Community-led response to water pollution crisis
Fundación Abril/Platform for public community partnerships (PAPC)
An estimated 52% of Bolivia’s population have no access to sanitation and 80% of wastewater is not treated before re-entering the environment. The Water and Sanitation for All project aimed to guarantee the right to sanitation in the San Pedro Magisterio neighbourhood by successfully building and running a wastewater treatment plant and strengthening community management of the entire water cycle through the neighbourhood’s Cooperativa de Agua San Pedro Magisterio.
Pollution in Cochabamba’s river reached such high levels in 2012 that the government declared it an “environmental disaster”. The Water and Sanitation for All project was born from a demand and a request from a community: the San Pedro Magisterio cooperative felt the need to treat domestic wastewater in its area to avoid polluting the Rocha River and the environment.
Assemblies with all cooperative members were held to discuss the technical design of the water treatment plant, improvements to domestic use of the sewerage system, and the introduction of a new tariff structure guaranteeing the system’s economic sustainability – all of which encouraged the community to take ownership of the initiative. The cooperative committed to taking on the running of the treatment plant once built, and environmental awareness activities were held in the local school.
But it was not all plain sailing. The municipality, through its water operator, attempted to sabotage the project, criticizing the technical design of the plant and refusing to issue the environmental permits required to execute the project. It also tried to divide the community.
But the community’s unity and determination overcame this, challenging the state-municipal authorities by defending their right to manage water as a community, establishing alliances (with other neighbourhoods and public servants) to resist political pressure, and strengthening their participatory and transparent internal decision-making mechanisms. The project is now responsible for treating the wastewater from 300 families, and for improvements to the hygiene and sanitary conditions in the San Pedro neighbourhood.
"The collective (community-based) management of the basic public service is certainly transformative and inspiring, and it deserves worldwide attention. It has the potential of redefining the meaning of “public” as truly commons/common goods."
- Evaluator Lorena Zarate