Strategic Land Use Planning for Climate Change-Driven Water Shortages in El Alto, Bolivia

By Jim Kostaras

While the role of urban planning in flood risk mitigation is better understood, the relationship between water scarcity and land use planning, including in mountainous communities affected by receding glacial ice, remains a critical gap in planning research. The changing climate has made an understanding of this relationship all the more urgent, especially for developing countries where the poor are the least able to cope with environmental crises.

In order to better grasp the role of land-use planning in a context of water scarcity, we worked with partners at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in Cambridge, MA. The study looked at the Bolivian city of El Alto, considered to be the world’s highest city. This rapidly growing city is vulnerable to climate change due to the region’s declining water resources and its socio-economic, fiscal and governance constraints. El Alto’s population will almost double by 2025 to 1.6 million if past development patterns continue.

SEI has a unique expertise in WEAP modeling, a water resources planning tool used to assess the implications of changes in water supply and demand and to explore the effectiveness of different physical and/or policy interventions. The model, in addition to extensive research and stakeholder interviews, helped answer the study’s following questions:

  • How will climate change affect water availability in El Alto?
  • How will climate change affect urbanization patterns in El Alto?
  • Who will be the most vulnerable to future water shortages?
  • How can water use efficiency strategies inform land use planning?
  • What land use planning responses can improve water access equity and reduce vulnerability to future water shortages?

The results of this case study suggest that urban growth management should play a strong role in climate adaptation in arid zones. Besides supply-side infrastructure, adaptation efforts in the water sector should build El Alto’s institutional capacity to manage urban growth and promote community drought resilience.

In addition to institutional strengthening, this study also highlights how climate change acts on existing conflicts over scarce natural resources and further stresses not only the resource base, but also political and financial adaptive capacity. The response must therefore more comprehensively address risk factors, integrating climate considerations and new initiatives into much needed development and governance improvements.

The role of urban planning and spatial adaptation is better understood in areas susceptible to too much precipitation, while the study of its role in drought environments has been much more limited. This analysis suggests that urban planning and management does have a role to play in climate change-induced drought environments, which are often in flat and expansive places conducive to sprawling development. Drought will bring about two major effects: stable or higher rates of rural-to-urban migration, and reductions in water storage and supply. These tendencies will drive exurban development, as well as place new, significant financial burdens on water service providers in terms of funding capital improvements for supply side expansion, extending water networks outwards, and maintaining infrastructure. The vulnerability of the poor and peri-urban communities is linked to the financial vulnerability of the local water utility.

The paper was co-authored by Linda Shi and James Kostaras from I2UD, and Marisa Escobar and Brian Joyce from the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Read the paper here

Field Notes from Bolivia here

Project Page here