Thirst In The Garden City: Chapter 3

Chapter Three

Winning the Battle, Losing the War?

“Cochabamba—it means ‘Valley of Lakes’ in Quechua.”[1]

“Agua no existe aqui.” (Interviews)


            Bolivia is known in the U.S. for a few small things. It is named after the South American independence leader Simón Bolívar. Another revolutionary, Ché Guevara, died in a gunfight, and it is where Hollywood heroes Butchy Cassidy and the Sundance Kid perished in a fictional gunfight. It is also known for having a socialist president, Evo Morales, who has a prickly relationship with the United States. Each of these is true, but lesser-known facts are more relevant to this thesis: Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. It is geographically and culturally diverse, with the highest percentage of indigenous population in the hemisphere. It has considerable water resources in the Andes Mountains, but, despite these nearby resources, half of the people of the city of Cochabamba are without access to water.

In this chapter, I trace the historically relevant factors that have contributed to water insecurity in la zona sur of Cochabamba. I start by describing the history and basic human geography of Bolivia. Next, I discuss the influence of the neoliberal ideology on the process of development in Bolivia, before focusing in on the local level to describe the city of Cochabamba. The flashpoint events surrounding the Cochabamba Water Wars of 1999-2000 are examined closely. I explain the facts of the War and delineate some potential reasons for its occurrence and its effect on the local, national, and international scale. Finally, I conclude by describing the aftermath of the Water War, the current water situation in Cochabamba, and present strategies of water management.


Bolivia Background

            Bolivia is a landlocked South American country, wedged between Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile. Its primary geographic features are the Andes Mountains and the altiplano (high plains) that run along the western length of the country, and the Amazon Rainforest, which intrudes into Bolivia from the northeast. The capital, La Paz, is the largest urban area in Bolivia, and is located high in the mountains at 12,000 feet; Santa Cruz de la Sierra is the second largest urban area in Bolivia, and it is located in the humid lowlands. Cochabamba exists in between these extremes, at about 8,000 feet above sea level in a valley known for its moderate and enjoyable climate.

Figure 3.1—Map of Bolivia (Lonely Planet)

            Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Average income is US$4,800 per capita nationwide. Bolivia is home to 10,290,000 people (2012 estimate), about a tenth of whom live in the Cochabamba Valley. The population is roughly 30 percent mestizo (mixed European and Amerindian ancestry), 30 percent Quechua, 25 percent Aymara, and 15 percent European ethnic groups. Spanish is the official language and the primary spoken language for 60.7 percent of the population; the rest speak native languages, particularly Quechua and Aymara (CIA 2012). For all of these people, though, from the snowy tops of the Andes to the coca-growing Chapare, one thing has been constant: conflict.

The Spanish set a fierce example of exploitation: the coffers of the monarchy in Madrid were filled with Bolivian silver, extracted by virtual slaves working in the mines of Potosí (Kohl and Farthing 2006:35). That example of exploitation persists into the present, with the Spanish legacy of domination continued by other means. Since Bolivia’s independence from Spain, its history has been marred by “nearly 200 coups and countercoups” (CIA 2012).


Neoliberalism in Bolivia

Most of the people of Bolivia have nothing to show for the government’s strict adherence to neoliberal policies, which is not unusual for Latin America, where the poverty rate is higher than it was in 1980. After a full generation of nominal democracy and ever-increasing free trade, Bolivia remains the poorest country in Latin America (Finnegan 2002).


            Development, as James Ferguson has pointed out, has referred to two separate processes: the transformation towards a capitalist, industrial economy and a reduction in poverty accompanied by an increase in material living standards (1990:15). Neoliberalism as an ideology of development conflates these two processes, and its advocates believe that the former is a prerequisite for the latter. As the above quote demonstrates, however, Bolivia—which underwent some of the most extreme neoliberal reforms in the world after its 1985 inflation crisis (Kohl and Farthing 2006:81)—did not see poverty reduction follow from neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism gained a foothold in Bolivia when American economist Jeffrey Sachs—fresh from success in handling similar crises in Eastern Europe—designed an intervention that would go far beyond stabilizing the country’s macroeconomic indicators (Sachs 1987:281). This intervention embraced several of the principles that would later be enshrined in the “Washington Consensus,”[2] (Williamson 1990), leading to enactment of policies that immediately included selling unprofitable state enterprises, subjecting the others to strict market logic, firing 35,000 state workers, and cutting the salaries of more (Kohl and Farthing 2006:69).

While these policies did stabilize the economy’s runaway inflation, they did not come without a cost. Large state mines were closed, and 23,000 of 30,000 miners were suddenly out of a job (Crabtree et al. 1987), and, in many cases, displaced. Other sectors were not safe: “the tiny industrial sector…went into severe crisis and over 120 factories collapsed” (Kohl and Farthing 2006:71). The real problem, though, is that the decentralization envisioned by the new economic plan relied upon a robust national business sector that, in reality, did not exist (Carreón and Pinto de Loza 1997).

