Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Elizabeth Bird, Ph.D

Committee Member

James Mihelcic, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Rebecca Zarger, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Linda Whiteford, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Michelle Hughes Miller, Ph.D.


Bolivia, international development, NGOs, Political Ecology, wastewater treatment, water supply


Water and sanitation (WatSan) development projects impact both natural systems and societal structures where they are placed. A complex process of development, including inter-governmental policies, aid agencies, personal relationships, and community politics enhance and constrain the efficacy of these projects. This study presents the many ways in which the WatSan development process has unintended and unexpected returns for certain community groups. Using a political ecology framework, I look at power structures, perceived and projected environmental impacts, multiple stakeholders, and individual discourses to critique how the right to water and sanitation is implemented in a specific community context. This project advances anthropological thought by showing a praxis-based study that links theory, on-the-ground, ethnographic experience, policy recommendations, and theoretical injections which relate to a variety of audiences, both within and outside of the academy.

The project is conducted in two main field locations--La Paz and Sapecho, Bolivia. I employ a mixed-method approach, including interviews with development professionals and community members, a survey of water and sanitation users, focus groups with particularly impacted groups (e.g. water committees, students, and women), and various mapping techniques (GPS mapping, community-led) to address the space and place within which this project was realized. I give specific focus to sewage collection and wastewater treatment, two elements of the WatSan system that are distinctive in this rural developing-country context.

WatSan development is not just infrastructure placement. It is a full process, a relationship. It comprises individual conversations, days of work, salaries, payment schedules, labor, expertise, and ongoing management practices. Individual perceptions of infrastructure efficacy, personal benefit, and best practices (both culturally and technologically) impact the long-term effectiveness of a project. Major tensions arise post-implementation: between community and aid agency, conservation and use, labor and upkeep, and sanitation and potable water. There are multiple influences and positions subsumed in this process.

The study's political ecology approach, combined with foci on human rights, critical development, and water and culture, provides critical insights into the relationship between social and resource-based (water infrastructure) change. It looks at the ways in which the benefits and risks of a WatSan system are stratified, gendered, and power-laden. It further looks at the potential positive and negative outcomes of the system--all with an enviro-social focus. I look at how social and ecological relationships are tethered together (mutually constituted), how they are influenced by several levels of governance and policy. The experience of Sapecho shows how changes to WatSan environments can provide new water and sanitation access but in some cases, further engrain and exacerbate social inequalities. Provision of fresh water, sewage collection, and wastewater treatment infrastructure is not value-free--but it is necessary. This work tries to answer one small part of the question of how the right to water and sanitation can be best implemented in real-world situations.