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Change story: Addressing a growing water crisis in Bolivia

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Change story: Addressing a growing water crisis in Bolivia

Like many countries, Bolivia faces a deepening water crisis that threatens to leave millions without secure, safe drinking water. Using our sector-leading Water Evaluation And Planning (WEAP) tool, SEI helped the country plan for the future by creating the first-ever comprehensive model of Bolivia’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Published on 23 May 2018 / Bolivia

This change story was originally published in our 2017 annual report.

A long-simmering challenge

Shrinking glaciers, extreme droughts and management challenges threaten Bolivia’s water supply. In the past, these shortages have led to controversy; in 1999, for example, a series of protests that became known as the Cochabamba Water War led the government to reverse the privatisation of the city’s water.

Almost 20 years later, Bolivia continues to face supply issues. In 2016, the country suffered its worst drought in 25 years. The water shortages affected 125 000 families and 283 000 hectares of agriculture, and led to the declaration of a state of emergency. And the very next year, the capital, La Paz, suffered a further historic drought. Drought can be a struggle throughout much of the country, but agricultural communities also face the challenge of maintaining their livelihoods in the face of uncertain water availability.

A woman with a herd of sheep in a dry landscape

Dominga Uño, a Bolivian shepherd and farmer who lives in the highlands. She lost her crops and many sheep in 2012 due to severe weather. Photo: EC / ECHO / R. Silva, Flickr.

The country is making efforts to improve water planning and build capacity in the regions so they can have better information about their water availability, current water uses and potential future developments.

Bolivia’s Ministry of Environment and Water was keen to have a uniform dataset that could act as a baseline to inform water planning in the regions. It engaged SEI to help develop this “national water balance” using our Water Evaluation And Planning (WEAP) system.

Setting the stage for a sustainable future

The completed model, which SEI unveiled in November 2017, contains information about all available water supply in Bolivia, using data from field measurements and satellite records. To create this model, SEI collaborated with the Ministry of Environment and Water, the Institute of Hydraulics and Hydrology at the Higher University of San Andrés in La Paz, and the Laboratory of Hydrology at the University of San Simón in Cochabamba.

SEI and its partners used new computational methods, including automatic catchment delineation and gridded climate data, to bring the data together in a WEAP platform.

While the public can access the platform through a web system called Geovisor, the platform also includes a suite of tools for researchers and local water planners to update and refine the model. The Ministry and SEI organised a series of training and discussion sessions with planners to make sure that these tools were well understood, and used effectively.

“This is a very important step towards true integrated watershed management in Bolivia.”
—Oscar Meave, Chief of Special Studies, Ministry of the Environment and Water, Bolivia

Through these sessions, 40 Bolivian water planners were successfully trained in using WEAP and other data processing tools to assess current and future water availability – one of the primary impacts of the project. We also developed training materials to replicate these capacity-building sessions for future water managers.

The successful implementation of this project was due to the Ministry’s trust in SEI’s capacity to lead this effort. SEI was a catalyst in bringing together actors that normally don’t sit in the same room, such as researchers from competing academic organisations and from different regions of the country. This strong partnership ensured not only a strong model, but also a trusted one that has the buy-in of a diverse set of stakeholders.


Clean water and sanitation

Water is fundamental to human development, from drinking water and sanitation to agriculture and generating electricity. SEI offers knowledge and solutions for how to manage water resources in a connected way to ensure water, energy and food security for all.

SDG13 research connections. SDG13 is connected to SDGs 3, 7, 8, 9 and 12.

Connecting to the SDGs

Many countries face similar issues to those in Bolivia. More than two-thirds of the world’s population lives in areas suffering severe water scarcity at least one month a year, and a similar number lack access to safely managed sanitation.

Access to water and sanitation is a prerequisite for escaping poverty (Goal 1) and ending hunger (Goal 2), for better health (Goal 3) and creating liveable cities (Goal 11), and connects with many other SDGs, not least on the provision of renewable energy (Goal 7) and climate action (Goal 13). This is why SEI is helping policy-makers and stakeholders in dozens of countries to find solutions for sustainable water management.

An agenda of action

This is an impact story – a highlight of our work from 2017. This story and a selection of others can be found in our annual report.

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