How a neighbourhood tackled the pollution crisis in the River Rocha in Bolivia

“We never imagined building this waste water treatment plant would have such a social impact” 

Aldo Orellana López
23 April 2018
Photo courtesy of the Fundación Abril.

Photo courtesy of the Fundación Abril.

At 70 kilometres long, the Rocha is the longest river running through the Cochabamba valley. Until the mid-twentieth century, its clean water was used to irrigate crops and the riverbanks were a popular place for a day out.

Today, the River Rocha is polluted by waste water from homes and industry and rubbish dumped by the seven municipalities it runs through. The river is on course for irreversible deterioration. Five out of ten families in Bolivia are not connected to drainage or adequate treatment systems for waste water, which flows straight into rivers and lakes: 70% of the pollution in the River Rocha is due to untreated waste water.

An environmental audit carried out in 2011 sounded the alarm, issuing a series of recommendations for mitigating the damage, including building at least 11 waste water treatment plants along its course.

The residents of the San Pedro Magisterio neighbourhood, seeing that the government was unable to solve the problem, got organised and campaigned to build a waste water treatment plant for the neighbourhood.

"We built the treatment plant to solve this problem that concerns us all: the pollution of the river."

“We built the treatment plant to solve this problem that concerns us all: the pollution of the river,” explains doña Magui Rodas, vice-president of the San Pedro Magisterio grassroots community organisation. The plant has now been operating for three years. Doña Magui sees it as a way to contribute, in her words, ‘a drop of water’ – to revive Cochabamba’s most important river.

Building the treatment plant

The neighbourhood of San Pedro Magisterio was founded by teachers who built their houses near the hill called San Pedro, giving the neighbourhood its name (‘Magisterio’ means teachers). The residents remember that ever since the neighbourhood was founded in the 1970s, they had to meet all their needs themselves.

“As far as the state is concerned, we don’t exist,” says doña Magui, adding that it was the residents themselves who built the first school, the church and the first roads. Neither did they have a water supply. Every day they faced the arduous task of going to fetch water from springs near the river.

Then they founded a water cooperative, drilled wells and built the basic infrastructure to bring water to their homes. The funding to solve all these problems came from contributions made by the community, who also did all the work themselves.

As the years went by, the community started to be affected by a new problem: the pollution of the River Rocha. Doña Magui says that for the authorities, “it was easier to shirk responsibility for the problem by blaming other people.”

The visible pollution and foul smells coming from the river drove the community to find a solution. “We agreed to see how we could build our own treatment plant to solve the problem that should have been sorted out by the municipal government,” says doña Magui.

After looking into different alternatives, in 2014 they finally managed to establish a partnership with the Platform for Public-Community Agreements, Fundación Abril and the CeVI volunteers organisation. This provided the technical and financial support required to build a plant that would meet all the environmental standards and technical and legal specifications.

This was a challenge for a single neighbourhood, but not impossible for a community that had learned to manage everything themselves and had always found a way to meet their basic needs.

The water treatment plant as seen from above. Credit: Aldo Orellana López. The engineer Francisco Guardia, a recognised face in the neighbourhood, was given the task of designing and supervising the construction of the plant. “For me personally, it is a pleasure to come to this neighbourhood because the plant is my wawa,” says Guardia, using the Quechua word for “baby.”

“It certainly wasn’t easy,” says the engineer, remembering the long list of technical and legal specifications they had to conform to for the approval of the authorities. But the community refused to allow the bureaucrats to stop their project going ahead. They managed to overcome all the obstacles, and the construction work proceeded. Many of the residents who contributed to this project from its earliest days feel a personal attachment to it.

The anaerobic treatment plant, explains Guardia, a twentieth-century technology that works very well for relatively small communities, was designed for a population of 2,600, but will be able to cope with a projected 4,000 in ten years’ time.

The waste water passes through the plant for an initial treatment and then runs out into a field of totora, a native type of reed able to absorb organic matter, before running into the River Rocha. The community planted 500 of these reeds themselves to set up the system.

Doña Magui reports that they are now trying to replace the totora plants with arum lilies, “We’re introducing lilies because they perform the same function as the totora and it will also help us to keep the treatment plant going, because we’ll be able to sell the lilies and earn a bit of income”.

Acts of reciprocity

The plant was officially opened on the morning of 11 April 2015 in traditional Bolivian style, with music, food and festivities. Of course, it would not have been complete without the ch´alla, a community ritual that involves drinking chicha – a drink made of fermented maize, long a feature of Andean culture – and pouring it onto the newly built structure. It is a way to express the wish that everything will go according to plan.

"For many of us, building this treatment plant gave us back the energy we had 15 years ago [during the Water War]."

“We’re contributing our little grain of sand, or rather our drop of clean water into our river, so that it will come back to life... and once again share our lives with us,” said the Fundación Abril representative, Óscar Olivera, in an emotional speech.