The combination of these factors led to a Bolivia that, at the time of the Water War, saw GDP growth of 2 percent—but in tandem with 1.9 percent population growth (Barr 2005:71). The country today ranks behind only Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti with the fifth-lowest Human Development Index in Latin America (UNDP 2011). The full desperation of the people is echoed in Marcela Olivera’s statement, “We are owners of nothing” (Troster 2005:7).

Economic success isn’t the only thing ordinary Bolivians haven’t had access to—many sectors of the population were effectively excluded from participation in government. This was partially because, in the wake of neoliberal reforms, unions and other social organizations lost their political influence—in spite of having been key players in the political scene since the Revolution of 1952 (Barr 2005:71). McNeish observes that since the structural adjustment of the late eighties,

a rising gap between rich and poor and an increasing number of people and civil society organizations that are not only dissatisfied with their level of political representation but also lack the opportunity to take part in and directly influence key aspects of political and economic decision-making.


McNeish attributes these issues directly to structural incapacities and internal prejudices that keep the poor and civil society out of political decision-making processes (2006:220).

All of this exclusion has more intangible effects, as well. Calla and Rojas (1998) investigate how neoliberal policies, and mine closures in particular, alienated men from the Bolivian conception of masculinity. This masculinity emphasizes providing, producing, and protecting—responsibilities that many men found themselves unable to fulfill under the neoliberal state. The state no longer lived up to its paternal role; decentralization only worked if one looked out for oneself. Corruption—an endemic problem in Bolivia—was said by at least 81 percent of respondents to have increased “a lot” over the past 12 months for each of the years 1999-2001 (Barr 2005:75).

All in all, we have a picture of a state with policies dominated by neoliberal ideology—dictated by the Washington Consensus—rather than the interests of its common people, with increasing alienation from economic livelihood and political participation as the result. This is the state that Oscar Olivera calls “the state that only listens to itself” (2004).


Cochabamba and the Invisible Half

“The story of Cochabamba city in the second half of the twentieth century is very much the story of the competition to define and control the city itself, as the authorities struggled to manage or erase the unwanted migrant presence in the urban landscape, while at the same time these migrants fought for recognition, infrastructural improvements, and their rights of belonging in the city itself.” (Goldstein 2004:5)


Cochabamba means “valley of the lakes” in Quechua, the native language of its inhabitants before the Spanish arrived. Since then, its common nicknames have included “the Garden City” and “City of Eternal Spring,” both of which come from its mild climate.[3] The valley’s fertile soil, combined with this mild climate, support an agrarian economy in the areas surrounding the city, leading to its position as a kind of breadbasket for the country. The city developed in the nineteenth century into an administrative and mercantile center for the agricultural and mining areas in the region (Goldstein 2004:60).

Figure 3.2—Cochabamba city street (Avenida Beijing)

            Success in this area led to high aspirations for the city amongst Cochabamba’s upper classes in the early twentieth century: they saw in the city an opportunity to build a modernist, European city with sophisticated tastes, diversified businesses, and a progressive future. Reflecting these aspirations, measures were undertaken to give order to the city and rid it of perceived malaises: for example, chicha (an indigenous corn beer) was banned from the city center, with the notable side-effect of removing indigenous-owned business from the city center. Orderly, gridded streets were set up or expanded. In the 1940s, a team of architects was tasked by the government with designing a Plano Regulador (regulatory plan) for “directing the future growth and composition” of the city (Goldstein 2006:65).

Figure 3.3: Map of Cochabamba (Defense Mapping Agency)

            This plan, however, left out a significant portion of the population of Cochabamba. In 1937, an Argentinean architect called the southern zone of Cochabamba, its poorest area, “a veritable gypsy camp…. [whose inhabitants know] no other example of how to live than degeneration and vice” (Solares Serrano 1990:360-361). In the years to come, the people living in this area were systematically marginalized, their very presence seen as polluting. The marginal barrios were excluded from being part of the city—none of the population living on the periphery of the city was ever counted from 1900 on, even when their settlements were permanent (Goldstein 2006:62). Even if that was a century ago, the areas southeast of the city—generally referred to as la zona sur, its inhabitants los periurbanos, its condition marginal—are still seen by those living in the central, more well-to-do areas of the city as “dirty and unhealthy places, dangerous, disorganized, and threatening to the established order of the greater urban areas” (12). This observation is confirmed in my own experience by the reactions of certain acquaintances, either cochabambino or Western volunteers, upon hearing where I was working. Racism has also played a definitive role in the lack of access to water for many poor, mostly indigenous Bolivians (Crespo 2009).

