(This reflection is from mid-July during my time in Cochabamba, Bolivia – I just found it buried on a thumb drive among other documents from the trip.)
I’d just returned from a fairly epic weekend in Toro Toro National Parks, one of the true hidden gems of Bolivia. My legs still weak from the 20+ miles of intense hiking, cave exploring (which involved shimmying through impossibly small crevices and crawling on my elbows and knees, army style, through freezing cold mud), and swimming through the ice water of the canyon, I wobbled into work at 8am expecting a relatively normal, relaxing day.
But, this is Bolivia, and nothing goes as planned.
I noticed the office staff was in an unusual flurry of activity, preparing the meeting room with tea, fruit plates, and cookies. I figured it was for another teacher training workshop, and got my desk set up for the day. Then I saw them – the pale skin, the wide, tired eyes, the NorthFace gear and blonde hair. Americans.
There were seventeen of them, in all shapes, sizes, and ages. I felt like I was in a zoo, viewing some strange creatures so totally out of place as they paced around the conference room, prowling for a seat. Its not like I don’t see Americans here – many of the other interns are from the United States, and all attend universities in the US. But tourists are a rare sight here, so rare that post cards aren’t even sold in Cochabamba. And the last thing I expected was to see seventeen roll up to the office for a meeting.
Doctora Betty Soto, the Director of Water for People Bolivia, cordially invited me into the meeting. It was then that I found out that the seventeen of them were a mix of engineers, donors to WfP, and volunteers in local WfP chapters. The Doctora and other WfP leaders gave an introduction of the work of WfP Bolivia before the local project leaders gave more in depth descriptions of the progress in each of the six areas of Cochabamba where WfP has projects. I even learned some new things about District 9 where the Voces Libres school (where I work) – only 36% of the 140,000 people living there have access to water in or near their homes, and only 19% have basic sanitation (a toilet of some variety, a sink, and maybe a shower). That means 89,600 people do not have reliable access to safe drinking water – and that’s after WfP started projects there in 2009.
After wrapping up the discussion, we headed down to a private bus where we were to be transported to Miraflores Sivingani, Ichukullo, and Monte Olivo, three communities where WfP had projects or was starting work. As we set out, the Americans had lots of questions for me: What was I doing here? How long had I been here? Where was good for shopping? I answered them all with a smile, but really felt myself light up when people started asking about District 9 and Cochabamba water issues. I’m in my element when I’m in dialogue about water this way – I can draw facts, statistics, experiences, and observations from the corners of my memory and engage an audience about everything from irrigation to sanitation.
Once we arrived in Miraflores, we were invited into some homes to see people’s toilets – not exactly typical fodder for tourists, but this was a special group. 90 families in Miraflores had pitched in to build a decentralized wastewater treatment plant, and build toilets, sinks, and showers in their homes. The total cost of the home level sanitation was about $1000USD per family, and WfP provided a $200 subsidy for families who had committed to completing the projects. We asked if they had noticed a change in their health since the bathrooms and sanitation systems were built, and everyone said something to the effect of, “Oh yes, now that we don’t walk half a mile to shit by the river, everyone is much healthier.”
We then moved on to Ichukullo where we were greeted by the president of the local water cooperative and neighborhood association. He said being the president was very difficult, because people would blame him when their water pipes shut off because they didn’t pay their bills. He wanted to quit many times, but WfP provided leadership and community training for fixing up the infrastructure and helped fund a water tank. Now people have much more reliable access to water, even though many still complain about the fees (13bs, or about $2USD per month).
The last community we visited, Monte Olivo, was by far the most impoverished area I had seen in Cochabamba. No one had toilets, sinks, or showers in or even near their homes – women walked down to a filthy river to wash themselves, their clothes, and their children. Bathrooms were small tin shacks built by a religious organization that pronounced the community free of the sins of filth, but the shacks fell into disrepair and people returned to open defecation. Water for People was in the midst of building a partnership with the community leaders to co-finance a new sanitation system and drinking water infrastructure. The leaders seemed excited and optimistic about the partnership, which seemed like a good first step in improving the water access issues there.
As our day wrapped up and we headed back to the office, I had to reflect on the issue of structures versus band aids. While these infrastructure projects were great, they did nothing to address the governance issues that allow the government of Cochabamba, or Bolivia, to be held accountable to not meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations. While I support the work of organizations that work to address the short term issues of water supply, quality, and access, I also wonder what future efforts must look like to improve equity, responsibility, and accountability in the water sector.