Science helps to calm water conflicts

Cutting-edge computer modelling and consultation with local communities allowed Bolivia’s Agua Sustentable to find political solutions to potentially disastrous clashes over water.

Cutting-edge computer modelling and consultation with local communities allowed Bolivia’s Agua Sustentable to find political solutions to potentially disastrous clashes over water.

Within Bolivia, the International Development Research Centre supported research organization supplied the science underlying a 2004 national water law that helped end the country’s violent “water wars.”

More recently, Agua Sustentable used the same tools to broker a deal between Bolivia and Peru. In October 2010, the presidents of the neighbouring countries signed an accord addressing Peru’s controversial plans to divert water from the Mauri River. And with this agreement, they signalled their “strong determination to solve the problem by means of science,” says Agua Sustentable executive director Juan Carlos Alurralde.

Examining traditional rights

The story begins in 1999, when Bolivia privatized water delivery in the city of Cochabamba. Bolivians took to the streets, furious that the move caused sharp increases in water rates and ignored the customary water rights of peasants and indigenous people.

By 2000, blockades and sometimes-lethal rioting had led to full-scale political crisis. The government decided to scrap the privatization scheme and announced public consultations on the creation of a new water-management law.

This was a silver lining for Agua Sustentable, which believed that providing solid data on the fairness and efficiency of competing water delivery models could inspire public confidence in the process and lead to a better law.

Computer-assisted policy-making

Agua Sustentable consulted widely, including with the indigenous farmers who for centuries have used the river to irrigate their arid lands. The researchers fed information on water use and environmental conditions into a Danish hydrological computer model known as “Mike Basin.” This produced mathematical models of water supply and demand that showed, among other things, the efficiency of traditional water distribution methods. Traditional water rights were subsequently incorporated into a new irrigation-water law, and in 2006, a Ministry of Water was created.

Today, says Alurralde (known as Oso Andino), having a functional, publicly accepted irrigation-water law and a new institutional context has led to an unprecedented level of investment in irrigation and drinking water systems and wastewater treatment plants in Bolivia.

It also provided a model for defusing potentially grave international conflicts over water. Case in point: a looming diplomatic dispute centred on the use of the Mauri River.

Onto the international stage

Flowing through Bolivia’s low-rainfall Altiplano region, the Mauri “is a source of life for more than 70 highland communities,” Alurralde says. But local leaders in Tacna, Peru, didn’t see it that way. They wanted to divert water from the Mauri basin to their own desert area, to supply new mines and proposed agricultural exports.

“They believed that there is an excess of water on the Altiplano and that water was lost in Bolivia,” he says.

Once again, solid evidence on water use collected by Agua Sustentable took centre stage. When the data was fed into “Mike Basin,” the simulation program demonstrated that water resources were already stretched to meet existing needs. And so, Agua Sustentable was able to persuade Bolivian politicians of the need to protect the resource and to launch urgent negotiations with Peru.

Then, when Peruvian officials recognized the problem and became convinced the research was valid, federal officials in both countries forged an agreement: No diversion would take place without scientific support and the agreement of both countries.

Enduring solutions

Since then, a binational commission has been struck, and hydrometrical stations, also supported by IDRC, will monitor how much water flows across the border.

“These stations will transmit the information by satellite to both governments, which increases transparency,” Alurralde says. Peru and Bolivia have also agreed on deadlines for producing data on how much water can be safely used by each country.

If the water had been diverted as planned, “at least one-third of the highlands of Bolivia would not have had enough water to survive,” Alurralde says. Instead, a new form of co-operation – based on science – now provides a promising model for resolving international water disputes.


“Fifty or 100 years ago, when international water agreements were signed, there were not many mathematical or computational tools. Today it’s easier – and crucial – to simulate different situations. Together with Peru, Bolivia asked, ‘What happens in a very dry year? How are we going to share water?’ It’s possible to simulate what will happen in the whole system if you build a new dam or new pumping stations in the upper catchment. With the help of science and these models, it’s easier to build a fair agreement.”

— Juan Carlos Alurralde (Oso Andino), Executive Director, Agua Sustentable

Published: 15 Dec 2010

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