Figure 3.4: A view towards Cochabamba from southern zone

            La zona sur has been organized into organizaciones territoriales de los bases (OTBs)[4] since the Law of Popular Participation (LPP) was passed in 1994 by the administration of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (“Goni”), an intense acolyte of neoliberalism. The LPP was designed to decentralize political processes, devolving power and giving voice to local concerns. It also had the effect, as Foucault puts it, of “elaborating, rationalizing, and centralizing in the form of, or under auspices of, state institutions” (Foucault 1983:224) power relations within the city. For the barrios, being recognized as an OTB is then a two-edged sword. It may bring access to political power at higher levels of government, and may help bring resources (schools, for example) to the barrio. On the other hand, it also means being visible to the state in undesirable ways: OTBs are used to collect taxes, for example, and check on land-holding rights (many of which are highly irregular in the haphazardly-settled zona sur). They give form to discourse, but on the state’s terms. To that end, OTBs are sites of contention, between the gaze of the state and the manipulations of its inhabitants. Municipal officials said of the decentralization reforms, “we can no longer close our eyes to this reality [of la zona sur]. The Alcaldía[5] must intervene in these barrios in order to regularize them”  (my emphasis; Goldstein 2004:81; c.f. 53-89). From one perspective, this could mean the empowerment of communities. From another, it means the penetration of the state and an expansion of its gaze.

More recently, the southern zone has grown to accommodate a large influx of migrants, many of whom have lost jobs in rural areas due to mine closures or U.S. policies against the growing of coca, causing the population of the city to quadruple since 1976 (Finnegan 2002). In 2001, 14.6 percent of the population in Cochabamba had arrived within the last five years (Stewart 2006:33). This mirrors recent trends nationwide as the “urban share of Bolivia’s population has doubled since the 1970s, creating a challenge to provide adequate services” (Pitman and Ringskog 2002:1). Such services have not been forthcoming, continuing the cycle of exclusion. The sum of the conditions above is a Human Development Index of 0.6 in District 14 (a poor southern district) versus 0.8 in the wealthier District 12 (a rich northern district; Stewart 2006:33).[6]


Status Quo Ante Bellum: Water in Cochabamba, Before 1999

As might be expected, municipal water service was among the privileges not to be found in la zona sur. Clear divisions and different priorities existed between individuals living in the countryside, in the marginal periphery, and in the city center. Examination of water access strategies and pre-1999 conflicts over water management reveal tensions that would explode in the Water War and carry over into the present day.

Firstly, the city of Cochabamba was thirsty. Better water supply helps explain drops in infant mortality from 158 per 1,000 live births in 1977 to 66 in 1999, and from 180 to 96 for child mortality. As Cochabamba grew, more and more people were demanding access to clean water, which clearly raised life expectancy and quality of life for those who could afford it. However, from the period 1988 to 1999, coverage declined in Cochabamba from 70% to 60% (Pitman and Ringskog 2002:1). Most of the lack of coverage occurred in the poorest neighborhoods, where people paid far more for water of questionable quality, bought from trucks and handcarts, than the rest of the city paid for subsidized state water (Finnegan 2002).

This happened in spite of an ambitious World Bank project, the Major Cities Water and Sewerage Project, which was initiated in 1990 to much fanfare. In fact, the project was largely successful in La Paz/El Alto and especially in Santa Cruz (ibid). Ultimately, only 47,000 of 300,000 planned new connections were achieved, and water service remained unreliable at about four hours per day (Pitman and Ringskog 2002:3). The Project’s failure is traceable to contention in rural areas over planned new deep-drilled wells and to the financial undesirability of the Misicuni dam project.

The first preference of the Project implementation team was to drill new deep wells in neighboring rural areas. The number of wells drilled in the Valley is estimated by Assies to be between 5,000 and 7,000, in many cases drilled with support from NGOs or the Church. These wells mostly support a large network of rural farmers, known as regantes (irrigators), with 70% of agricultural land being irrigated (2003:19). These farmers were deeply averse to trusting authorities who planned to drill on their territory. During a drought in the first Banzer dictatorship (1976-77), SEMAPA drilled several wells in Quillacollo, promising that they would not affect water levels and availability for the regantes. Of course, they did, and the regantes lost their trust for future drilling projects. They enthusiastically opposed plans for such projects throughout the nineties, until in 1997 the army was called in to protect water authorities drilling new wells. However, these wells turned out to be much less fruitful than expected, with serious environmental consequences, and the engineers of Cochabamba—prior supporters of these plans—began to have public doubts about their efficacy (Assies 2003:20-21). Politics, revolving around rural disdain for well projects, made moving forward unviable (Pitman and Ringskog 2002:3).[7] Support began to be thrown behind the ambitious Misicuni project instead.

