The project has a lot going for it. In El Alto, Bolivia, IDB has provided a financial package of US$109 million to help bring drinking water to residents while at the same time improve irrigation for 7,000 farmers. Once complete, the integrated watershed will benefit over 260,000 people over the coming 10 years – about 10,000 in remote communities and the remainder in El Alto itself.
As with every development project, the IDB, the agency in charge of executing the project and other stakeholders sought to minimize impact on local communities and natural resources. That said, no amount of advanced planning can completely offset impacts. Major construction projects, by their nature, will affect the surrounding environment and the population that inhabits it.
In this case, the El Alto project required approximately 40% of the water supply from local indigenous communities in order to be successful; without this water, the plans for the integrated watershed were unsustainable. These communities were not going to give up this precious resource without compensation, and—without public support—the project would be in jeopardy.
Indeed, the entire project could effectively be shut down by even a small protest on the local level, due to the project’s remote location and reliance upon small access roads. Such protests and “blockades” are not unheard of in the region. The Misicuni Dam has seen protests and work stoppages on three separate occasions.
As a result, the El Alto project was designated “high risk” and members of IDB’s Environmental and Social Safeguards Unit (ESG) were brought in to engage the community, determine their needs, build consensus and ensure the project’s success. These milestones were not achieved overnight. It involved hard work and earnest, good faith negotiation. Finally, a deal was struck: the local community would supply the water in exchange for an integrated watershed management plan and additional infrastructure to support their needs, including potable water supply and irrigation networks.
That said, the work is not done. Although an agreement has been reached, follow up work will be critical. Is the community getting the support and infrastructure that was promised? If so, are they adequately mitigating the impacts? Is there a system in place for ongoing tests and measurements? What procedures are in place to respond to a crisis? A support structure must ensure these questions are addressed on an ongoing basis as the project evolves, especially once construction begins.
This project and its resulting restoration plan is something we at the IDB can and should be proud of. We are funding a critical infrastructure project while simultaneously preserving the livelihood of several indigenous communities whose habitat is key to its way of life. Few organizations could strike such a delicate balance with so many different stakeholders. These are the issues that often make development work especially difficult.
El Alto also highlights the important difference between information dissemination and community engagement. While both are key to a project’s success, one cannot simply rely on one-way communication as a means of achieving a desirable outcome. Inevitably, conversations must be had and understandings must be reached in order to identify key issues of importance and address them through mitigation efforts (in this case, the need for long-term support for water supply and conservation). The earlier in the project cycle that these efforts are made, the better.
For more information on this and other projects, explore our interactive Sustainability and Safeguards Timeline and read our new Sustainability Report available for download now!