Whenever storm clouds gather over a landfill near the Bolivian-Brazilian border, the rain washes garbage downhill and into the Bahia River.
With questionably clean water only coming through dusty pipes three times a week for only two hours at a time, the 45,000 residents of the nearby Bolivian city of Cobija might be tempted to drink directly from the Bahia River in this warm climate. But it's not safe.
Women carry water from the Bahia River to their homes in Cobija, Bolivia. Due to pipe leakages, only half of the water from the local treatment plant reaches residents with access to running water.
Photo: © Juan Carlos Ledezma
"Some people get sick because they don't boil their water," said Juan Carlos Ledezma, ecosystem services coordinator for Conservation International (CI) in Bolivia. "People who are poor spend a lot of money on bottled water or gas for boiling it."
World Water Week
As World Water Week kicks off Aug. 26 in Stockholm, Sweden, CI continues its efforts to promote integrated approaches to managing water, sanitation, hygiene (WASH) and freshwater conservation on the ground and in the policy arena.
"More than 1 billion people across the planet lack access to safe drinking water, and more than 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation," said Colleen Vollberg, manager of CI's Freshwater Initiative, who is attending World Water Week along with 2,500 other representatives of governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Preventable diseases associated with a lack of clean water kill more than 5,000 people in developing countries each day.
"Despite their obvious importance, we overuse fresh water and degrade its ecosystems," Vollberg said. "It's time to make a change and ensure the planet's — and our own — well-being through a more holistic approach to conservation and development."
CI's freshwater programs target the protection and restoration of vital freshwater resources that provide for such basic needs as drinking, cooking and bathing as well as for agriculture, climate regulation and flood control.
In 2005, the city of Cobija approached CI with a request for help managing its freshwater systems. In addition to being a tax-free zone with porous borders between Bolivia and Brazil, people were moving to Cobija for its timber, rubber, Brazil nuts and land for cattle grazing. As the fastest growing city in Bolivia, Cobija's officials were concerned about providing enough water for its increasing number of residents.
What these studies showed surprised everyone: Even during the dry season, the Bahia River watershed could provide water for four or five times Cobija's population.
In response to these concerns about water scarcity, CI conducted three studies during the next few years. What these studies showed surprised everyone: Even during the dry season, the Bahia River watershed could provide water for four or five times Cobija's population.
But due to a failing infrastructure, much of that water never reaches the population. "The network for distributing water does not work properly," Ledezma said.
More than half of the water processed by Cobija's water treatment plant is lost to leakages. To make matters worse, only 60 percent of the population has access to this water.
Making a plan
Equipped with data from the studies, CI created a watershed management plan for Cobija. Consisting of 13 strategies, the plan aims to provide safe drinking water while simultaneously protecting Cobija's ecosystems.
Goals of the plan include:
- Protecting forests and rivers
- Managing land use
- Improving sewage and water treatment
- Ensuring effective solid waste processes
- Creating environmentally sound policies
- Developing information, training and monitoring systems
In order to implement this well-researched plan, CI helped create Cobija's watershed management committee — a group of individuals representing nearly a dozen institutions from various levels of government, academia, a water treatment plant and neighborhood associations. Led by Cobija's mayor, the committee has a city hall staff to carry out the plan.
Cobija's watershed committee plans to train ranchers to have their cattle drink from dams on their land instead of from rivers, preventing the dusty animals from polluting the water.
Photo: © CI/Photo by Juan Carlos Ledezma
"Our largest accomplishment is the creation of this committee, which is still working under the lead of the municipality," Ledezma said. "Otherwise, this project would only be a nice document. The committee doesn't see it as CI's plan. It's their plan, and it's the plan they want to implement."
Money for Water
CI helped the committee put together a request for funding from the central government, which, according to Ledezma, has called the project one of the most advanced, integrated watershed management projects in Bolivia.
In addition to the city government's putting forward $US 1 million as it awaits funding from the central government, the committee hopes it will also receive funding from development banks to meet its $US 8 million goal. Using the money it has, the committee has begun implementing plans to improve solid waste treatment.
Although in its early stages, Ledezma already sees the project as a success because it was a response to the needs of the local people in this 15,000-hectare (37-acre) watershed.
"I'm proud of this project because I could contribute technical information for improving watershed management, which will lead to secure water for these people in the long term," Ledezma said. "A great change will be when all 13 strategies are in place, and people have safe tap water to drink. Someday it will happen."
IN DEPTH: Learn more about CI's solutions for freshwater security.