Misicuni basin was at the center of an idea that first failed to be implemented during the Barrientos government (1966-1969). The plan was to dam the basin and pipe water (40 kilometers away) to Cochabamba. Laurie goes so far as to say that “the Myth of Misicuni had fuelled modernization dreams since the 1950s” (2005:534), with the project having a “magical aura” (Assies 2003:19) and being seen as a bridge to a bountiful future for Cochabamba. Engineers and bureaucrats have spent their entire careers working on this project, which has never been finished but is promised by politicians in every election. While it was considered for the Major Cities Water and Sewerage Project, Misicuni—which would have cost about $200 million and taken 5-7 years to complete—was rejected by the World Bank as too expensive (Laurie 2005:533; Pitman and Ringskog 2002:3).

By 1999, then, Cochabamba was left with subpar coverage: only 60 percent of the total population for water, and 53 percent for sewage (Pitman and Ringskog 2002:2). Leaking pipes (40 percent of water was lost to leakage; ibid), and declining options for viably procuring more water further plagued the city’s water management authorities. Moreover, tensions between rural agrarians and urban dwellers had already almost boiled over into armed conflict. At a political level, this contentiousness was embodied in a 1998 squabble over a draft law on water resources, quickly denounced by peasant and indigenous organizations who rejected the mercantilist slant taken by the draft law (Assies 2003:19). The city had on its hands a municipal water company ripe for privatization in the eyes of the World Bank (Finnegan 2002). More than this, though, the city had on its hands a city ripe for conflict, “overdetermined” for a water war (Assies 2003:17).


Winning a Battle

“There was a great deal more than local water rates riding on this strange, passionate clash in Bolivia.” (Finnegan 2002)

The story of the Water War has been told and retold countless times, in boardrooms, conferences, and classrooms across the world. It has been seen as a victory of the people against capitalism, against neoliberalism, against hegemony and oppression; it has been seen as a cautionary tale and as a speed bump. It has been analyzed from perspectives emphasizing class (Olivera 2004), new social movements (Albro 2005), gender and masculinities (Laurie 2005), and more. It was, to be sure, a complicated series of events. But there are some facts.

The World Bank asked Bolivia to privatize the water supply of Cochabamba in return for the renewal of a $25 million loan out to the Bolivian government (The Ecologist 2002). The government subsequently began looking for suitors; when none appeared, the terms of the contract were sweetened. A deal was announced after only one company came forward: the consortium Aguas del Tunari. Aguas del Tunari was composed of investors from Bolivia, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States—most notably, Bechtel, the San Francisco-based construction giant.

The contract included many protections for Aguas del Tunari, which combined with the backroom nature of the deliberations to create suspicion in the mind of the Bolivian public. For $2.5 billion dollars, Aguas del Tunari received a concession to manage the water supply of Cochabamba for the next 40 years, with a 15 percent guaranteed return to equity. Included in this contract, without precedent, was the exclusive right to all water resources within the concession area—which meant that autonomous water committees, who had built their own water systems without the help of the government, would now have to pay Aguas del Tunari to use their own wells (Assies 2003:17; Finnegan 2002). Willem Assies observes that the contract, and the law that legalized it, were based on conditions that “clearly favored the formation of large enterprises” that functioned according to market principles above all else (2003:17). The whole process was greased with support from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, which provided funding and staff to the legislative unit drafting the new Law 2029 (Morgan 2011:93).

Law 2029, rushed through the legislature in November of 1999, made possible several of the clauses in the Aguas del Tunari contract. These were some of the most contentious clauses, including the one that gave Aguas del Tunari exclusive right to water resources in the concession area, superseding the rights of pre-established autonomous water committees. The threat of expropriation angered southern cochabambinos, who operated many such communal water systems (Morgan 2011:91). These systems operated in a de facto pluralist fashion, their authenticity stemming from traditional ‘usos y costumbres’ (uses and customs) respected by the government. The fact that the government had sold their hard work, without their input, greatly incensed southern cocabambinos, invoking a “sense of exclusion, an invasion of a collective sense of self” (ibid). In November came news that rate increases of 35 percent were projected. Even worse were the rumors—never realized—that the company would make peasants pay for collecting rainwater.

The people of Cochabamba were unwilling to find out whether that particular rumor was true. The vanguard was formed by FEDECOR (Federación Departamental Cochabambina de Regantes), a rural organization led by Omar Fernández, and the city unions, led by Oscar Olivera.[8] Out of these groups came La Coordinadora, the Committee for the Defense of Water and Livelihood. La Coordinadora has been referred to in many ways. For some it is a “horizontal organization,” and “multiform torrent” (Olivera 2004:85; Spronk and Webber 2007:238) characterized as an organic social movement without formally elected leaders, with actions instead dictated by popular referendum (Albro 2005). It is significant for bringing together “rural farmers, industrial proletarians, disillusioned recent in-migrants, largely invisible members of a growing informal economy, environmentalists, retirees, left-leaning economists and technocrats, as well as sympathetic foreigners in provincial towns, peripheral shanty towns, and the urban streets” across traditional boundaries of class (McNeish 2006:232).

