Interview with Abel Mamani, Bolivia’s Minister of Water

In this interview Abel Mamani outlines his hopes and the challenges his Ministry will face. He explains that the Bolivian Government’s policies on water will be based on the understanding that Water is a human right and must be managed by the state and the community.

Q. What were the reasons for the struggle against water privatisation that you led as head of the Federation of Residential Neighbourhoods (FEJUVE) in El Alto?

In 2004, I was elected President of FEJUVE, but before was your average resident who did not know much of what was happening beyond my small neighbourhood in El Alto.

However once I was elected leader, I started to find out about the city and the needs of its people especially their needs related to drinking water and sewerage facilities. This is one of the most urgent needs because it is fundamental for daily life wherever you are in the world.

In El Alto we have more than 200,000 people without drinking water, which is terrible for a city. In the provinces and countryside you can find sources of abastecimiento, but in urban areas it’s much more difficult.

In El Alto we are close to a million habitants, the city has 6% growth rate annually as a result of migration to the city. We need to recognize that yes we need work and development, but first of all we need to ensure that the population has basic services, otherwise the city doesn’t work.,

Q. What were the main reasons for the protests against Aguas del Illimani (AISA), the private contractor that provides water services at the moment?

I had very little contact with Aguas del Illimani when I was a social movement leader, but now as a government official I meet with them much more directly. The company has committed various irregularities in the cities of El Alto and La Paz such as the failure to comply with the contract in terms extending the network of water and sewerage in El Alto as well as the their imposed increase in rates for water connections in complicity with Superintendents of Water.

In the role of Minister, I have initiated a legal process against two ex-Superintendents because I believe they acted against the rights of residents.

Even more serious is the environmental contamination, principally in La Paz which is the direct responsibility of AISA. This week we have put together a commission, made up of authorities, municipalities, and communities which will visit all the areas where the company caused environmental contamination including Lake Titicaca.

Q. What were the Government’s attitudes on water and sanitation when you were a social movement leader?

Former authorities used to hide themselves in their offices without worrying about what was happening on the ground. The attitude of this government is different. Authorities now know about the problems from experience and are therefore able to assist and understand the people.

The governments of the right in the past were completely insensitive and as a result there were huge levels of confrontation and a permanent level of mobilization and disruption. I think that the opposite is true now.

Q. Why is a Ministry of Water so important?

Water is a resource that is essential for life and will be a key resource for every country in the future. We want to give a message and an example to the other countries in Latin America that they must take care of this vital element. We are going to the Fourth World Water Forum with one proposal: that water is declared a human right and that it must be managed by public entities; that will be the position of Bolivia.

Q. What are the goals of the Ministry of Water?

We have long, medium and short-term goals as well as emergency plans. The most important priority is basic sanitation, but of course we have to work in stages. I can’t say that we can resolve all the problems this year.

But in the short-term we have declared El Alto and Cochabamba as places of emergency, cities that suffer a chronic lack of water and sewerage coverage. For them we have prepared measures for immediate implementation and projects for each district.

There are also large-scale projects to provide water and sewerage to residents, to resolve the problem of rain sewerage that results from floods.

In addition it will be crucial to develop projects together that examine treatment plants of residual waste and as well as the situation of water reservoirs. Although AISA chooses to say nothing, we know that there are water supply problems and that they are rationing water by playing with water pressure in different areas. These are serious issues, and the population of La Paz will be those who will suffer the consequences. It’s therefore vital to take action now.

Q. And your plans for the next 10 to 15 years?

The three Vice-Ministers that are based in the Ministry are developing plans for the long-term at the moment. Nevertheless, I believe that the Ministry needs to respond to the needs of the populations of the large and medium cities and at the very least deliver drinking water and sewerage.

In terms of irrigation, we hope to invest roughly 200 million dollars in studies, projects and delivery. The plan is to extend irrigation to the Altiplano (the high planes). Whilst there are many projects for the East and the valleys of Bolivia, we forget the high planes that also need irrigation.

The Vice-Minister of reservoirs is looking to resolve the problems of environmental contamination of Lake Titicaca and River Pilcomayo, which are serious due to mining waste. There are no longer fish in these reservoirs and the people suffer gastro-intestinal disorders and even cancer. I believe that that by the end of this month we will have identified the problems and then will have to decide the priorities for each sector: reservoirs, contamination, irrigation and basic sanitation.

Q. And the main challenge for the Ministry of Water?

We have to resolve the problem of AISA by the end of this month. The company will leave, but the harder issue is reaching a consensus on how the new utility will differ from the existing one.

Q. What type of company do you want?

We are reaching consensus that it must be a public social company.

Q. ¿What financial decisions are you taking to help this company succeed?

The theme of financing is a serious one. Sadly, whilst the international aid community, the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and others support the country with donations and loans, they continue to impose conditions that are not good. The international community lends money that you have to pay back with interest, so they should not condition its use; we have to decide for ourselves. I believe that international donors have not acted well up to now and set unjustified limits on the use of money, for example by deciding who should carry out studies and consultancies.

Q. The international aid community insists that private companies are the only utilities that can successfully meet the water needs of the poor. You disagree. Why?

Because private companies fail; their policies don’t work, at least not in the area of basic services. Water needs to be understood as a human right, you can’t treat the resource like a commodity because it is like removing oxygen from the poor. You can manage without electricity, a job, but you can’t survive without water. I see it from this point of view.

Q. How will you ensure that the new authorities don’t act like the former ones distant from the reality and instead respond to the demands of social movements?

The first thing I have learnt is we need to take decisions, that’s why AISA will have to go and the Government will have to support us. Nevertheless, it is important to act responsibly and reach a consensus with all sectors to build a new model of a public company. We have already made significant progress on this task.

Q. Is it really possible to build a successful public company?

It is definitely possible as long as we structure and prepare it well. Before we used to have a public company, The Municipal Autonomous Authority of Drinking Water and Sewerage (SAMAPA) but it failed because the political class corrupted it, there were no forms of control, it was a political piggy-bank and people robbed it.

What we are looking to build now is a company that involves the participation not only of social organizations – because civic leaders can also commit the same mistakes – but also those who are the real owners of former Samapa, that is the residents who paid from their own pocket to have water connections. We need control from the community via representatives who have been selected transparently and not just the participation of mayors.

In the former SAMAPA, the mayor was automatically President and that is where corruption started. We need a public assembly to create a management of a public enterprise. We need to build it in such a way that no-one can take advantage of its funds. The profits must be reinvested in the improvement of the company. We want transparency based on strong social control.

The Government will ensure this happens, but it will need participation by the community. I know it won’t be easy, but it can be done.

This interview first appeared in Nick Buxton lives in La Paz, Bolivia and writes Open Veins, a blog on life, politics and friendships from Bolivia. Photo is from