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First impressions: A visit to a vulnerable watershed reveals the need for strong water planning

SEI researchers Felipe Benavides and Jeanne Fernandez reflect on a recent tour of Bolivia’s Tupiza watershed, where residents have “lost everything.”

Felipe Benavides, Jeanne Fernandez / Published on 21 March 2019
Tupiza River, Bolivia

Tupiza River, Bolivia. Photo: Jeanne Fernandez / SEI.

Tupiza lies in the valley of a river that shares its name, surrounded by a landscape that resembles the American West, with mineral-rich red and golden mountains and dramatic rock formations. A few miles away, several villages feed the city, providing corn, potatoes, onions and goat milk.

But when we traveled to this beautiful place in February, we found it reeling from a recent disaster. Torrential rains had caused the river to overflow with tragic results: lost crops, dead livestock, damaged bank protections, and the destruction of water conveyance systems, irrigation canals and the city’s water treatment plant.

“We have lost everything — our crops, our animals, our land, our access to drinking water, and our hope. We are desperate,” Nelly Felipes told us. Nelly is a community leader in Tambillo Alto, one of the villages, and her fears are shared by many, if not all, of the inhabitants of the Tupiza watershed.

We met Nelly at a village meeting, as we began our work on SEI’s Bolivia WATCH project, which aims to assess complex and interrelated watershed and sanitation issues and to assist the country’s institutions in defining comprehensive water management strategies. We expect that, in the long run, this will lead to better planning in the basin.

Destroyed houses in Tupiza watershed from flooding, Bolivia

Floods in the Tupiza watershed have destroyed houses (left) and caused communities to lose agricultural land (right). Photo: Jeanne Fernandez / SEI. Photos: Jeanne Fernandez / SEI.

Agricultural land lost to flood in Tupiza watershed, Bolivia

Agricultural land lost to flood in Tupiza watershed, Bolivia. Photo: Jeanne Fernandez / SEI.

Insights into the watershed

With the support of our project’s main partner, the Ministry of Water and Environment of Bolivia (MMAyA), we started building a strong work network with Tupiza’s local institutions and watershed stakeholders.  For seven days, with their help, we toured the basin, travelling through villages, farmlands, smaller catchments, eroded river banks, water intakes, the destroyed wastewater treatment plant and the few remaining patches of native shrubs and grasslands. Despite the limited monitoring data available, we gained useful insights about the area’s physical characteristics, climate, hydrology, ecology, land use and livelihoods, as well as the ongoing challenges.

For example, we learned that just last year, another high-magnitude flood caused the collapse of 45 houses in the city of Tupiza. On top of punctual floods, the watershed is exposed to severe droughts for most of the year, due to the extreme aridity of the area, combined with rapid land use change. The mountains and soils that make the landscape so striking are highly erodible and permeable, which increases the volume of sediment transported by the river and the risk of land scouring.

If only these were the only problems! But higher upstream, mining has contaminated the river with acid waters and heavy metals. Lead has been found in the blood of the children in several villages, and the Tupiza water utility is currently looking for safer water sources along the Estarca, another river in the basin. But there, too, gold mines have recently started to operate.

Residents at community meeting in Tupiza watershed, Bolivia

Residents at a community meeting in the Tupiza watershed, Bolivia. Photo: Jeanne Fernandez / SEI.

Building tools for the future

Huge concerns emerged during our days in the field and question marks filled our notebooks. How can Tupiza address these water quantity and quality issues? How can we model such a complex hydrological system, as well as link it to poverty and gender matters? What can we do to help institutions improve their decision-making on water resources planning?

But we know we have a toolkit up to the task. We will combine scientific work — such as modeling the watershed in SEI’s Water Evaluation and Planning (WEAP) software — with participative platforms that involve policy-makers and stakeholders in the process. This method, called Robust Decision Support, will enable SEI and MMAyA to prioritize actions and investments in the basin.

All this work will support the Plan Director de Cuenca (Watershed Masterplan) in Tupiza, a guideline that Bolivia has developed to ensure sustainable environmental resources management.

For Nelly Felipes and the inhabitants of the Tupiza watershed, this means that in the future, well-capacitated institutions will have the tools to plan target interventions with positive impacts at both the basin and the population levels.

In March this year, the Bolivia WATCH project was launched with a SEI team mission to La Paz and meetings with the Bolivian Minister of the Environment, city mayors, NGOs, and environmental authorities.

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