Agua Sustentable


Community leaders

Calming the Waters

By Jen Moore

The very nature of water demands that it be managed by consensus, says Cintya Vargas from the Bolivian NGO ‘Agua Sustentable’ or ‘Sustainable Water’ in English.

It flows from one place to the next, she explains, her fingers tracing the path of a winding river, and ignores people, property divisions and even international boundaries.


The necessity to seek mutually agreeable solutions that water users can live with both upstream and downstream, Cintya says, is a lesson she has been taught over a decade of struggle against water privatization and in favour of the human right to water in this landlocked South American nation.

In 2000, during a fight against the multinational giant Bechtel in the city of Cochabamba, one young man was killed and over 100 more injured as people fought to keep their water system public. This demonstrates that although consensus might seem like a self-evident way to approach water management, it is not always so when big interests are at stake.

In order to help reach consensus in such difficult situations, Agua Sustentable has developed a scientific approach that has earned them a strong reputation, including the prestigious Latin America and Carribean Water Award, PLACA, in 2009.

The NGO’s mathematical model for mapping water rights first proved itself in 2004 when Agua Sustentable helped facilitate passage of a new irrigation law that recognizes traditional customs and uses. It was the first successful legislative amendment in the water sector in nearly a hundred years and shot down a privatization scheme that the Bolivian government had originally proposed.

Now, they hope to apply a similar strategy at the diplomatic level.

Juan Carlos Alurralde, known as the Andean Bear to friends, sees it as a natural progression for their organization. Many watersheds are international, he says, stating that he believes there is no better tool to facilitate discussion and debate than well-founded research.

He is convinced that the same tool they used to determine that traditional practices were more equitable than privatization in terms of domestic water management might also help resolve disputes over international watersheds.

This isn’t politics, it’s science, says Alurralde.

One of several cases they are currently studying is that of the Mauri River.

Ninety percent of the Mauri’s headwaters are located in southern Peru, which flow into Bolivia where  the Mauri sustains wetlands crucial to farmers.

Now, Peru’s most southerly department of Tacna and also the driest, says Alurralde, wants to divert significant amounts of water to serve its coastal population and bolster production. But three years of research by Agua Sustentable with support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, show that greater output in Peru could be detrimental downstream.

Agua Sustentable took their findings to affected communities who formed a committee of water users that now plays an active role pressuring the Bolivian government to address the Mauri. They want to avoid a repeat experience that peasant farmers faced several decades ago when the Uchusuma River was diverted and over 500 hectares of high pastureland dried up. Communities were left without their traditional form of sustentance and, without compensation, they migrated away.

Fortunately, today, they are seeing positive signs that a resolution could be reached.

Last July, the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Bolivia and Peru put the Mauri River on their agenda reactivating a binational commission to study the issue. In an early triumph, Juan Carlos smiles when he says that the commission decided to use Agua Sustentable’s mathematical model to help them further investigate and eventually arrive at a settlement.

Cintya is encouraged too, sharing the hope that the two countries are on the road now to a consensual agreement and a reasoned outcome that will consider both water users and the ecosystems over which the Mauri runs its course.

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