Targeting Sanitation in Bolivia

In rural Bolivia, a toilet is seen as a beautiful thing -- a fancy luxury that is much too fine to be used for its intended purpose. Instead toilets might be used to store potatoes or even live chickens. To have a toilet is a status symbol, whether or not it is operational or even outfitted with running water or pipes.

By Abraham Aruquipa -- Country Coordinator, Water For People-Bolivia

As a preview to Expo AIDIS and XXXI Congreso Interamericano de Ingenieria Sanitaria y Ambiental in Santiago, Chile (Oct. 12-15, 2008), we offer the following from Water For People, an independent Denver, Colorado, USA-based non-governmental organization (NGO) spun off from the American Water Works Association.

In rural Bolivia, a toilet is seen as a beautiful thing -- a fancy luxury that is much too fine to be used for its intended purpose. Instead toilets might be used to store potatoes or even live chickens. To have a toilet is a status symbol, whether or not it is operational or even outfitted with running water or pipes. These kinds of attitudes are typical of the special challenges we face in working to improve sanitation in our country.

Four out of every five rural Bolivians don't have access to improved sanitation. This statistic gives Bolivia the unfortunate distinction as one of the few Latin American countries not on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve the percentage of people without access to improved sanitation by 2015.

In the Western Hemisphere, only Haiti has lower sanitation coverage. The sanitation challenges facing Bolivia, and many other countries in Africa and Asia, led to the designation of 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation (IYS), which aims to spread awareness and advocate for investment in improved sanitation worldwide. The five messages of IYS are very clear:

• Sanitation is vital to health.
• Sanitation makes economic sense.
• Sanitation improves social development.
• Sanitation helps the environment.
• Sanitation is achievable.

The International Year of Sanitation was launched in Latin America at the LatinoSan conference in Colombia at the end of 2007. Many promises and declarations were made, and now it's time to put these into action.

Not only is the coverage of sanitation extremely low in Bolivia, but construction of sanitation facilities has not led to their sustained and hygienic use. If we are to make a dent in the huge coverage shortfall, we need to understand the needs, cultural sensitivities, and realities of the people we serve.

For example, we have learned that people feel that the word "latrine" means something for poor people, while a "bathroom" (whether or not the unit has running water or a bathing facility) is something to be proud of. Therefore, when we talk about sanitation work in our country, we use the word baño instead of letrina.

The challenges to improving and sustaining sanitation in Bolivia are several:

Lack of political will to support sanitation projects: Bolivian law emphasizes decentralization of government and stresses that communities should decide how some local government funding is allocated. Many local governments interpret the law to mean that projects must serve communal needs. A water system is seen to be communal, but sanitation is seen as a personal choice, which means there's little local financing available for sanitation.
Social and cultural contexts: Many of Bolivia's indigenous people believe that digging and defecating in the earth is wrong. Mother Earth, or Pachamama, is to be respected, not used as a toilet. Moreover, homes are respected centers of cleanliness. A toilet, or "little house," as it is sometimes viewed, is not to be used for defecation and urination.
Demand: When there is demand for improved sanitation in rural areas, it often comes from families who have migrated to (and returned from) Argentina or Spain, where household water-based plumbing is common. Piped plumbing is seen as the ideal, and other environmentally, technically, and financially feasible systems aren't desired. Bolivians rarely seek improved sanitation systems for perceived health benefits. It's often status and convenience that motivate them to invest in improved sanitation.
Cost: The costs of water and sanitation services are higher in rural Bolivia than many other countries because the population is so dispersed.
Inappropriate technical designs¬: I've seen water-based sanitation systems installed in communities that have no water service. There are water-based toilets with intermittent water supplies, creating an extremely unhygienic situation. Appropriate technology is very important when designing a sanitation program in Bolivia.

Water For People-Bolivia is addressing these challenges in several ways:

Expansion of technical options: This year, we're offering three different sanitation options to communities: an improved pit latrine, a water-based option, and a dry/composting option. Communities can choose the solution that meets their personal preference and financial resources.
Regulations for water-based systems: If a community selects a water-based solution, families must pay a minimum tariff of 5 Bolivianos (US$0.67) per month to ensure they are able to sustain the system. The water system must provide water at least 12 hours each day to ensure there's enough to meet community needs, including water for sanitation.
Incorporation of new sanitation methodologies: People often talk of different sanitation technologies (pit latrines, pour-flush latrines, etc.), but there are also different approaches to sanitation. We participated in the first Latin American Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) workshop last year, and are incorporating some innovative methodologies presented there. CLTS promotes the idea that communities can and should solve their own sanitation issues through reflection and action. The goal is open-defecation-free communities, not just the construction of latrines. Our sanitation programming now begins with a facilitation of community reflection and leads to a discussion of multiple options.
Ecological sanitation: This non-water-based approach to sanitation views human waste as a resource. We have had great success with this approach in the Santa Cruz area, where eco-san toilets were introduced eight years ago in response to constant flooding. Now, we're including ecological sanitation as an option everywhere we work.
Partner training: The 2008 Water For People Ware Fellowship Program is focused on our Bolivian partner organizations and will provide us with the resources to provide more in-depth training on specific sanitation approaches and technologies.

We need to innovate and experiment if we are going to change from a country where 80% of rural inhabitants lack access to adequate sanitation to one where all people have the dignity and health benefits that come with improved sanitary facilities. Our goals are ambitious: We want to serve 4,845 people with improved sanitation this year -- that is 30% more than our target number of people we want to serve with water access.

Join us in this important initiative and help us close the incredible and unjust gap between the sanitation haves and have-nots.

About Water For People
Founded in 1991, Water For People is a non-profit international development organization that supports safe drinking water and sanitation projects in developing countries. It partners with communities and other NGOs to help people improve their quality of life by supporting sustainable drinking water, sanitation and health and hygiene projects. Water For People supports projects with professional development advice, financial support and volunteer technical services. Typical projects include protected spring-fed community water systems, gravity-fed systems, wells with hand pumps, latrine construction, operator training, and hygiene education. The organization is currently working in Latin America, Africa and Asia. In 2007, it supported the provision of safe and sustainable drinking water resources and/or sanitation facilities benefiting more than 108,000 people in the developing world. Contact: or


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