Development Roast

Chasing a moving target: 100% coverage of water and sanitation in Bolivia by 2025

By: Lykke E. Andersen*

Last month I participated in a very interesting workshop on water and sanitation in rural Bolivia organized by the Ministry of Environment and Water. I learned from the engineers and sociologists there that things are never as simple as economists tend to think. But as the only economist present, I also tried to teach the engineers and sociologists that things are not as simple as they tend to think.

With the combined insights from engineers, sociologists and economists, I have reached the conclusion that 100% coverage is an elusive target for at least five different reasons:

First, the population growth rate in Bolivia is about 1.5% per year, which means that even if we reach 100% coverage by January 2025, by December the same year there will be almost 200,000 additional people who need water and sanitation.

Second, the population is not only constantly growing, but also constantly moving. More than half of all Bolivian municipalities are losing population due to internal migration (see Map 1 below), while a few dozen municipalities are receiving the vast majority of these migrants. The main receiving municipalities are: Santa Cruz de la Sierra (32,000 migrants per year), El Elto (20,000), Cochabamba (11,000), La Guardia (6,000), Warnes (6,000), Oruro (6,000), Sacaba (6,000), and Tarija (5,000) (1). Close to a million Bolivians will have moved from one municipality to another between now and 2025, and most of them will likely come from the disperse rural communities that the government is currently prioritizing for water and sanitation investments. The most extreme example in the map below is the municipality of Chayanta in the northern part of Potosí. In the five years before the 2012 population census, it lost 29% of its population to migration, despite having just reached 94% coverage of water.

Map 1: Net migration rate, by municipality, 2007-2012 (% of the population who has migrated within the last 5 years)

Source: (1).
Source: (1).

Third, although Bolivia is blessed with abundant water, it is unequally distributed in space and time and we are likely to experience many more events of scarcity and conflicts between irrigation and household water consumption over the next decades. Map 2 below indicates (in red) the provinces that are most likely to first experience water scarcity and conflicts between the need for water for irrigation and the need for water for human consumption, since projected water demand is high compared to net water supply.

Map 2: Projected levels of water scarcity, by province


Source: (2). Note: The projections refer to projected scarcity in 2100, without climate change, but it is a good indication of where scarcity is likely to occur first due to increasing demand.

Fourth, this pattern of scarcity can be further aggravated by climate change and climate variability. We already experienced this in La Paz last year. Due to a strong El Niño event, precipitation was lower than usual, while the ongoing construction boom had steadily increased demand, and for months, large parts of the population in the government city went without water in their taps.

Fifth, and most surprising to me, is the fact that the durability of water and sanitation projects in rural areas is extremely short. Often the systems stop working within a couple of years because some component mal-functions, and nobody has neither the funds, nor the expertise, nor the motivation, to fix the problem. The sustainability of rural systems was widely considered to be the main problem among the participants in the workshop, and the problem implies that few of the rural projects being implemented now will actually still be functioning by 2025. In contrast, urban water and sanitation infrastructure, although twice as expensive per household, has an expected lifetime of several decades. It doesn't last forever, either, and maintenance is absolutely crucial, but the expected lifetime is at least ten times longer than for rural projects.

Given these insights, I would completely rethink the current strategy for water and sanitation in Bolivia. Rather than beginning with the municipalities with the lowest water and sanitation coverage in percentage terms, which tend to be poor, rural municipalities being rapidly abandoned by their own population, I would prioritize the municipalities with the biggest number of households without services, and especially the municipalities at the receiving end of the migration process, as they are the ones with the biggest needs for investments.

The advantage of prioritizing rapidly growing urban areas first, and emptying rural areas last is that we would only have to invest once per family. If we invest in the opposite order, we would likely end up having to invest twice for several hundred thousand households, as the first rural investments would likely have become either abandoned or non-functional by 2025, thus not helping towards the 100% coverage target in 2025.

Since it costs between USD 5 and 10 thousand to provide water and sanitation installations for one household, we would save at least USD 1 billion between now and 2025 simply by changing the order in which we provide these services. That is quite a big return from working with migration instead of against it.

* Senior Researcher at INESAD. The viewpoints expressed in this blog are the responsibility of the author and may not reflect the viewpoints of all members of Fundación INESAD.

(1) Andersen, L. E., Andersen, N., Kornacka, M. y Valdivia, M. (2016) M – Migración. En: Andersen, L. E., Branisa, B. y Canelas, S. eds. El ABC del desarrollo en Bolivia. Fundación INESAD: La Paz – Bolivia, pp. 130-145.
(2) Andersen, L. E. y Jemio, L. C. (2014) La dinámica de cambio climático en Bolivia. Fundación INESAD: La Paz – Bolivia.