By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Water shortages caused by Bolivia's worst drought in 25 years have been exacerbated by booming population growth in cities, poor infrastructure and the impact of big agricultural plantations and mining projects, campaigners say.
Bolivia declared a national state of emergency last week as a prolonged drought has decimated crop harvests and cattle, affecting more than 177,000 families across the country.
Environmental and land rights campaigners say the drought has exposed the impact of mining projects, which they say divert water supplies and contaminate lakes and other water sources.
"Underground mines that use a lot of water also have an impact on water supplies," said Oscar Bazoberry, the head of the Institute of Rural Development in South America.
Bolivia's president Evo Morales has denied such accusations, including reports in the local media that one Chinese mining company is operating at the Illimani glacier near the capital La Paz, which provides drinking water to 2.8 million residents.
"No Chinese company is working on Illimani and no mining cooperative is harming the flow of water to La Paz," Morales said in a statement on Nov. 21.
Campaigners also say large-scale agriculture projects, like soya and sugar cane plantations, which started in the late 1990s, have cut down Bolivia's forests and guzzled water.
"The big agricultural companies use water like its their own private resource," said Gonzalo Colque, head of Tierra Foundation, a Bolivian non-governmental environment group.
Morales has said the current crisis is an opportunity to "plan large investments" to adapt to climate change.
Government funds have been earmarked to drill 28 wells in the southern province of Santa Cruz, the country's bread basket and hardest hit area, and other affected areas of the country.
Bolivia's armed forces are helping to transport water by truck to major cities where water has been rationed.
So far the government has provided aid, including bottled water, to around 145,000 families affected by the drought.
Despite such efforts, campaigners say the government lacks a long term approach to combat the impact of drought exacerbated by climate change, and more needs to be done to ensure public water companies better manage supplies.
"What happens after all the wells are drilled? This is a short term measure," Bazoberry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
Ballooning migration to Bolivia's capital and other cities has put pressure on resources and led to conflicts over water.
The population of La Paz has more than doubled in the past decade, Colque said.
"In recent years, there has been a big increase in conflicts over water in both rural and urban areas, which compete over water resources, and between indigenous groups in rural areas," he said.
"It's a combination of water infrastructure that's obsolete, poor mismanagement of the public water companies and rapid population growth in urban areas. It's a dangerous combination."
This month residents of El Alto, near La Paz, briefly held staff from a water distribution company hostage to demand the government explain its plans to tackle water shortages.
Such conflicts, including disputes between miners and farmers over the use of aquifers, are likely to get worse.
"What's happening as a result of the drought is that communities are becoming more aware about the value of water, which will intensify conflicts in the future," Bazoberry said.
Water shortages in Bolivia's cities have also been affected by the shrinking of glaciers that surround cities and provide millions of people with drinking water.
According to the Stockholm Environment Institute, two big glaciers in Bolivia shrunk by nearly 40 percent between 1983 and 2006, caused by rising temperatures linked to climate change.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)