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Bolivia WATCH: an integrated approach to ensuring both clean and available water

SEI experts explain how a new project will help Bolivia connect sanitation with watershed management.

Published on 27 February 2019

View of Tupiza City, which sits in one of the watersheds where Bolivia WATCH will focus its efforts. Photo: Jeanne Fernandez / SEI.

Each year, more than $13 billion (USD) in international aid goes to water projects. The vast majority is spent on infrastructure to ensure safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

Less often considered is the watershed that supplies the water that runs through that infrastructure – and whether actions and policies are needed to ensure sufficient water as conditions related to climate, land-use, demographics and economic development change in the future.

SEI will help connect these two areas – WASH and watersheds – in a new project, Bolivia WATCH, that will focus on three pilot watersheds in Bolivia. Once complete, the effort will serve as a blueprint for how other regions and countries can integrate watershed management efforts and innovative sanitation interventions to ensure adequate water quality and supply for all water users in a watershed.

In this Q&A, SEI experts explain why this integration is crucial for sustainability and how water resource planning can help WASH investments.

The experts

David Purkey

Centre Director

SEI Latin America

“Explicitly connecting WASH and watershed planning … will help in the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals”

Why is this program important?

Marisa Escobar: When thinking about water management, it is important to consider water quality and the need to improve sanitation conditions. However, water resources management at the watershed level usually almost solely focuses on quantifying the amount of water available and determining how to allocate it between different water users.

The inverse is true of sanitation. Water quantity matters, but the focus is usually on quality alone.

By explicitly connecting WASH and watershed planning, it will be possible to streamline water management, as well as support institutions in making this connection. And that will help in the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, specifically 6, which sets a 2030 deadline to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

Kim Andersson: The need for more robust and resilient water and sanitation systems is constantly increasing, due to a changing climate resulting in melting glaciers, droughts, or floods. However, if the impacts on water are only analysed on the community level, without understanding the watershed dynamics, decisions on new WASH interventions may not address the emerging climate challenges, such as water scarcity.

David Purkey: This program will also tackle the common institutional separation between WASH and watersheds. In Bolivia, two separate vice-ministries work on these topics, often without complete collaboration. We hope to promote greater collaboration between these institutions.

Why Bolivia?

DP: One factor is the progressive nature of the Bolivian Ministry of the Environment and Water, our main partner on the program. This organization, from the Minister on down, is committed to finding innovative solutions to Bolivia’s water management challenges.

ME: Water is a critical development challenge in Bolivia. The country’s GDP continues to grow, and this growth means various sectors will demand more water. Bolivia’s water distribution is also highly variable, making it challenging to get water to places with low availability. Precipitation in the western Andes averages less than 200 millimeters each year, while the eastern Andes gets as much as 2000.

KA: The sanitation situation in Bolivia also is still poor, despite major efforts the last decades. It is the Latin American country with lowest sanitation coverage, where only 46% of the people have access to sanitation and most wastewater is discharged without treatment. During the extended droughts in 2015, the already deficient WASH systems suffered badly with malfunctioning systems, showing that the current systems in Bolivia are vulnerable to climate change.

Residents at a community meeting in the Tupiza watershed (left); the Tupiza River (right). Photo: Jeanne Fernandez / SEI.

Tupiza River. Photo: SEI

How will this project help the country tackle its water challenges?

KA: The project will bring forward alternative and innovative sanitation solutions – with low or no water consumption, reusing water, or recovering energy or nutrients in the waste streams – and analyse what impact their implementation would have in the watershed. Connecting WASH to the watershed will provide a better understanding of potential synergies or trade-offs between diverse interests among watershed stakeholders.

ME: And by implementing case studies in three key watersheds, it will be possible to demonstrate specific examples of how connecting both areas can be beneficial for water planning.

We will do this using Robust Decision Support, or RDS. This is a participatory process; we will identify key actors, collect data, develop tools, and conduct capacity building. Through this, we will be able to identify the water solutions that will benefit both areas of water planning.

DP: Innovations related to planning and decision-making are critical to success, and SEI has already established a record of accomplishment with the Ministry in this regard. We played a key role in helping to identify water management solutions in the La Paz-El Alto region and are now working to do the same in Cochabamba. We will also be bringing several technical innovations to the table as well, building off our recent experience developing the National Surface Water Balance for Bolivia on our WEAP platform.

“Connecting all water users in a decision-making process, and not just potable water and sanitation interests, will require more integrated thinking.”

Why are sanitation and hydrology usually separate? Why aren’t they coordinated?

DP: One factor might be the way the Millennial Development Goals were structured. They were framed in terms of percentages of people with access to clean drinking water and safe sanitation, and were measured in terms of the number of water faucets and toilets. The new Agenda 2030 on sustainable development takes a much more integrated approach to development and will be more amenable to the kind of integrated thinking this program will promote. Connecting all water users in a decision-making process, and not just potable water and sanitation interests, will require more integrated thinking.

ME: The lack of coordination also stems from the spatial and temporal domains in which planning for both efforts occur. WASH solutions are more localized – the building of a wastewater treatment plant, the installation of latrines, the connection of homes to septic systems. Watershed solutions, on the other hand, require larger infrastructure and a bigger spatial scale for analysis. WASH solutions can be more expedited and immediate, while watershed solutions require stakeholder buy in and potentially larger investments.

How will you help bridge that divide of sanitation and hydrology in Bolivia?

ME: We are starting with ourselves. SEI also has historically separated the two; our Stockholm researchers have expertise in sanitation, and our U.S. Center specializes in modeling watersheds. As we coordinate and generate connections between our experts, we will also connect the stakeholders we each usually work with. We are also integrating our two sets of tools – called REVAMP and WEAP – and intentionally generating participatory spaces in which both spheres can work together.

KA: This project will be a joint learning journey together with local stakeholders, on how to achieve a more integrated planning process of Watershed and WASH options. We will implement the project in an iterative way, working in one watershed at the time, then evaluating and refining the process before we continue to the next watershed.

Could what you learn in this project be applied to other countries and regions?

DP: Absolutely. The special skill of the water research community within SEI is the expansive, integrative approaches we take in tackling water management challenges. I hope this project will allow us to demonstrate how we can expand beyond WASH and watershed to include issues such as environmental flows and public health in our analysis as well.

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