Supporting Bolivian scholars to lobby policymakers toward improved water management

Technical universities stand in a privileged position to influence policymakers towards better water resource management. Even if the chief challenges are political, amongst the key obstacles is the dearth of data as well as of models able to characterize underground sources and watersheds. Acknowledging this realities, from 2009 to 2013 EScGD has worked with Centro AGUA from Universidad Mayor de San Simón, Bolivia to develop tools that may be mobilized to put water issues higher on the political agenda of local and national decision-makers.

The project has been carried out in the Pucara basin, in the high valleys of Cochabamba. The Pucara basin is under growing stress caused by the rise in the number of wells. Irrigation wells – now representing 55% of the total – started to grow steadily in the 1970s yet skyrocketed since the 1990s. With more water available, previous drylands were metamorphosed into irrigation schemes. To further compound the problem, the expansion of wells called into question the agreements struck between water users over time. Irrigation systems have overstretched the watershed, thereby also outmoding conventional approaches to basin management. The latter has led Centro AGUA and EScGD to put forward the notion of the ‘hydrosocial basin’. The term refers to a basin not delimitated by its physical boundaries but rather according to the socio-hydraulic networks articulated by both users and authorities.


Pucara Hydrosocial Basin. Source: Cossio, V. et al. (2014)

The project proceeded through four stages: 1) elaborating an inventory of wells, and of water sources in general; 2) characterizing underground water sources, as well as modeling their behavior; 3) diagnosing the status of water sources – through Water Point Mapping (WPM) – and of pollution discharging points; and 4) synthetizing the status of the basin with the help of indicators and spatial representations – a similar approach to that adopted in Kenya and Tanzania. Our work in Cochabamba, however, has reached one step further. We have integrated the Human Right to Water into the construction of the indicators, thereby considering three normative dimensions – i.e. availability, physical accessibility, and quality – out of the five elements espoused by United Nations. This task has not proceeded without serious methodological challenges, such as the focus of WPM on water points instead of on users, and on individual rather than on collective actors. However, our results have equally unveiled lower levels of access to those previously claimed by the authorities as well as, conversely, higher perceptions of quality.

Similarly, the project has contributed to diagnosing the dispersed nature of the sources of water pollution, as well as the negative impact of the poor management of solid waste along the Pucara basin. The rigorous application of a SWAT model for the whole watershed greatly helped in that regard. Likewise, modeling with Visual MODFLOW allowed estimating underground flows as well as hydraulic parameters such as conductivity, transmissibility and storage coefficient. Lastly, the Water Point Mapping exercise not only identified the status of every water point, but also revealed the condition of sanitation facilities – a result that mainstream actors such as the Joint Monitoring Program are not always able to achieve with comparable precision.


Last, but not least, the project has engaged local actors in specific activities aimed at an effective appropriation of the results. The results were discussed in public workshops, and specific actions of capacity building targeted key potential users – singularly, the local authorities. Thus, and albeit end users might have appropriated the results more strongly – probably by participating since the earlier phases of the project -, the intervention has notwithstanding triggered the elaboration of a Municipal Development Plan in which access to water features high.


Waste-water treatment plant, Cochabamba, Bolivia (2008). Source: EScGD


Water transport between basins, Bolivia (2008). Source: EScGD

Parallel to this project the PARAGUAS network – or umbrella, in English – has been set up. The network aims to institutionalize a permanent exchange between universities of the Andean countries towards training postgraduates in water resources management. PARAGUAS – funded by the European Union – connects universities from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, the Netherlands and Spain.

DCIALA/19.09.01/11/21526/264 –919/ALFA III(2011)-27 “Red Andina de postgrados en gestión integrada de los recursos hídricos (RAP-GIRH)”

Coordinated by Wageningen University, under the Justicia Hídrica platform.