The opening ceremony was held on the 15th anniversary of the “Water War,” when the people of Cochabamba rose up in protest against water privatisation in 2000. At that time, Olivera was a leader of the factory workers’ union and spokesman for the Coordinating Committee for the Defence of Water and Life, a coalition of community organisations that managed to reverse the privatisation process and take water and sanitation services back from the US transnational corporation Bechtel.

“For many of us, building this treatment plant gave us back the energy we had 15 years ago. It’s given us back the hope that it is possible to build systems that can improve our quality of life, and do it collectively,” Olivera ended by saying. 

A mural painted on the wall of the plant was also unveiled at the ceremony, by international artist Mona Caron. “I’ve tried to make a small contribution to this very inspiring community effort,” she said at the opening. The commissioned mural shows people trying to save the River Rocha, which is also known as Mailanku, by diverting the flow of waste water that used to run straight into the river, and sending it to the treatment plant.

“All these things coming together mean that the water now goes through this treatment plant which purifies it and returns it to the River Mailanku in an act of reciprocity,” she declared.

The mural painted by Mona Caron in honour of the community. Credit: Aldo Orellana LópezEfficiency, management and sustainability of the treatment plant

According to Guardia, the San Pedro Magisterio neighbourhood treatment plant is more than 90% efficient in meeting the standards required by law. Agustín Sangueza, resident of the neighbourhood, says “At last, the smell that used to come from the place where waste water drained into the River Rocha has been reduced significantly, by 80% or more.”

Doña Magui points out the residents are also using the drains more appropriately. “I’m seeing that people are no longer flushing plastic bags or fabric down the drain, because they know it could stop the plant working properly. I think attitudes have changed in the community – people are more careful about what they do with water so it can be treated and then re-used […] For us it’s important to be able to re-use water,” she adds.

Indeed the alternative is that the treated water is sent back into the river, where it once again gets mixed up with untreated waste water, “So all this work is in vain.” This is why it is so important “to complete the water cycle so it can be re-used”, doña Magui concludes. The idea is for the treated water to be re-used to irrigate green areas and even the vegetables in the school allotment next door to the treatment plant.

However, as Guardia points out, “this water isn’t yet good enough for watering vegetables.” He explains that in order to achieve that goal, a supplementary tank will have to be built for the water to be purified for watering vegetables. He describes the whole process as “a social cycle involving the community, the school, and everyone else around the treatment plant, whereby they participate in recycling and that will nurture life.”

The neighbourhood’s Water Cooperative is responsible for the management and maintenance of the treatment plant. Through its organisation and oversight arrangements, the cooperative sets tariffs and keeps the water systems going technically and financially, supervising the whole with people taking turns to play different roles on a voluntary basis. Regular assembly meetings are held where the accounts are presented. According to doña Magui, every family in the neighbourhood makes a contribution of 10 bolivianos (1.4 US dollars) per month for the maintenance of the treatment plant.

"We never imagined building this waste water treatment plant would have such a social impact."

Abel Lizarazu, an engineer in charge of monitoring the plant, has lived in the neighbourhood for many years. For him, the key to its sustainability is financial support so that the technical services required for the plant to operate can be contracted: “I’d say that a basic factor in sustainability is firstly our cooperative’s commitment to continue financing the plant… as members of the cooperative, we all pay for this service. A second factor is technical knowledge of how the plant operates and the monitoring that needs to be done”.

Guardia adds that these are all reasons why the neighbourhood’s treatment plant has become a model of efficiency that could be replicated in other communities along the River Rocha. “Cochabamba does not have much land available for building large-scale treatment plants and we need to be thinking about other types of facilities, other kinds of technology that require less space,” he explains.

Sangueza agrees. “We never imagined building this waste water treatment plant would have such a social impact,” he remarks, adding that many national and international institutions are visiting the plant to see how it works and how it is managed, so that it can serve as a model for the implementation of other similar projects.

The importance of organisation and participation

Inauguration of the water treatment plant in April 2015. Oscar Olivera from the Fundación Abril holds the vase. Credit: Aldo Orellana López. “What really gave us the momentum was when you had your assembly meetings and you said yes to the plant… to keep water as a common good, to keep open the possibility for people to continue managing their water themselves… with all the difficulties and constraints that that entails,” Óscar Olivera tells the community, stressing the importance of organisation and participation in the community management of common goods like water and basic services like sanitation.

Guardia takes the point, “…for me that’s the most important lesson: to organise for the sake of the common good. I think that’s the most gratifying thing this work has given me”.

Doña Magui says that the community still has other projects to work on, such as creating green spaces for older people and children and building a new office for the Water Cooperative. Thinking about everything they have been able to achieve in the neighbourhood by working together as a community, she reflects: “I think that’s always been the way we do things… we’ve always contributed our drop of water.”

What lessons can we learn from these particular projects? Have you been involved in something similar that you could tell us about? Do you know someone who has? Do please join us in comments space below, and help us build and network the knowledge.

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