Sucre’s water problem

To quote Steve Martin in L.A. Story, “There were clouds here but the Council decided against it, so there’s no rain in Beverly Hills.” Replace Beverley Hills with Sucre and this line would still ring true.

Coming from a country with a climate that, at my most charitable, I’d describe as ‘damp’, Sucre’s clear blue skies and near permanent mid-20s temperature is one of its most appealing aspects. In the four and a half months we’ve been here it has barely even threatened to rain.

Not a cloud in the sky, and it hasn’t rained for months

Bliss you might think, but as Newton wisely pointed out, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

The current problems started with a headline in the Correo del Sur entitled “Nivel de agua de tanques de Elapas baja a solo 42 centimetros de altura”, which in any language spells ‘trouble’ but literally means water levels in Sucre are running very, very low.

This was followed a few days later by rumours of people having their water cut off in the evenings. Then came dire warnings of impending water shortages from Bolivian friends. Confirmation of a serious problem arrived abruptly yesterday when the water supply was cut off sometime around 3pm. This is likely to be a daily occurrence for the foreseeable future.

Thankfully we have a water tank on the roof which means we’re unlikely to run out of water in the house, but many people in the city are having to cope without running water for most of the afternoon and night. Others are now dependent on water trucks that the city authorities are sending to poorer barrios. If things are bad for people living in the city, spare a thought for those who live in the countryside where things are always tougher and help from the authorities far less likely.

With a couple of months to go before the rainy season starts things are looking grim. There is even talk of rationing water to businesses. Hopefully the city authorities will not take any rash decisions that might affect the Surena brewery’s output, turning a crisis into a catastrophe won’t help anyone.

This situation shouldn’t come as a surprise. Bolivia is something of an environmental canary-in-the-cage, unwillingly at the forefront of climate change impact. Three years ago the once huge glacier on the 5300m mountain of Chacaltaya, which provided water to one million inhabitants of La Paz, melted away entirely.

Chacaltaya, with La Paz in the background, where once there was a glacier there s nothing but rock

Chacaltaya also boasted the world’s highest commercial ski resort; where once there was a magnificent glacier all that remains today is earth and rock – and an abandoned ski lodge. This situation is repeated in different forms throughout Bolivia, even the mighty Lake Titicaca has seen it’s water levels drop significantly, affecting fishing and lakeside agriculture.

Potable water access and ownership is a hugely sensitive issue here. In 2000 Cochabamba witnessed what has become known as the ‘Water Wars’, pitting corporate interests and the then right-wing government against hundreds of thousands of ordinary Bolivians. Privatisation of water supplies forced on Bolivia by the World Bank led to steep price rises which were unaffordable for many Bolivians. In turn this sparked civil unrest and huge demonstrations which were eventually successful in lowering water costs, although not before several deaths.

There is no likelihood that anything remotely similar will be sparked by current water shortages in Sucre, but how the city manages its water resources is a critical issue that directly affects the welfare of its 225,000 inhabitants and reflects the bigger challenges facing Bolivia.

Although no one has yet uttered the word ‘drought’, judging by the current situation we’d better hope the rains come early this year.

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