Among the first actions of La Coordinadora was to encourage nonpayment of bills. When the first Aguas del Tunari bills arrived in January, “stunned business owners and middle-class householders” found that their bill had in some cases doubled, reaching a portion as high as a quarter of their yearly income (Finnegan 2002). The average increase was to the authorized level of 35 percent (Pitman and Ringskog 2002:3). However, consumers were incensed, especially as their charge had gone up overnight, without any change in the quality of service; the national water bill was suddenly relevant to every family, and support for La Coordinadora swelled.

It is important to note that the reason an increase was requested was to collect capital with which to expand services and improve infrastructure, both of which Aguas del Tunari was required to do. As Dider Quint, executive at International Water,[9] stated, “We had to reflect in the tariff increase all the increases that had never been implemented before… [in order to pay for] large-scale repair required by the deterioration of the existing system” (Finnegan 2002). Money was also needed to pay for the expensive Misicuni hydroelectric project, which Aguas del Tunari was required to complete (Pitman and Ringskog 2002:3). However, not much thought seems to have been put into the rate increases and how they would be perceived by the Bolivian public. Several cochabambinos I spoke with speculated that the water war would never have happened if the rate increases had been gradual, rather than sudden with no marketing effort made to explain the increases. Instead, executive Geoffrey Thorpe fanned the flames by suggesting anyone who did not pay would be disconnected from the network (Assies 2003:20).[10]

From January to April, the protests grew in size as La Coordinadora notched victory after victory. Roads into and out of Cochabamba were shut down. The city was paralyzed, and unions around the country went on strike. Tear gas canisters were fired by police and tossed back by squadrons of street children who had fiercely adopted the Coordinadora cause. Reprisals by the government only backfired: arrests of Coordinadora officials led to riots elsewhere in the country, and sending the army in led to the death of Victor Hugo Danza, an innocent student-martyr shot on the way home from the store by a sniper. As Robert Barr notes of Bolivian politics, “The escalation of tactics increases the difficulty of managing the conflict” (2005:72), and the debates reached a flashpoint in April when the government declared a state of siege. In a final, climatic protest, the government told Aguas del Tunari executives their safety was no longer guaranteed. After achieving success at different levels—rate hike freezes, protections for water committees, and finally the dismissal of Aguas del Tunari and repeal of Law 2029—the Coordinadora presented one final vision: that of “social control.”

“Social control” became an oft-repeated slogan of the people, a mantra for a future of participatory management, with community ownership of public goods like water. Morgan sees in this vision a central example of the “public participatory model” that serves as the counterfoil to “managed liberalization” (2005:98). In the short term, social control meant that individuals elected to the board of SEMAPA would come directly from los bases (the grassroots, the people) rather than be appointed by the mayor. In the long term, the hope was that social control would increase accountability, equity and efficiency, representing a key step towards improving the water situation in Cochabamba.


Timeline of the Water War

Date Description
1998 Misicuni and SEMAPA package deal put on the market
February 1999 No parties have put forth bids, so terms are sweetened—Aguas del Tunari consortium forms and comes forward
June 1999 Aguas del Tunari signs contract with guaranteed return to equity of 15%
November 1, 1999 Geoffrey Thorpe and Aguas del Tunari take over SEMAPA; project rate increases of 35% in January
November 1999 Law 2029 passed; Coordinadora forms
November 1999 FEDECOR president Omar Fernández asserts price increases will put 15,000 farmers into bankruptcy
December 28, 1999 First Coordinadora march to Plaza 14 de Septiembre (main plaza)
Early January 2000 First water bills reach population; hundreds complain; Coordinadora encourages nonpayment
January 2000 Thorpe issues statement that nonpayment results in disconnection; spontaneous mobilizations in periphery
January 13, 2000 Stones thrown in massive march at Plaza 14 de Septiembre; directors agree to let alone privately owned water systems in the concession area
February 4, 2000 Government offers a “final proposal” of 20% increase; massive protests, met with heavy street fighting; 172 arrested, 121 wounded in ongoing battle
February 5, 2000 Agreement to implement Misicuni immediately, freeze rates at October 1999 levels, pending review
March 24, 2000 Officials state Coordinadora is ‘radical and anarchic’
March 26, 2000 Public referendum rejects Aguas del Tunari[11]
April 5, 2000 Roads are blocked; thousands of Cochabambinos go to Plaza and tell Aguas del Tunari to leave immediately—signs torn down, replaced with “Aguas del Pueblo”
April 6, 2000 Tear gas counterattack clears Plaza; Coordinadora leaders and sympathizers arrested all over country
April 7, 2000 With Coordinadora leaders in hiding, a crowd of unprecedented size gathers in Plaza, demanding break with Aguas del Tunari
April 8, 2000 Nationwide state of siege announced; Countrywide riots; street kids organize into warrior gangs; Hugo Danza killed
April 10, 2000 Victory for protesters—SEMAPA retakes control; social control of board announced; government to pay restitution


