I awoke to gunshots, screams, and general chaos in the city of Cochabamba. On Saturday morning, I walked outside to see police guarding the street above me. People were running in a state of panic. Fortunately I soon realized they were actors, and the chaos I was witnessing was a mere filmed reenactment of the Cochabamba water rebellion of 2000.
As a Water Resources graduate student, I took part in many debates regarding the appropriateness of privatization in the water sector, and opponents would almost always cite Cochabamba, Bolivia as reason for why privatizing water services does not work. In 2000, a conditionality to a World Bank $25 million dollar loan required all water systems to be privatized in Bolivia. The foreign-owned company Aguas del Tunari soon took over Cochabamba’s network, and oblivious to local economics, jacked up the prices of monthly water to 30% of the average worker’s salary. Protests were inevitable, and hundreds were injured. Water rights were eventually turned over, but with lack of formal structure, poor neighborhoods are still overcharged for this basic need to live.
It is only a coincidence, however, that I arrive here some 16 months after acquiring my degree, ready to spend a week evaluating rural water quality as part of Water Corps for the U.S.-based NGO, Water For People (WFP). Non-missionary-based water NGOs are quite scare and WFP is one of more reputable ones, and perhaps the largest too. Their mission is to assist community-led water projects in low-income countries, including India, Malawi, Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Rwanda. All water corps volunteers have a career in water and environmental resources/engineering. With just a recent Master’s in Water Resources, I barely made the cut, and as a traveler, I was depending on the other nine volunteers to bring donated equipment and expertise from their mega labs up north.
After a quick orientation to all of the water testing equipment, Robert, a water treatment specialist from Chicago, and I quickly packaged one hundred pounds of gear, and headed to the airport, bound for Santa Cruz. We were to venture out to the small town of Montero, and start a monitoring survey in the area of San Pedro. Upon landing, I soon realized the eastern lowlands of Bolivia had a different feel from the highland living in La Paz and the rest of the country. As we left the city, buildings gave way to palm trees, and I felt more like I was in Brazil than in Bolivia. In stark contrast with the indigenous dress I was used to in the highlands, children here wore high shorts, and young ladies didn’t wear much at all. It was time to shed the down parka.
We soon arrived in the town of Montero, met Claudia, a doctor who works for rural health programs, and she directed us to the office kitchen, where we would set up our lab for the week. We walked in the heat to our hotel, some 20 blocks away, amid the stares of local youth who apparently had not seen many gringos in their day. We later met John for dinner out at a classic barilla, a customary barbecue typical of South America’s southern countries. And on our way home we got picked up by some local women in their Jeep Cherokee, and cruised around town, one of the few exciting things for the local youth in Montero. The driver’s 11-year-old sister straddled the console upfront, and played DJ until the wee hours of the morning. After our seventh lap around the city park (and their seventh hail Mary as we passed the plaza church), we deemed it time to go home to get some sleep for whatever tomorrow had in store for us.
The next four days of volunteering for WFP turned out to be a classic road trip around eastern Bolivia, visiting the small communities of rural San Pedro and taking water samples. We spent six hours a day by car, listening to latin music, and having dance parties in the cab of the truck, joined by other health care workers who were along to learn how to use our equipment. We’d return late, do lab analysis, and then go out for another late-night barbecue. And then get up at 7 the next morning and repeat the same thing. I could do this type of work for the rest of my life!
Our mission was to set up a water monitoring program for the local communities, and to pass the equipment and instruction onto local workers. We took baseline measurements for temperature, pH, chlorine, nitrates, nitrites, e coli, and non-fecal bacteria. However what these communities really need is a fluoride monitoring program. A little fluoride in water is healthy, but too much will actually cause tooth decay. This has been the case in these communities, and we hope to have fluoride meters there soon.
A measurement of E. coli (fecal) bacteria in the water supply is probably the most critical indicator of water health. From each sample, we pushed 100 ml of water through a filter, and incubated the leftover bacteria for 24 hours. Visible E. coli colonies were indicated by blue dots which can then be counted. Bolivian standards show that just one colony per 100 ml of tap water is deemed unsafe. In the states, such a recording would initiate a water emergency in most municipalities. In a few towns, tank samples had E. coli counts greater than 200 (too many to count).
Perhaps the most difficult part of this job was reporting back to the communities the results of their contaminated water tanks. In one particular scenario, I presented a powerpoint presentation to the man in charge of water for his small community, with many neighbors looking on. He became quite defensive of his cleaning methods, probably out of embarrassment, and I realized that it was a mistake to make a presentation in front of his friends. I will never present negative results in this manner again. But the consistent problem that we saw in water contamination in San Pedro, and also near Cochabamba, was the that contamination started in the tanks. Fluoride aside, the groundwater was completely healthy, and fecal bacteria developed between the wells and the homes. We’re never discovered what was at fault, but as long as the community would accept a chlorinated taste in their water, it was an easy problem to fix.
On the morning of my 31st birthday, Robert and I left our equipment, said farewell to the good friends we made in Montero, and flew back to Cochabamba. Hoping to return on next year’s phase, I haven’t forgotten about the communities around Santa Cruz, images of rotting teeth, nor the curious faces of the children who wanted to play with our water quality kits, and hopefully one day use them for real.