The Upside Down World News

"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" - Eduardo Galeano

Water Issues in Bolivia

By Joe Lowe
Peace Corp Worker
Tipa Tipa, Bolivia.

On a blazing day in November the cool water in the canal passes swiftly in glassy ripples. Looking down from the hills above this sliver of concrete holds the only water visible in the parched, treeless landscape. The adjacent farm fields appear like islands surrounded by the barren, orange and rust colored earth. As the topsoil blew away it left only a gravel-like covering of earth that now burns hot with the sun's heat. The water in the canal is two inches deep and fills only a fraction of the canal. Yet this tiny amount sustains the community of Tipa Tipa, with a population over 600 people, all their livestock and the entire agricultural system.

It had been over a week since I had seen my friend Miguel, a local farmer. Normally, I walk down to visit his adobe house every two or three days. The last time we had talked Miguel had been enthusiastic. A few short rains had watered his tomatoes and they had improved. Since then only a small sprinkling has fallen which provided no relief. Miguel admitted that he had expected the rains would start sooner.

Today, when I entered the families' dirt-floor kitchen I knew something was wrong. Instead of jumping up and welcoming me with an enthusiastic handshake or "Hola, Amigo Jose!", he sat sullenly on his tiny stool trying to smile. I joined him and asked how he was. "Sad," he answered, his tomatoes were dying. His family depends on their tomato profits to live. Having minimal water rights isn't enough to fight the scorching sun and his plants are withering. If the rains do not begin soon he could also be in danger of losing his peanut harvest.

The drought/dry months of October and November are long, difficult and trying ones in Tipa Tipa. Farmers lack the water to continue their agricultural production and turn to other projects to keep themselves busy-mending fences, training new bulls or doing home improvements. Many people find themselves thinking about moving to the city in search of a better life. As bus drivers or private security guards they can earn up to nine or ten dollars a day. This temptation grows as the water drops lower each day, the hills turn brown and the landscape slowly changes into a desert. Thoughts of leaving are understandable considering that farmers must deal with water scarcity, land plots are small, lacking fertility and diseases and pests are destroying large amounts of crops every year.

Until recently Agricultural practices in Tipa Tipa were completely dependent upon the rain and traditional crops such as potatoes, wheat and corn. In 1971 a small group of farmers, against the advice of professionals and criticism of others, organized and decided to dig a filtration gallery to tap the ground water below the Tipa Jara River . The gallery, a tunnel constructed below the river bed to collect water, supplies the residents of Tipa Tipa with only small quantities a portion of the year. With this canal came the introduction of cash crops like tomato and onion. As farmers became more dependent on cash crops, they lost a degree of their self-sufficiency and now rely upon local markets to buy most of the food they eat.

The amount of water rights a family has can directly dictate their wealth. Poorer families with only an hour or two of water a week can rarely earn profits large enough to save and purchase more. Buying an hour of water may cost more than twelve hundred dollars which is unfeasible in Tipa Tipa where some people cannot afford necessities like toothpaste or soap. Even with this small amount of water that they have they are still comparatatively well off in relation to those living above Tipa Tipa, beyond reach of the gallery. The peasants surviving in those hills are wholly dependent on the annual rains and between June and November they come down to work as laborers in the onion fields of Tipa Tipa. For one "jornal", a days labor from sun up to sun down, the women, working in tattered blouses and skirts, are paid $1.50 and the men, mostly unable to speak spanish, $3.00.

The next morning I went back to visit Miguel. The sun was firece and only thin clouds, without any sign of rain, hung in the sky. He was waiting for his turn with the water which was to begin at noon. Actually, he was using his mother's water which was being loaned to him. The toll of the drought was becoming apparent on Miguel. Without his usual boisterous sense of humor he appeared somber and reserved. He wasn't interested in talking about anything other than tomatoes and water. Along with a hoe he had brought down a watch with him and kept his eyes on it as noon approached. When the time came, using his hoe, he lifted a clump of muddy earth and released the water into his own canal. It entered muddy and fast. The shallow ditch lead to the first 5 rows of his tomatoes. Placing small rocks and patches of dried grass to either catch or keep water out he carefully measured the ammount of water going into each row. As the water divided five ways it moved slowly, creeping over the dry soil. When it had reached the other side Miguel moved another clump of soil with his hoe directing the water into the next five rows. He counted the time it took to fill the first set of rows and figured that he would be able to water all of his tomatoes, including his seed bed with onions. Still, he wasn't going to have time to water his small patch of potatoes.

Water issues continue grow as everyone waits in Tipa Tipa for the advent of the rainy season. If the rains arrive in time to save the already planted crops and prepare the soil for the next planting season, these difuculties will be forgotten in the busyness of plowing and planting. But one good season of rain will not solve the perennial issues of water shortage and ownership. The almost complete abscence of trees and topsoil only adds to the problem of diminshed rain fall and desertification of the landscape. To solve these problems Miguel and his fellow community members will have hard decisions to make. For the farmers and families living in the village Tipa Tipa, sustaining themselves today and working to improve the future will take an incredible amount of work and determination.