Source: Assies 2003:14-28


National and International Results of the Water War

“David has defeated Goliath, and thus set an example for the rest of the world.” (Oscar Olivera, 2000; quoted in Assies 2003:14)


The repercussions of the Cochabamba War certainly extended beyond the city’s boundaries. Nationally, success of a grassroots movement against the country’s fifteen-year history of structural adjustment changed the tone and course of Bolivian politics. Internationally, international financial institutions were served a rude reminder that privatization was not always best, and the anti-globalization movement gained a hero in Olivera and a cause in the human right to water.

The country has clearly come a long way since 2000, and Evo Morales has had much to do with these changes. Even the election of Morales, the first indigenous president in Latin America since the nineteenth century, would have seemed far-fetched before the Water Wars. However, as president of the cocaleros (coca farmers, who allied with the Coordinadora), he gained national prominence as an effective leader. More than that, the Water War was an inspiration for the Gas War of 2005, which cleared the way for Morales’ election and continued the trend of rejecting privatization. The Water War was also a credit to the power of the voice of the marginalized indigenous peoples, whose demands for recognition have found a defender in Morales; the indigenous wiphala flag now flies alongside the Bolivian flag in many state institutions.[12] Legally, “usos y costumbres” now enjoy a formal, pluralistic framework, and a human right to water is promised by the state constitution.

Internationally the effect has been felt both by supporters of the Water War and by the international institutions who helped shape its conditions. The failure of the Cochabamba privatization project served as a shock to the system, a clarion call that privatization could not be the end-all, be-all in development. Pitman and Ringskog conclude in their evaluation of the Major Cities Water and Sewerage Project, for example, that the Cochabamba dispute demonstrates that “privatization is not a panacea” (2002:3). On a global scale, the discussion of a human right to water has come to the fore, after the Dublin Principle—which emphasized water as an economic good—ruled the nineties.[13] Nonetheless, problems remain, as McNiesh demonstrates that the international system retains an attitude that “does not trust Latin Americans or ‘third world’ nations in general to make their own economic choices” (2006:229).


Lost the War: Cochabamba after the Water War

“The victory seemed to the water warriors too good to be true, and it was.” (Finnegan 2002)

In 2003, three years after the Water War, Assies wrote “It seems SEMAPA is doing reasonably well and enjoys the sympathy of much of the population” (2003:33). It’s possible that was true at the time. However, while the Water War staved off disaster, mounting evidence suggests that it did not have as great an impact as might have been hoped on the expansion of access to quality water services, leaving “more than 250 thousand inhabitants without water” (El Diario 2009).

Lack of coverage is probably the most glaring problem in Cochabamba. Those who are not connected to water services—either SEMAPA or autonomous—are forced to buy water “at abusive prices [and] of dubious quality” from cistern trucks (El Diario 2009; cf. Chavez 2011). Finnegan reported in 2002 these prices to be up to ten times as high as municipal prices, while Driessen states that over 60 percent of la zona sur remains unconnected (2008:5). Some 48 percent of the total population is unconnected to water, and 47 percent unconnected to sewage. Even if water arrives, it is usually only for 8 hours a day (Chavez 2011).

When water is present, it can be of low quality. Even in the richest parts of town potable water doesn’t flow through the pipes unless there is a filter purchased at cost to the homeowner. SEMAPA water runs in places through open channels, exposing it to all manner of potential problems. In the poor areas conditions are worse. There, C.A. Schafer has found evidence of microbiological contamination with negative health consequences because of the “addition of untreated well water, leakages within the distribution system, inadequate treatment of source water, long residence times, elevated water temperature, and low chlorine residual” (2010:69).

The problems do not end there. SEMAPA has been painted into a corner by a combination of declining resources, corrupt management, and aged infrastructure. About $100 million is needed to replace the pipes in the historical center of Cochabamba, money that SEMAPA doesn’t have—in 2009, it was 23 million bolivianos (approximately $3.3 million) short of a working budget (Caero 2009). Water resources are tight, too. Money for the Misicuni project has come through piecemeal over the years from various governmental and international sources, but it will not be finished until 2013 at earliest (Chavez 2011).[14] Quillacollo province has reclaimed possession of some the wells that SEMAPA used in the past. Wara Wara reservoir only filled to 40 percent of its usual capacity in 2009 (Caero 2009), and there are concerns that climate change will have a negative impact on availability of resources (Como El Agua). A fundamental carrying capacity problem is seen to persist: “demand has today tripled, with the same groundwater supply as before” (Leonardo Anaya, SEMAPA manager; quoted in Chavez 2011).

