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How a water model can reveal inequalities – and inform better policy

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How a water model can reveal inequalities – and inform better policy

In a small Bolivian community, SEI researchers teamed up with local partners to build a water model that considers social and cultural factors. The result was a new approach that uncovers vulnerable groups.

Laura Forni / Published on 11 February 2019 / Marquina, Bolivia

Marquina: a small town coping with change

Valeriana Choque Zambrana and her family manage a small farm in Bolivia, growing vegetables both to eat at home and to sell in the market. But water is becoming increasingly unreliable – and like many farmers, Valeriana struggles to ensure her crops are properly irrigated.

Water demand in Bolivia’s Cochabamba department is increasing, and farmers fear that an increasingly unreliable water supply will cause them to lose their lands and traditional agricultural practices. To ensure policies help the most vulnerable – and don’t exacerbate existing inequalities – policy-makers need models that incorporate gender and social equality aspects.

SEI set out to do that in Marquina, a small community of 400 families in the valleys of Cochabamba. Urban expansion, land partitioning and illegal construction projects pose a threat to the community’s irrigation infrastructure and practices, and farmers have asked local authorities to help them ensure water access and efficiency. SEI researchers teamed up with local partners to build a model of Marquina’s water supply and demand in the Water Evaluation and Planning (WEAP) software. The results show that by refining the model to include small groups within regions and communities, we can better inform policies that help the environment and improve the living conditions of all people.


Male farmers take a break while chewing coca leaves during the traditional annual maintenance works in mit’a channels. Photo: Lina Terrazas.

Some farmers are able to invest in greenhouses for flower production. Photo: Lina Terrazas.

A model that shows hidden inequalities

To do this, we combined hard data on water supply and demand with “qualitative” information from a literature review and several surveys that revealed the social and cultural factors that affect irrigation supply. We then made two models: one representing Marquina as a single object (as would be typical in a watershed model); and a second that differentiated groups based on the relative location of the canal system, the water rights of the farmers, and the gender of the water rights holders.

By comparing the aggregated and disaggregated models, we can see the importance of illuminating inequalities in water supply and identifying the vulnerable groups.

The results show that inequalities are often missed in typical watershed models – and could be missing the hardships of women farmers, or marginalized groups. By showing these inequalities in a disaggregated model, policy-makers can test out policies to ensure they are fair and effective.

Female farmers participate in the closure ceremony of the traditional annual maintenance works of mit’a channels. Photo: Lina Terrazas.

Women’s access to water

In Marquina, we found that some groups are more vulnerable than others. Some producers, for example, do not have water rights under the Mit’a, a collective system of management and maintenance that was first established during the precolonial period. Additional water rights – which  came with the construction of reservoirs to ensure water in the dry season – are not tied to the land, as they can be sold between individuals.

Valeriana Choque Zambrana talks about how she manages her family’s farm in Marquina, Bolivia. Video: Lina Terrazas / SEI, YouTube.

Furthermore, while a few groups should be getting enough water based on their rights, they don’t. The main reason is because they are located downstream. Water rights also vary among Andean communities depending on the source of water, system of irrigation, typical crops and cultural relations among the users.

Community-based decisions, which are the main decision-making mechanism in the region, should create the space to voice concerns over water availability and rights. But women’s representation is limited, as they are rarely elected to leadership positions. Men benefit from a historical link between land ownership and community leadership.

Gender dynamics are influenced by many aspects related to culture and socio-economic realities. In Marquina, women were able to take control of water rights because of an increase in the number of men who left to work in cities. However, the ownership of the land appears to be still predominantly male-owned, based on surveys. Though women are water right holders, they are not elected to represent irrigators.

Paulino Chavez, former leader of the Organization of Irrigators of Marquina (2015-2017), explains water rights in Marquina. Video: Lina Terrazas / SEI, YouTube.

Female farmer visiting the reservoir of Marquina. Photo: Lina Terrazas.

More work to be done

This study highlights the importance of mainstreaming gender and social equality analysis in water planning efforts in small communities. With the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), SEI will further examine poverty and gender related aspects in water planning and sanitation in a three-year project that aims to inform environmentally sustainable policies and improve the livelihood of all people.

Paulino Chavez, former leader of the Organization of Irrigators of Marquina (2015-2017), explains Marquina’s current agricultural challenges. Video: Lina Terrazas / SEI, YouTube.


This story was written by Emily Yehle and is based on analysis by SEI senior scientists Laura Forni and Marisa Escobar and local consultant Lina Gabriela Terrazas Villarroel. Terrazas Villarroel also produced the video and many of the photos featured in this story.

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