Bolivia drought hammers homes and crops
BOLIVIA - Teodora Cauna de Quispe hasn’t had water at her house in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, for two weeks. “We can’t wash ourselves or our clothes”, she said. “Every so often there is a bit of muddy water that spurts out of the tap on my patio.” A tanker has delivered water only once, and Teodora – who works as a maid in a wealthy neighborhood nearby – has been forced to buy expensive bottled water for her family to drink. This week, President Evo Morales declared a national emergency, after the combined impact of the El Niño weather cycle, poor water management and climate change helped cause the country’s worst drought in 25 years. Water rationing is in effect for the first time ever in La Paz, where the three main reservoirs that provide the city’s water are almost dry. The semi-arid highlands surrounding the capital rely almost entirely on replenishment by rainfall. Bread, a key staple here, is increasingly scarce and many hospitals are working at half capacity, suspending non-emergency surgeries and dialysis. In the poor neighborhoods of southern Sucre, taps have run dry for three weeks. The drought has hit rural areas hard as reservoirs and lakes dry up, crops wither and animals die. Indigenous rituals beseeching the gods for rain have taken on a particular urgency this year and last, when the drought began.
In the southern highlands, where most of Bolivia’s quinoa is grown, drought has slashed the 2016 crop by as much as half. “We are in a state of shock,” said La Paz water specialist Monica Ayala. Frustration over the lack of water is often directed at the state company Epsas, created in 2007 after a campaign against water privatization by Aguas de Illimani, the local subsidiary of the French conglomerate Suez. Protesters in El Alto were infuriated by Suez’s refusal to expand services to poor neighborhoods that were deemed unprofitable, and water privatization was reversed. The newly formed Epsas undertook an extension of services to outlying areas. “Thanks to Epsas efforts, we have 84% potable water coverage, which of course means increased consumption,“said Ayala. “But tariffs haven’t risen in nine years, so Epsas didn’t have the income to develop new water sources.” Meanwhile, existing infrastructure is crumbling, and public water companies are plagued by corruption and incompetence, said Ayala.