Its budget is especially sapped by corruption, the persistent bogeyman of Bolivian progress. SEMAPA has both Bs. 7.7 million and $6 million stuck in 31 trials that tell a tale of wasted and misused resources, in sharp contrast to optimistic projections of turning a profit (Assies 2003; Caero 2009). Driessen attributes this corruption to “clientalistic” relations in which political influence and electoral consideration determine who gets services and where new projects are initiated. Jobs are awarded without regard for merit, and a former manager estimates that “80 percent of SEMAPA management staff is not qualified to perform their responsibilities.” Between 2006-2008, two SEMAPA general managers were fired on corruption charges totaling over $1 million, making it hard for

Figure 3.5: Cochabamba street art

SEMAPA to pay back an Inter-American Development Bank Loan (Driessen 2008:4). Corruption, alongside wariness of social unrest like the Water War, has made securing foreign capital difficult for SEMAPA (Finnegan 2002). Corruption is not limited to SEMAPA. Claudia Vargas, lawyer for Bolivia’s utility-regulation body, reports, “In the name of usos y costumbres, a lot of terrible things are done,” including water-truck operators who “drill polluted water and sell it” (ibid). Moreover, executive Leonardo Anaya says SEMAPA is plagued by illegal taps on the water supply (Chavez 2011).

With these limitations well known around Cochabamba, many have turned to alternative strategies for obtaining water, primarily through autonomous water committees. Thirty percent of unconnected cochabambinos belongs to a water committee, adding up to 95,000 people, including 60,000 in 120 committees which are members of ASICA-Sur (Association of the Water Committtees of the South; Driessen 2008:4; El Diario 2009). ASICA-Sur presents itself as a non-state, totally autonomous, non-partisan, participatory and democratic organization. Carlos Oropeza, coordinator for ASICA-Sur, states that water committees help keep “megaenterprises” like SEMAPA under control (El Diario 2009). Water committees convene under ASICA-Sur’s auspices to exchange knowledge, obtain technical support, and present a united political front. Water committees see ASICA-Sur as a central part of social control, a way to confront SEMAPA’s inadequacies by taking on the job themselves.

Some investigators have found more structural reasons behind the failure to translate the momentum of the Water War into social control of water management in Cochabamba. Referendums to expand water services are ignored and power is never delegated to the elected officials on the board (Driessen 2008:5). Driessen attributes this failure to “elite resistance,” declaring that local elites have failed to follow through with social control-related demands because it entails a loss of power on their part. Morgan (2011:85-117) finds two contradictions, one between ‘water as service’ and ‘water as territory’ and another between managed liberalization and public participation (what the Bolivians call social control). The rural-urban coalition which came together in the Water War has largely fallen apart with the two sides emphasizing different aspects of water management. Morgan also finds that managed liberalization—which was rejected so thoroughly by the water warriors—persists quite strongly in Bolivian water management laws, leading to a “blurring of the two models” (2011:109). McNeish blames miscommunication between state technicians and local leaders, a disconnect between rhetoric and reality of participation, and lack of consideration for alternative models, ultimately traceable to “structural prejudices where the poor are neither trusted nor respected” (2006:227-228). Finally, Spronk suggests that the Coordinadora was an inherently tense organization, with significant limits to its ability to move beyond issue-based organizing (2006:239).

The common thread that runs through these criticisms, stated outright or not, is that the Water War protests did not do anything to structurally change power relations within a deeply unequal country. Social control cannot be realized without deeper changes being made, which may entail a loss of power by elites as marginalized populations participate more. As long as these power relations are not addressed at a fundamental level, water poverty will persist in la zona sur.


How Do Cochabambinos Today Get Their Water?

There are four different ways that Cochabambinos get their water. The choice of which strategy to choose is largely delineated by geography, relative affluence, and community bonds.

The most rudimentary method of procuring water is via rain collection. This is especially common in the peripheral barrios where people use this strategy as often as possible. The rainy season in Cochabamba lasts from November to February (roughly corresponding to the Bolivian summer). Rain is actually seen as cleaner than water that is bought from vendors, and Andean cultures have a history of collecting and sharing rainwater (Wutich 2006:100). The costs to this strategy are especially low and the payoff correspondingly high.

