Nestled at the foot of the Cerro de Potosí – or Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”) – is Potosí, Bolivia. This capital city of the Tomás Frías Province was established almost 500 years ago and is most known for its abundance of silver, which has fueled the area’s economy for centuries. Another unique aspect of Potosí is its location. It is one of the highest cities in the world, with an elevation of more than 4,000 meters [13,000 feet].
More than 20 years ago, Potosí embarked on a massive project to bring much-needed water to residents after the area experienced drought on and off for 80 years. The San Juan River Project involved the installation of 52 kilometers [170,560 feet] of 16-inch and 20-inch AMERICAN Ductile Iron Pipe with zinc coating and a pigmented asphalt to refract sunlight and keep the pipe at a cooler temperature. Concrete thrusts anchor the pipe along the entire aqueduct. The project began in 1996 and was completed in 1999. Today, this water line continues to serve the needs of residents and the mining industry, showcasing the strength and resiliency of ductile iron pipe.
Prior to the pipeline installation, the main source of water was a collection of wells and lagoons constructed during Spanish colonial times. Water from these sources was often used for mining, as it is the primary source of economic development for the area. With this new water line, the city was able to pull water from the San Juan River at the top of the mountain and deliver it to the water treatment plant in town. This was the city’s first permanent water source.
Former Potosí Governor Daniel Oropeza said the installation was done by residents, and they were able to learn the installation process quickly. “The entire project was finished in 10 months and used local miners who had little work due to low mineral prices,” he said. “This ACIPCO pipeline has provided the area with uninterrupted service for 22 years. With proper maintenance, it should be useful for another 50 years or more. I would recommend ACIPCO pipe for any future installations.”
Oropeza said there were many challenges to get this project started and completed. The first challenge was budgetary since the aqueduct had to begin near a remote water source some 52 kilometers [about 32 miles] from the city where it was needed and had to be carried through a pressure pipeline. “It was always an irony that the city of Potosí, owner of a silver mountain, did not have its own resources to finance this project,” he said.
The topography and geography of the area also presented challenges. In some places, the elevation of the line was higher than the intake, and rocky terrain around the pipeline’s route had to be dug through. In addition, this mountainous terrain meant machinery could not be brought in for excavating or for transporting pipe. In several places, this work had to be done by hand.
“When the water from the San Juan River carried by the ACIPCO pipe reached Potosí, it renewed hope for the whole town,” Oropeza said. “During the worst of the drought, the population of the city was about 150,000. More than 240,000 people live in Potosí today. This project was fundamental to Potosí and resolved the lack of water for half the city.”