It’s almost seven o’clock in the morning. The thermometer does not dare to peek above thirty degrees Fahrenheit but the sun bites every time it manages to find its way through the clouds of the high Andean plateau. Jacinto Sirpa, a peasant and member of the Aymara indigenous community, pulls down his camouflage hat over a woolen cap. Everything about him has the flavor of the Earth: chestnut coat, gray trousers, brown sneakers; a pair of beige gloves protects his copper hands while he ropes his old donkey, loaded with four large empty drums. Sirpa focuses his umber eyes, surrounded by wrinkles, on a distant barren slope and starts walking. He has to reach the slope, one hour walking from his home, to get some water. Just as he has done throughout his entire life. The same journey he has been repeating for sixty years now; 22,000 days without clean drinking water.
“I have never had drinking water,” says the farmer, shyly. “I have never drunk clean water.”
Jacinto Sirpa Condori is not one of a kind. Two million people don’t have drinking water piped into their houses in Bolivia and half of the population still lacks basic sanitation. Sirpa lives in a rural community that is within the city of Viacha, two hours from La Paz, the capital. Despite living so close to the Presidential palace, Sirpa’s life is harsh. At 13,000 feet above sea level, even oxygen is a scarce resource.
* * *
The sun shines high in the sky, and Sirpa is back in his house of mud and straw. Using a colander, he filters the water he just brought from the pond and prepares coca tea. Sirpa knows better than anyone that the liquid he collects daily in the wetlands is not potable. His loneliness says so.
“These days my wife is sick, my children are sick; it seems that the land is also tired and no longer bears good fruits,” he says in a sad voice. Quiet, with simple and smooth movements, he pours the mate tea on the ground before taking a small mouthful. It is an offering to the Pachamama goddess so that she may look kindly upon him. “Hopefully, one day we will have water, and maybe we could irrigate and sow the fields. Do something.”
Sirpa believes in indigenous reciprocity towards Mother Earth, to whom he always gives something when there is something that he takes. However, these days he prefers to ask government institutions to address his problem of water scarcity rather than praying to the goddess. After leading the cattle to graze, the farmer uses one of the drums to wash himself. Then, he slithers into a red-and-black poncho, takes his ceremonial instruments and changes the camouflage hat out for a dark fedora. This year he has been appointed “Uma Mallku” of his community: overseer of the waters. In the Aymara society, Mallkus are rotating positions, their holder charged with ensuring the community has enough water. From a shack, he pulls out two large, rolled-up sheets, with documents and drawings, and gets back on track, crossing the infinite vastness of the “Altiplano.”
“Governmental institutions don’t reach these places,” he says while strolling. In Central Coniri, the small rural community where he lives, they feel forgotten. Recently, several of the neighboring towns have inaugurated water wells and pipelines. According to a joint study carried out by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, twenty-four percent of the Bolivian population has gained access to improved water resources in the last fifteen years. Yet in rural areas, only fifty-seven percent of the population have pipelines installed and working in their plots. This ongoing shortage has drawn farmers towards the city like water emptying into a drain.
“Many have gone to the cities,” says Sirpa. “If there is no water, people cannot live.”
The Uma Mallku looks tired but he is relentless at heart. He will later gather his people to explain how the water works are progressing. Sirpa will listen to their concerns, write down their suggestions and take them to the local authority. Then, he will come back with the answers from officials. He is caught in a crossfire. His neighbors are angry because nobody is teaching them how to manage the water system that will soon be built. The city has promised him to send someone to give courses on technical issues, water pricing, sustainability and basic hygiene. Some of the elders will have to learn how to use a faucet and about the perks of washing their hands. Nothing has happened yet. In the belly of the “Altiplano,” time stands still.
In 1990, less than half of the Bolivian population had water at home. Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia, remembers well the days of thirst; he is, like Sirpa, a son of Aymara peasants and spent his early childhood in the high Andean plateau. He was born one kilometer away from a water well and his mother had to walk every day to bring water home. That may explain why one of his first acts after he came to power was the creation of a Ministry of Water. He also promoted a resolution at the UN, in 2010, that designated access to safe water and sanitation as an “essential to the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”
GDP growth (6.8 percent in 2013), the Human Development Index, and the Gini Coefficient tell how Bolivia has progressed under Morales’ rule. However, in his eagerness to exert control, the president changed the head of the Ministry of Water—a precious political position—eight times in three terms. A minister with a technical background, José Antonio Zamora, stayed in office longer than anyone else (2012 – 2015). Although Bolivia has already reached the Millennium Development Goals, Zamora says that “much remains to be done,” especially in rural areas.
“The president created the Agenda 2025, which sets specific targets for the elimination of extreme human poverty and coverage of basic services, including obviously water and sanitation,” Zamora explains. In 2025, Bolivia will turn 200 as an independent country and, to commemorate the Bicentennial, Morales’ government created a comprehensive development program. However, some of its points clash directly with Bolivia’s economic model, which is based in the exploitation of its natural resources.
Sirpa, the quiet Andean peasant, admires “el Evo,” as he calls him, but his life has not improved substantially in the nine years Morales has been leading the country. Two of the neighboring towns, Achica Arriba and Achica Baja, recently built new drinking water distribution systems with money given by NGOs and international development agencies. Now people from Central Coniri look at their nearby countrymen with envy. That’s why Sirpa keeps on walking through the wasteland, carrying blueprints and documents. He has to control, along with the members of his community, the advances on the well they are digging.
* * *
Jacinto Sirpa Condori sits on the ground, surrounded by his neighbors in the shade of a huge blue drill. Women lay down and open their multicolored blankets to prepare the feast. People from Central Coniri have gathered for an “apthapi,” an Aymara tradition of meeting and sharing. Everybody has brought a little something: there are boiled and freeze-dried potatoes, beans, yucca, fried fish, cheese, chili peppers and llama meat.
On the horizon glows the snow of the glaciers, topping 20,000 feet-high peaks. Sirpa pays attention to the people around him and patiently meets their demands. “We are drilling down to one hundred feet and there is water,” he announces, smiling. “There is water!”
* * *
Michele, Felix and Javier have been working for a year on Bolivia’s Everyday Water War, an interactive documentary that follows the struggle in the Andean country to improve water access and sanitation. Bolivia’s Everyday Water War is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Program, a media-funding project operated by the European Journalism Center). It will be released within the next few months. https://www.facebook.com/bewwdoc; Twitter @beww_en
Michele Bertelli (@MikeBertelli) is a freelance journalist and videomaker. He has covered stories from Bolivia, Italy and the United Kingdom for media outlets like Al Jazeera, El País, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Vice, Repubblica TV and Pagina 99. He is interested in unconventional stories, migration and economic development, and has spent the last couple of years focusing on webdocs and online video formats. He’s currently living in Rome, still listening to noisy music and keeping his backpack ready.
Felix Lill (@FelixLill) is a German freelance journalist who moved from London to Tokyo after the 2012 Olympics. Now dividing his life mainly between Berlin and Tokyo, he writes a for Die Zeit, Die Presse, Der Spiegel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Taggespiegel, Zeit Online and others. Most of his topics are connected with economics, politics or sports. He was awarded the Austrian Sports Journalism Award in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Javier Sauras (@jsauras) is a nomadic journalist and photographer who has been wandering from Asia to Latin America during the last five years. He has written about Japan, the Philippines, Spain, China, the U.K. and Bolivia. He is still on the road.