Lupe Cuellar awoke to the noisy singing of a group of charatas, a bird native to the Chaco region. It was time to set off for the Rio Grande before the afternoon sun made the trip unbearable.

Each morning, she makes the three to four hour journey to collect enough water to meet her family’s daily needs. As she prepares to leave, the family’s 23-year-old donkey Jincho stands by her side with two empty containers strapped to his back, just about all the aging animal can carry home.

Outside, her three young boys play in the dusty yard with the family’s chickens. They are too young to make the journey, but her eldest son Roberto Carlos has finished his homework and will accompany her on the long trip. He is ten years old.

The 22 families living in Yumao are considered to be some of the poorest in Bolivia, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The community is located in the municipality of Gutierrez in the Bolivian Great Chaco, home to 44 indigenous communities. About 90 percent of the municipality´s population belongs to the Guarani ethnic group. Yumao has the lowest rate of income per household and lacks basic needs such as food, water, and sanitation.

Lupe is not alone on her long trek to the Rio Grande. Every day, Yumao women must walk an average of six to eight daily kilometers, some even up to 15 kilometers, to collect drinking water. Some must make the journey twice to collect enough water for their families and farm animals, as well as to cook and clean. This daily feat far exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines that say water sources must be less than a thousand meters from home and collection time should not exceed 30 minutes.

A person needs between 50 and 100 liters of water per day to ensure that basic health needs are met and an additional two liters a day are required for safe food preparation. In Yumao, one person must survive on an average of 13 liters of water per day—37 liters less than the minimum established.

Not a drop to waste

“Each drop of water is worth a lot to us, we do not waste anything,” says Braulio Alvarez after returning from a second trip to get enough water for his family of nine, his ten hens, and four pigs. “When we are not going to use a glass of water we give it to our chickens, that’s enough to quench the thirst of up to two hens. We cannot waste any water, the trip to the river is very hard.”

Five of Yumao’s 22 families are lucky enough to have a water distribution system that uses gravity to funnel water from a stream across the mountains. But it’s not a solution that works for everyone. Many families have settled on ground that is too flat for the system to work and must follow the arduous process of water gathering done traditionally by the women and older children in the family. Because the need for water is so great, the men now often leave the crop fields to join the long walk to the river.

Roberto Carlos and his father going to the river

Roberto Carlos and his father going to the Rio Grande to collect water (Credit: Eduardo Franco Berton)

Not only is water from the Rio Grande difficult to collect, but it’s also dirty and must undergo a filtering process to make it safe to drink. Residents beat leaves from the caraguatá (a native plant to the Great Chaco) with stones to extract a resin that is then mixed with the muddy liquid. The mixture must sit for no longer than five to ten minutes to clean the water, but avoid picking up a bitter taste. Once it’s filtered, it must be further boiled to avoid waterborne diseases. About 10% of the river mixture is mud and must be discarded.

Though residents are aware of the dangers of drinking contaminated water, these methods are sometimes not enough to protect the community from harmful bacteria and chemicals in their water supply. Ely Zarate, a woman of small stature but great courage and strength, is Yumao’s Mburuvicha, which means leader in the Guarani language. With misty eyes, she recalls when her seven children suffered from gastrointestinal and skin diseases due to the water. “I thank God my children got better,” she says. “They were very sick.”

According to Zarate, the river water is often tainted with insecticide runoff during the rainy season, causing the death of fish along the shore. When people enter the contaminated river, she says, they get rashes on their skin.

Threats to the Yumao community don’t only come from the water. In the past, Zarate says, children who have gone to help their mothers bring water home become ill with fever and severe headaches due to the intense heat of the afternoon sun. Crops, she says, are also being affected. ”We have less forest that refreshes the air…where there is no forest cover it’s much hotter,” says Ely Zarate. “Our climate has changed a lot and that is affecting the water provision and our crops.”

And temperatures in the Great Chaco are predicted to rise. New climatic research from the Nature Friends Foundation (FAN) projects that temperatures could increase up to 1.43 °C in the Bolivian Chaco until the year 2030, this rise is predicted to occur during the wet season. This temperature is predicted to bring significant changes to the ecosystem and its natural resources, and put additional stress on the dwindling water supply.

