Water in Cochabamba and Bolivia

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This post is my contribution for Blog Action Day 2010 (October 15, 2010), a day in which many people around the world blog about the same subject. The subject this year is water. As I already wanted to write something about the water(supply) in Cochabamba this is an excellent opportunity to do it now.

We (that is, my wife Cary and I) are living temporarily in the city of Cochabamba, one of the biggest cities of Bolivia (more than 800,000 inhabitants). Our normal place of living is in Holland where there is plenty of water and often too much rain. The situation in Bolivia is quite different. At this moment we are in the dry season. Today we had the first reasonably heavy rain shower in more than 5 months. The previous one was in Paraguay, when we were traveling by bus from Buenos Aires to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Last Sunday there was also a reasonable shower, but this one was better. It was really necessary as we have to water the garden every few days. But the showers were really local, as the center of the city – only a few kilometers away – hardly had rain. Our house is located close to the mountains; it could be that the location of this part of the city, just a bit more than a kilometer from the mountain side, gives it more rain.

The dry season is supposed to stop in November when the summer starts. The summer is the rainy season in Bolivia with almost every day or every few days at least some rain. Then also the basins should be filled again.

Bolivia can be divided in a few regions that have different climates. In the west there are the Andes mountains, quite high (some 6000 meters). There is a big plain at about 4000 meters altitude which is called the Altiplano. Here the water supply is mostly dependent on the melting of the glaciers. There are twin cities there: La Paz and El Alto, each with about 1 million inhabitants. Because of the fast growth of these cities and the diminishing of the glaciers because of the global warming these cities have serious problems with their water supply. See for example this movie about the situation. Also many of the original inhabitants of Bolivia, living in small villages, often don’t have proper water supplies.

The east and north of Bolivia is the tropical part. This is lowland, at an altitude of a few hundred meters above sea level. For example Santa Cruz, the other big city, with more than 1 million inhabitants lies at an altitude of 416 meters. Here the rivers flow that carry the water coming from the mountains. Most of these rivers ultimately flow to the Amazon, but there is also a part that flows to the South, ending in the Rio the La Plata that passes Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Montevideo (Uruguay). But these waters have to travel a distance of about 2500 km before they reach the ocean. You can imagine that a drop of 416 meters over a distance of 2500 km makes the water flow very slowly. When you fly over the plain areas of South America, for example from Bolivia to Buenos Aires, you can see many meandering rivers flowing through an extremely flat landscape.

In the rainy season this often causes floods and there are large marshy areas such as the Pantanal on the border of Bolivia and Brazil. In the dry season the rivers have so little water that they are no longer navigable by boat, except for very small vessels. On the other hand, in the dry season (winter) the roads are usable, which often isn’t the case in the wet summer season. A few years ago a bridge on the main road connecting Cochabamba and Santa Cruz was flushed away by the enormous amount of water in the river, taking with it a number of cars. Some time later when a Brazilian company was building a new bridge, and a temporary bridge had been constructed to allow the traffic to continue, this temporary bridge also was washed away.

In between the Andes zone and the tropical zone there are transition zones. Here the rising warm, wet air from the tropical east meets the cool air descending from the high Andes mountains making the moisture condense. Where they meet they produce a misty, hazy, Tolkienesque atmosphere. These are the so called Yungas, cloud forests or fog forests. Because of the ample rainfall and humid atmosphere there is an abundant vegetation, often quite spectacular.

Cochabamba is not far from these cloud forests (some 2 hours by bus), but it is located a bit higher, in a fertile valley at an altitude of 2600 meters, surrounded by mountains. There is a small river flowing through Cochabamba but now in the dry season there is hardly any water in it. For the water supply Cochabamba is dependent on several lakes in the surrounding mountains. There is also a reservoir a bit lower than Cochabamba (La Angostura) but its function is mainly for agricultural irrigation.

The water supply company (Semapa) has some difficulty keeping up with the demand although at this moment there is no actual water shortage. They also supply water to the surrounding areas. Last week it was mentioned in the newspapers that they had calculated that about 30% of the water was lost. Many of the older underground water pipes are broken, but there is no money to repair them. The broken pipes also cause the water to be contaminated, so it is not really ‘drinking water’. Drinking water should be used from bottles as is the case in most underdeveloped countries.

The water company doesn’t have enough supply to give everybody enough water during the whole day, especially at peak hours. In our house we get water about once every three days. Therefore most houses have a watertank to bridge the intermediate time. Our house has a tank of about 500 liters on the roof, and an underground container containing a few cubic meters of water. There is a pump filling the rooftop tank from the underground container when it is necessary. The underground container is filled when the water company supplies our area. In this way the supply is more spread over the whole day instead of the peak hours. All in all there is enough to keep the tanks filled and in case of emergency we have enough water for about 2 weeks. Behind our house there are two apartment buildings, which have a couple of 10000-liter water tanks. Regularly a tank vehicle comes along to fill these with water. Some houses even have their own pumps to get water from the underground, which often even is drinkable. But some houses do not have a visible tank and we wonder how they get their water for everyday use.

Ten years ago, the water supply company was privatized, and it raised the price of water considerably. This lead to heavy protests by the people, called the Water Wars. The people won and eventually this lead to the presidency of Evo Morales.

However, the clock is also ticking in Cochabamba. The city is steadily growing, consumption is increasing and the climate change will eventually also threaten Cochabamba. Repairing the broken water pipes will delay the effects for some time but eventually only curbing the climate change and wisely using the water will help.