My Value of Water: From the Bolivian Water War to Nowelties

Silvana Quiton (ESR1)


Last Monday, March 22nd, we began the week with the celebration of World Water Day. This year’s theme is on valuing water by focusing on the different values of water that go beyond its price.

As water professionals, we talk about water daily. But most of us ESRs are dealing with the technological aspect of water, and we focus mainly on calculations and experimentation at the lab. However, it is also important to bear in mind the social aspect surrounding the topic. In this week’s blog, I want to share a few thoughts about the value of water from my perspective as a Bolivian citizen.

In Bolivia, water sanitation is implemented roughly around 40% in the rural areas and almost 60% for urban areas. Safe drinking water coverage is just 90% in urban territories. In contrast, in rural regions, the coverage is as low as 60% (Last census 2012). But water is more than what comes out of your pipes. Its value relies on the significance of water in your life.

In my own experience, I can recall certain experiences that influenced my perspective on the value of water; and hopefully by doing so, inspiring the readers to do the same insightful exercise.

One of the first meanings of water to me was water as a fundamental human right. Back in the year 2000, an important milestone occurred in my hometown of Cochabamba, Bolivia: The so-called “Water War”, consisting of fateful uprisings against an exorbitant rise in drinking water price. The privatization of water triggered these conflicts. These conflicts even inspired awarded films like “Even the Rain” (Tambien la Lluvia). I was just a kid when these events occurred, but their significance engrained the value of water as a pivotal element for the well-functioning of a society.

Later, as I grew older, I began to value water quality as the foundation for better food and health. By simply watching the news or going to the market with my mother, it was clear that changes in water abundance through precipitations or droughts had a direct impact on food availability and price. In Bolivia, just as in many other countries in the world, water stress forces most farmers to reuse even untreated wastewater for their crops at the expense of impacting human health (i.e., infectious diseases). In Latin America, the increased frequency of extreme weather events like “El niño” and “La niña” phenomena exacerbates the need to have proper sanitation to safely reap the benefits of wastewater reuse. Hopefully, we all become aware that increasing our access to treated water will directly enhance our food security.

While traveling through the corners of Bolivia, I have witnessed that water is also about community and cooperation. In Bolivia’s rural territories, water use and distribution are managed by members of the community in an informal manner, independently of any governmental or company involvement. These types of “bottom-up” organizations, built autonomously by the communities, have shown to be more participative in the water use and thus have several advantages in the social acceptance of new water-related projects.  And this acceptance is particularly important for the success of water related projects, regardless of having the most advanced technology.

In another of my bolivian trips, this time through the jungle across the north of Beni (near the Amazon jungle) I embraced yet another value: water as a means to progress. Water leads to progress that enhances economic growth and, most importantly, promotes quality of life. Unfortunately, these two things that not always go together. I have also seen water as a means of access and transport. Rivers allowed to reach areas otherwise inaccessible by land.  I have also seen water accumulated in dikes at the top of the mountains as a way of water storage and together as the construction of ditches allow the irrigation of our food.

Since I became part of Nowelties, I see water more as innovation. All of us ESRs are focusing on developing cutting-edge new water treatment technologies, employing new materials, or improving the integration of existing technologies. For our Nowelties project, we are zooming on water-related issues even more sharply and mitigating problems ahead of the current legislation. We are tackling emerging contaminants that are of great concern but for which water quality standards are still being elaborated.

By the end of last year, water became a commodity traded on Wallstreet. But the stock market won’t reflect the true value associated with water. The price and value of water are two different things and sometimes contradictory. But how can we define the true value of water?

Above all, water is at the heart of my commitment to the present by focusing on my research to find nature-based solutions for its treatment. Water also stands for my hope that by being aware of its many values, we can be more environmentally conscious and have a better future.

And for you? How do you value water?