Urgency in the Great Chaco

The Great American Chaco is the second largest forest region of Latin America after the Amazon, and the largest continuous dry forest in the world. Its diverse habitats range from swamps, lagoons and sub-humid forests in the east, to grasslands and dry forests in the west. These environments harbor a high diversity of plant and animal species, including 150 types of mammals, 500 birds, 186 amphibian species, 297 reptiles, and 3,400 plant species, of which 400 are endemic. The Chaco region spans just over one million square kilometers, with 46% located in Argentina, 34% in Paraguay, 20% in Bolivia, and a small fraction in Brazil.

According to the Chaco Network (a regional group made up of 15 NGOs from Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina), this large forest area is particularly important as a global carbon sink, with the potential to sequester an estimated one billion tons of carbon annually with proper sustainable land and ecosystem management. But the Great Chaco is also considered a fragile ecosystem due to the limited rainfall and high temperatures, a major blow to the population that already suffers from one of the lowest human development indices in the region.

In its recently released plan to reduce greenhouse gases ahead of the Paris climate summit, the Bolivian government stated that commitments from developing countries would depend on the provision of financial resources and technology transfer from their developed counterparts. According to Yumao residents, however, it’s their government that isn’t doing enough. Economic support, they say, is urgently needed in order to solve chronic water shortages they face in the region.

Where the Bolivian government has fallen short, other groups are stepping in to try and ease the Chaco water crisis. Recently, some families in Yumao have been benefiting from a project designed to help them harvest rainwater by the Development Area Project (PDA) organization. The system allows them to collect rain by using a tank installed on their roof that drains into a larger 5,000 liter receptacle. When the rain does fall, it provides welcome relief. A full tank of collected water—though rare—can last up to two to three months, depending on the size and needs of the family.

Children of Yumao (Credit: Eduardo Franco Berton)

Children of Yumao (Credit: Eduardo Franco Berton)

Residents can also get bi-monthly shipments of water, but the cost is steep. Trucks can distribute an average of 12,000 liters of water to four families at a cost of 500 bolivianos—equivalent to 71 USD—but can only come every two months because of high demand across the municipality of Gutierrez. One average, the shipments can last a family of six for up to two weeks, but the number of animals a family must provide for can greatly reduce this outlook.

While there is an urgent need for infrastructure investment in Yumao, the price tag is expensive. The community’s remaining 17 families who don’t have access to a water system have no choice but to make the daily trip to the river, with no guarantee that the water they are drinking is clean. A proposal to drill water wells for the irrigation of crops could reduce the amount of water needed to be carried back, but it costs an estimated $15,000, money that is not in the budget of Yumao, nor the municipality of Gutierrez.

Golden grain at risk

Corn—Yumao’s “golden grain”—is the backbone of the community’s economy and culture, but with little available water, it’s becoming more and more difficult to produce. Despite the region’s extreme conditions, farmers pride themselves on producing some of the country’s best. “Chicha,” a corn drink, is consumed during meals and they also used corn seeds to feed chickens, making the crop an important staple for the community. But unlike other eco regions in Bolivia where farmers can produce a harvest twice a year, in Yumao they can only grow corn once a year due to poor moisture conditions.

Yumao’s residents still recall when they could spend all day working in the fields. These days, the afternoon sun can reach a scorching 47 °C, making it impossible to work. Farmers get up at dawn and often have to quit by nine or ten in the morning to wait out the heat.

“Our economy and daily lives are devoted to agriculture, the livelihood of our families are based on the sowing and harvesting of corn,” says Freddy Lara, who is in charge of agricultural programs in the municipality of Gutierrez. He says that changes in the weather have also altered the corn planting season. Planting used to take place in November, but now can be as late as March because of delayed rains.

The long, hot days can also damage corn seeds, which increase the production costs for Yumao’s ailing farmers, who have to buy replacement seed at higher market prices. These unexpected costs can threaten the family’s ability to pay for important expenses, such as health care and education, forcing some people to leave the community in the search of work.

“My dream is to become a teacher when I am older, I would like to teach other children what I learn,” says Lupe Cuellar’s 10-year-old son Roberto Carlos. His hopeful eyes and charismatic smile shine under a big camouflaged hat. Under the proud gaze of his father, he recites a poem he wrote that reached the final round of a national poetry competition. Across the yard, the laughter of his brothers can be heard as they chase one another around the water tank.

On the horizon, the sun begins to set on the Great Chaco, snapping the intense heat for the remainder of the day. Roberto Carlos looks over at Jincho and the donkey begins to fidget at his post. It will soon be time to return to the river.