The Research: Analyze two hotly debated approaches
Researchers used a water simulation model developed by the Danish Hydraulic Institute to build a computerized replica of selected Bolivian water systems, taking into account seasonal changes. They fed the model with existing cartographical information and data on water, precipitation, and climate.
A Geographic Information System (GIS) was used to map water rights. A database of existing customary (or traditional) water rights was also developed through lot-by-lot field work and surveys. Members of irrigators’ groups and farmers were involved in collecting this data. Information was used to project which approach to water management would be most efficient: the one favoured by the government or the one Indigenous communities believed would be best.On the Ground: Clarifying the debate
Research issues, methods, and results were discussed and then developed with the participation of a broad range of social actors, including researchers, members of grassroots social movements and NGOs, government technicians, academics, and senior government officials.
Researchers simulated two scenarios: granting concessions by unit of volume per time (litres per second) for specific uses and managing water according to the traditional uses and customs currently in place, based on collective ownership of water for multiple uses. Researchers also estimated how much water was lost, for example through filtration and leaks.
Research revealed that the approach favoured by the government (volume per time) would lead to a more inefficient use of water and cause larger differences in water availability between communities, actually resulting in water deficits in many cases.The Impact: Water rights are defined in law
On 8 October 2004, the Government of Bolivia promulgated law number 2878 — ley numero 2878, de Promoción y Apoyo al Sector Riego. The law takes into account Agua Sustentable’s research by recognizing traditional water rights and uses, and guarantees rights to water for irrigation for Indigenous and farming communities. It has gained widespread acceptance.
By regulating rights for one of the major uses of water in Bolivia, the approval of Law 2878 is a huge stride toward formulating a general water law. It is also one of the first times that evidence-based research has been used as the basis for legislation in Bolivia. Moreover, the passing of the law also illustrates that water policy need not be an issue that necessarily leads to conflict.Implementation of the law
A second phase of the project began in April 2005 with a primary focus on testing the methodologies under more complex conditions in order to develop the regulations that will permit implementation of the law and ensure that this legislative mandate produces practical benefits.
One of the first actions of the new government, elected in late 2005, was to create a water ministry to coordinate and oversee water issues. Members of the Agua Sustentable team were active both in articulating public pressure to have the ministry created, the actual design of the ministry, and in assuming key roles within the ministry after its formation. The first vice-minister for basic services, for instance, is from the Agua Sustentable team.
Researchers are testing and fine-tuning the procedures for identifying and registering legal claims to water. This will permit a registry of traditional water rights to be created so that Indigenous peoples, peasants, and small farmers can exercise their ancestral claim to use the resource.Tangible Benefits: water rights key to economic development
Economists and other development specialists agree that well-defined and secure property rights for water and other resources are key to ensure economic growth, equity, and sustainable resource use. By using state-of-the-art GIS and helping establish a common data base to register water rights, this new technology provides a very cost-effective way to guarantee Bolivian smallholders their traditional rights to water, help eliminate conflicts, and give them the confidence to make productivity-enhancing investments on their land.