Bolivia: Water, Energy Everywhere – But Not for Locals

(IPS) – Peasant farmers in 42 villages along the Zongo valley in western Bolivia stand by and watch as the flourishing electricity industry harnesses the swift-flowing river while, paradoxically, their own farms are languishing from lack of water and energy.

The Zongo valley begins at the foot of the snow-covered Huayna Potosí and Chacaltaya mountains which are 6,030 and 5,344 metres above sea level, respectively, and disappears into the depths of a canyon which finishes at a lush tropical area 1,000 metres above sea level. Along its length there are 10 hydroelectric plants.

The turbines are driven by the torrential meltwater from the mountains, and provide 205 megawatts of power to the cities of La Paz and El Alto, and also Oruro, for a total of about 1.7 million consumers.

But nearly 2,000 people living in 42 communities in the area have no drinking water or electricity, the public relations secretary of the Zongo agrarian federation, Genaro Mamani, told IPS.

The rural leader recently visited La Paz with 30 other people, many of whom walked for up to 16 hours from their villages to reach the nearest paved road, where they boarded a vehicle to the city, which is the capital of the province to which the rural municipality of Zongo belongs.

Two other rural leaders, Francisco Choquegonza and José Apaza, gave IPS a copy of the letter sent to the Mayor of La Paz, Juan del Granado, telling him that "the Zongo area is totally lacking in any kind of infrastructure."

"Our schools have no technology, and do not even have proper desks, we have no health posts, let alone a hospital, we do not have roads and we have to walk for days to go anywhere," the letter says, among other complaints.

They criticised the contrast between the mayor’s development of the city centre, where main avenues have been redesigned and parks have been created, and the total neglect of the rural area, which for 83 years has been producing electricity for the cities.

Meltwater from the mountains surrounding La Paz accumulates in lakes, and then flows in cascades on to a series of turbines, installed one after another in a natural ravine that drops from an altitude of 4,751 metres above sea level to 1,000 metres, generating large amounts of electricity.

To maximise water power for driving the turbines, the small rivers, brooks and streams are diverted into an artificial channel for industrial use. This has killed off fish species such as trout and sábalo (tarpon), Mamani said.

Local families use kerosene to light their homes, and students have to do their homework by the light of small lanterns.

According to Mamani, only six of the 42 villages in the area have electricity.

The local people collect firewood for cooking, as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is not available because there is no transport to bring in gas cylinders, the leader complained. Bolivia has the second-largest natural gas reserves in South America, after Venezuela’s.

In the Zongo valley, climate conditions and soil fertility are conducive to growing coca which, according to Mamani, has been farmed in the area since 1550, when the Spanish colonialists made sure their slaves in the silver mines had coca leaves to chew, as they ease hunger and fatigue and increase endurance and productivity.

Today, local peasant farmers produce up to three harvests a year. A 50-pound basket (22.7 kgs) can fetch up to 120 dollars. In most cases, coca is the main source of income for poor families, the rural leader said.

Conditions in the area are also suitable for producing bananas, rice and citrus fruits, but there is no road for trucks to take villagers’ produce to market in La Paz.

Among the requests made to the mayor of La Paz is the construction of a two-lane highway to enable public transport vehicles to carry passengers and goods, instead of the present narrow road that is almost exclusively used for maintenance of the hydroelectric plants.

Village leaders are determined to get a reply to their proposals from the government of the provincial capital, and say that if they are not listened to, they will divert the rivers and cut off the electricity supply, which would leave the cities of La Paz and El Alto in darkness.