Rapid urbanization around the world is greatly increasing pressure on public water utilities, meaning that getting clean drinking water and safely disposing of waste can be some of the biggest problems facing city-dwellers in developing countries. One Bolivian success story has shown how cooperatives might provide an alternative way for urban communities to get clean water and safe sewerage services.

The Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra experienced soaring population growth in the 1970s, leading to increased demand for an efficient water service. In 1979 the national government approved the request of the autonomous water board to become a cooperative. Since then, SAGUAPAC has become the largest urban water cooperative in the world, with 183,000 water connections serving the equivalent of 1.2 million people, out of a total population of 1.6 million.

According to a study done by Corporación Andina de Fomento, Santa Cruz de la Sierra scores 99.3 out of 100 in water quality, one of the purest in Latin America. All of SAGUAPAC’s water comes from an underground aquifer through 60 deep wells (360 metres deep), with an annual production of 64 million cubic metres. The water is directed to four storage tanks and pumped to the city through 3,370 kilometres of primary and secondary networks. All of the collected wastewater is led to treatment plants where it is purified before being released into local rivers, something that is not always so common in Latin America.

SAGUAPAC’s cooperative nature is integral to its success and identity. According to a World Bank report on the cooperative, the structure helps protect the management from political interference, allowing it to make key decisions about promotions, setting tariffs and awarding contracts based solely on merit and technical considerations. As a private rather than public structure, SAGUAPAC can implement investment projects faster and more efficiently.

SAGUAPAC also provides its 525 employees with competitive salaries, job stability and equal treatment for all. When asked about the advantages of the cooperative form, Fernando Yavarí, the projects and works manager, described it as being “the search for the welfare of the partners before the pursuit of economic gain.” When some members were struggling to pay their water bills because of Bolivia’s economic crisis, SAGUAPAC organized courses for housewives and young people to help them acquire a trade and generate more income. It tried contracting out billing to the private sector in the early 1990s, but quickly brought the experiment to an end because the private contractor’s practice of disconnecting customers for failing to pay their water bills was in contrast to the cooperative’s sense of social responsibility. The cooperative also provides water to remote locations that would otherwise have no service.

The company’s mission states that it will develop its activities while preserving the environment, and SAGUAPAC is working to preserve the quality of the groundwater aquifer. And according to Fernando: “We have developed a project under the Kyoto Protocol to capture and burn biogas generated by the wastewater treatment plants. This is a unique project worldwide in urban wastewater systems.”