Reciprocal Water Agreements
Wilson Maldonado watched his cattle die one by one. The 2010 Bolivian dry season was the worst in Wilson’s memory, killing 200 cows in Villamontes and countless others across the Chaco. But it was not the first long drought. In 2004 more than 50,000 people were affected in Gutierrez, where more than 90 percent of the corn crop failed. In Yumao, on the southern bank of the Rio Grande—Bolivia’s largest river—women had to walk 4 km to collect water. In Gutierrez 20 communities had no drinking water, and even Villamontes town ran out. Wilson looked at the clouds gathering on the Sierra del Aguarague and wondered, with mountains so close, how the Chaco could be so dry. Across Latin America, the watersheds that could provide users with clean water often have to support additional and sometimes conflicting functions, such as agriculture and forestry. In many places, existing regulatory frameworks have proved unable to reconcile these conflicting needs.
Upper watershed farmers often have no economic alternative other than to deforest their land for agriculture. Upstream Water Factories are thus destroyed—often for a pittance—and cows enter streambeds to drink, forage, urinate and defecate. The subsistence agriculture of upper watershed farmers is unproductive and susceptible to climate change. Downstream municipal water sources are contaminated, children miss school with diarrhea, sedimentation blocks pipes and dams, and waterholes supporting farmers like Wilson Maldonado dry up. In 2003 in Los Negros, Bolivia, Natura Foundation helped initiate a new incentive based water conservation model: Reciprocal Water Agreements (RWA). RWA are based on the twin pillars that 1) protecting upstream forests will help maintain water supplies in quantity and quality, and 2) downstream water users need to contribute to such forest protection. Unlike the conceptually similar but classical economics based “payments for environmental services” (PES), the key attributes of RWA are the precautionary principle and local institution building and alignment.
In Bolivia, around 200,000 water-users have signed agreements with 3,200 upstream landowners to conserve 180,000 ha of water-producing forests. These reciprocity-based conservation agreements are in return for alternative development projects such drip irrigation, fruit and honey production and improved cattle management.
In a RWA in Bolivia’s El Torno Municipality, Carlos and Teodisia Calani are conserving 38 ha of their forest in the buffer zone of the Amboro National Park. In return, downstream water users have helped them build a two-room brick house. After years of living in a shack with adobe walls and a motacú palm roof, their new home is nearly ready. “We are grateful for this new house that we have earned for being a part of watershared” says Teodisia.
Bolivia’s Department of Tarija, covers an area about the size of Switzerland. The Governor, Adrian Oliva, is working to protect Tarija city’s water supply to include a series of Protected Areas linking conservation targets with development goals, though new water sanctuaries and reciprocal watershed agreements.