought that has severely limited the country’s water supply, 16 years after the so-called Water Wars in Cochabamba led to widespread conflict and sparked an international debate over privatizing water and sanitation services. The water crisis is expected to extend into 2018. How should Bolivia go about managing its limited resources as it struggles to adapt to what is likely to be the “new normal” with regard to water scarcity? Should Bolivia attempt to privatize water again, or is there another way to manage access and infrastructure? What will the drought mean for its agriculture sector? What will water scarcity mean for the country’s political and civil stability?


A: Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba: “Water scarcity in Bolivia is not new or easily resolved. Significant shortages in La Paz’s wealthier southern sector stimulated recent international press coverage. Climate change, population increases, urbanization and a lack of coordination with and among local governments all contribute to the crisis. The rainy season begins two months later and is significantly shorter, but more intense, than two decades ago. Resulting flash flooding affects even the regions hardest hit by drought. These shifts wreak havoc on the agricultural sector, which is gradually implementing adaptation strategies. The Bolivian government has carried out significant water infrastructure initiatives, but decentralized municipalities have not made sufficient progress, nor have they earmarked a sufficient portion of their budget, to address problems inherited from their private predecessors. SEMAPA, the water company administered by the municipality of Cochabamba, loses half its water supply through leaks in its dilapidated distribution networks. In spite of these flaws, re-privatization of municipal water companies would face grassroots opposition and have little impact on large-scale water initiatives, spanning municipalities and departmental borders, which are needed to address urban shortages. The Misicuni dam and hydroelectric project in Cochabamba is a striking example. First planned in 1957, 10 private companies (international and joint ventures) have failed to complete the project, now very tentatively slated for conclusion in 2017. Continuing climate shifts and extreme weather remain unwieldy challenges for national, regional and local authorities. Sporadic regional friction over water supply and the use of rural community resources in urban areas will persist, but without foreseeable widespread conflict in the current context.”