Giving Thanks for Water Access and Sanitation in Bolivia

By George Devendorf,

Bolivia water

Village kids drinking at the new water standpipe in front of Felipa’s home. Photo courtesy George Devendorf/CRS

As our conga line began to snake its way across the village soccer field for a second time, I came to understand just how much the people of Yanamuyo Bajo appreciated gaining access to clean water and hygienic bathrooms. Celebrating the completion of a project designed to improve health and sanitation conditions in this small, remote village in the Bolivian Andes, the entire village had turned out to dance, eat, give thanks, and dance some more. Joining in the festivities along with representatives from CRS and its local partner, Cáritas Diócesis de El Alto (PASOCDEA), I found the experience both unforgettable and – thanks to the almost 13,000 foot elevation – breathtaking.

Just before taking my hand and launching us into the middle of a whirling mass of dancing villagers, Felipa Kantuta had proudly showed me the latest additions to the yard in front of her family’s modest, three-room home: a fresh water standpipe and an outhouse complete with both toilet and shower facilities. Simple in design, these basic water and sanitation systems represent a quantum leap forward in the aspirations of the people of Yanamuyo Bajo to improve the quality and the health of their lives. With support from CRS and PASOCDEA, and in cooperation with the municipal government, villagers helped construct these systems – and will now take on the responsibility of maintaining them.

For Felipa, who spends her days tending livestock and growing potatoes to provide for her family, the difference this project is making in the lives of the villagers is as clear as the mid-October sun that was baking the area’s tree-less, arid landscape that afternoon.

“We used to have to walk two kilometers to reach the nearest river where we could collect water,” she told me with a weary look on her face. Even with the help of donkeys to haul the river water back, the villagers were often disappointed with the results. According to Felipa, the water from the river, which was often covered by algea, “usually had a strong odor to it.” Pointing to the standpipe located right beside us in her front yard, she told me “but now, whenever we need water, we can find it right here. We owe our thanks to CRS and Caritas for making this possible.”

Moments earlier, as the ribbon was being cut on Felipa’s new standpipe, CRS water engineer Alberto Chavez reminded me of an inescapable fact of development efforts: while new facilities like these are desperately needed, they only represent part of the solution. With this in mind, CRS and Caritas worked with the people of Yanamuyo Bajo to establish and train water committees composed of villagers who will oversee the operation and maintenance of the water system going forward. And to ensure that the system is not be abused and that funds are available to service it when necessary, the water committee will collect user fees from each family. By empowering and equipping villagers to take responsibility for the upkeep of their water system, the project should enable the residents of Yanamuyo Bajo to fully benefit from this vital shared resource for years to come.

Felipa then showed me her family’s new outhouse, a whitewashed structure that houses a state of the art, ecological latrine on one side and a simple shower room on the other. In the past, villagers used a handful of communal pit latrines, usually several families to a pit, spread out around the village. I had a chance to see one of these: roofless and open on one end, the old latrines were surrounded by three-foot high walls of mud brick that offered only the barest protection from the elements – no small matter when you live on the wind-swept Altiplano, a gorgeous but often inhospitable region that represents the most extensive area of high plateau on the planet outside of Tibet.

Felipa’s new ecological toilet, fully enclosed and with internal lighting, not only affords her family a greater degree of dignity, but also allows for urine and feces to be disposed of separately – a process essential to minimizing foul odors and, more importantly, the presence of mosquitos. And by storing feces in a separate container from urine, these ecological toilets also allow the villagers to use it to help improve agricultural productivity in their farmlands.

In speaking to Felipa and others in the village, I came to understand how relatively simple improvements like clear water and bathrooms could make a real and lasting difference in rural communities like Yanamuyo Bajo. For Felipa, and for nearly a 50 other families being assisted by this same project across the Bolivian Altiplano, this was indeed reason to celebrate.

George Devendorf is a free-lance writer based in La Paz, Bolivia

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