By Kate Fogelberg
Many years ago, a colleague told me that rural water systems in Bolivia would never be metered. At the time, not a single system supported with Water For People funds included micro- or macro-metering and it seemed to be an uphill battle. As a reminder, Cochabamba, Bolivia, was home to one of the most well-known protests against the concession of the country's third-largest city's water system to a foreign company. In the popular discourse, meters became synonymous with privatization. But in Bolivia, and Cochabamba in particular, the effects of global warming have exacerbated an already dry climate, putting more stress on an already fragile ecosystem. The story of how hundreds of communities have come to see meters not as a tool of privatization but of equity and conservation started not with persuasion or conditionality, but reflections from the people who manage the day-to-day challenges of rural water systems.
One of the first water systems I visited after joining Water For People in 2006 was in the rural community of Salinas, a few hours outside of Cochabamba. A dynamic professor named Mario Rodriguez Acuna was the president of the water system, which consisted of groundwater pumped to an elevated storage tank and distributed to nearly 60 families. The original construction in 2005 did not include meters but after a few months the pump was over-used and needed to be replaced. Mario thought that some people were using the water for other purposes and proposed using meters to promote a culture of water conservation and a more equitable payment scheme since a single widow who used water only for herself was paying the same amount as a farmer irrigating his potatoes. Not only did they purchase that replacement pump themselves, but Mario convinced users to install household meters to ensure that they wouldn't have to replace the $1,200 pump so frequently. Fast forward to 2013, and the system has expanded to over 70 households, all of whom pay based on what they actually use. More impressive than an island of success, however, is the fact that nearly all of the 40 communities in Villa Rivero with household connections have meters.
A similar phenomenon took place in the community of Condor Q'hochi in the neighboring municipality of Cuchumuela. A water system installed in 2007 relies on groundwater and uses an electric pump to lift the water to a storage tank for the 31 families of Condor Q'hochi. Dona Cinda, president of the water committee, got fed up with the unequal distribution of water; families who lived in certain areas would go for days without water because of overuse by families in other areas. Dona Cinda thought meters might provide the answer and convinced the users and the local government to co-finance the cost of installing meters at each household. Not only has this resulted in less water use, more people have been able to connect to the system as the quantity of water provided before was not thought to be enough to accommodate more users. To encourage rational use of water in this water-scarce region, they have introduced a graduated tariff whereby users pay five Bolivianos (about $.75) for the first five cubic meters. However if somebody uses more than five cubic meters the tariff increases by one Boliviano per cubic meter.
The water users of Condor Q'hochi are not the only users paying for what they actually use. Because of the efforts of Dona Cinda, and the ensuing exchange visits from other communities, every piped system in Cuchumuela also includes household meters. Political will for something as politicized as water is paramount to the success of introducing household meters. The mayor of Cuchumuela, Oscar Terrezas, credits the inclusion of meters as a key component to improving the overall level of service that the rural water systems provide.
Another example is the peri-urban district 9 of Cochabamba that lies beyond the long range service plans of the municipal water utility. Lack of access to water doesn't stop people from migrating there; it's estimated that Cochabamba is growing at 10% a year, which means the city of over one million people adds another 100,000 inhabitants each year.
In the absence of connection to the municipal system, families must rely on water trucks, which charge anywhere from seven to 10 times what wealthier people with municipal connections pay. Surface water sources are practically non-existent in the dry hills outside of the city and groundwater sources are saline more often than not. An innovative intermediate solution has come about from collaboration between local government, neighborhood associations, and Water For People. Government funds a storage tank, Water For People supports the distribution network and training, and the households pay for all of the materials for their connection. Always looking toward the future, no water system is built without approval of the municipal authority, so that one day if the system does include these rapidly growing areas, they will be able to connect directly to the main pipeline. One of the key elements of that approval is the inclusion of meters, which according to Norman Villa, President of the Palka Orku Water Committee, "helps us managers do our job of collecting tariffs and ensuring that our water service is sustainable."
Through these organic experiences, Water For People has facilitated many learning visits among other communities and another municipalities so that today in all piped systems, meters are as accepted as part of the system as the pipes themselves-a reality many thought would be impossible in Bolivia. New systems are not built without meters and a process of retrofitting existing systems with meters is underway. It's also worth noting that meters also stimulate economic development, creating markets for meter manufacturers and also new employment for people that need to read, record, and verify the information collected from metering. Where once there were no meters, there are now nearly 120 rural metering systems and 15 peri-urban systems that have paid meter-readers. That number will grow in time as metering becomes more widely adopted.
Meters matter, make sense, and will only become more critical to permanent water services as populations expand and water resources dwindle. At an average cost of $50 per meter and concrete protection box-or $10/per capita in the Bolivian context- including meters does increase the initial capital construction costs. So while I'll never say $25 will provide safe water for somebody for life, you might start to hear me saying an extra $10 per Bolivian promotes equity, service professionalization, and water conservation.