If water is not directly collected by the household, it must be somehow delivered. There are three different delivery systems in place in Cochabamba: public, private, and collective. The public water delivery system is SEMAPA. As noted, this is a municipal company that is owned by the government and exists as a public works project. SEMAPA owns a network of pipes that stretches throughout the city but connections are concentrated in the center of the city. As one might expect, real estate in the center of the city is more valuable, and there is a question about whether SEMAPA is in the center because the people are affluent or whether the people are affluent because SEMAPA is there.

This concern aside, SEMAPA’s water service reaches 47.97 percent of the official population of the city of Cochabamba via 66,094 household connections supplying water to 326,504 people. SEMAPA’s sewage service reaches slightly more people—53.16 percent of the population via 73,237 household connections reaching 361,791 people (SEMAPA 2010). SEMAPA claims service reached homes about 15.7 hours out of the day in its service area, and users are charged Bs. 3.72 per cubic meter used (ibid). This work is accomplished with about 4.26 employees per thousand connections.

Many in the southern zone have organized into autonomous water collectives, known as water committees. These committees have an average of about 200 families and cover about 30 percent of the homes that are not covered by SEMAPA (El Diario 2009). They may procure water through wells they own or by buying water from SEMAPA or another source. Water committees are self-governed and completely separate of the government, which makes them appealing to inhabitants of the southern zone whose voices have never been heard in government.

Private systems are relied upon when public or collective services are not adequate. The essential unit of private water enterprises in Cochabamba is the carro cisterno, the cistern truck. Aguateros (water vendors) travel throughout the city, selling water. The price of water from these trucks varies directly with the cost of fuel for the trucks, but it currently costs about 5 Bs. per barrel, several times the cost of water from SEMAPA (Finnegan [2002] says up to ten times more). Moreover, the water can be of dubious quality: it may be pumped from privately-owned wells north of the city, or it might be SEMAPA water sold at several times the price, or worse. No guarantee is made as to its origin. About 70 percent of the households who do not have access to water buy their water from aguateros (El Diario 2009). Debra Israel (2007), who studied the effect of access on price in urban Bolivia, found that households buying their water from aguateros spend the highest portion of their income on water. It is expensive, but they have little choice.









Summary of Water Sources for Cochabambinos

Source Number of Inhabitants Using This Strategy Quality Price
SEMAPA 361,791 Medium; not potable, but usable for all other purposes 3.72 Bs./m3
Water committees About 95,000 Variable; almost always worse than SEMAPA Variable, more than SEMAPA but less than aguateros
Aguateros (private vendors) About 230,000 Variable, but usually low 8.33 Bs./m3, [15]
Rain Unknown—probably 100-300,000 High Free




[1] Coronel-Molina (2002:184) actually states that it is qucha, “lake,” and pampa, “plain.”

[2] The Washington Consensus refers to the ten-point agenda of neoliberal development: avoidance of fiscal deficits; public spending on investment; tax reform; market-determined interest rates; competitive exchange rates; trade liberalization; increased foreign direct investment; privatization of state enterprises; deregulation; and increased security for property rights.

[3] I visited during both the rainy summer and the dry winter, but can’t recall a difference in temperature at all.

[4] In this paper, the terms “barrio” and “OTB” are interchangeable.

[5] Alcaldía is a Spanish term used to refer to the office of the mayor of a city.

[6] Human Development Index is a holistic measure of development compiled by the UNDP, incorporating measures of education, wealth, and health. A score of 0.8 is comparable to Chile or Argentina, ranking as a “Very High Human Development” country. A score of 0.6 is comparable to Tajikistan or Vietnam, ranking as a “Medium Human Development” country. Bolivia’s HDI for 2011 is 0.663.

[7] Cf. Molle and Berkoff 2006 for more examples of urban/rural conflict over water

[8] The exact order of who opposed Aguas del Tunari first is somewhat up in the air. Finnegan (2002) claims that professionals and environmentalists were against it first; Morgan (2011:93) seems to suggest they came later, with support from students, and Assies (2003:17) notes FEDECOR as the first organization to publicly dissent.

[9] A United Kingdom company and stakeholder in the Aguas del Tunari consortium.

[10] An apocryphal tale of Thorpe’s cluelessness is that he believed “La Coordinadora” was the name of a specific woman into 2000.

[11] The March 26 referendum asked: 1) Do you accept the rate increase? (99% no); 2) Should the contract with Aguas del Tunari be annulled (96% yes); and 3) Should water be privatized (97% no)—with participation 31%, equal to municipal elections (Assies 2003:27).


[12] Of course, this is an incredibly contentious move, questioned by many as divisive (dividing country into mestizo and indigenous) and even dismissive of other indigenous groups (the wiphala, like Morales, is Aymara).

[13] See chapter two.

[14] One interviewee within ASICA-Sur told me she believes the dam will be finished in 2014, but not filled until 2016.

[15] This is based on my own calculation. I know that barrels can be filled for 5 Bs. I estimated the volume of the barrel using a photograph.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This is Ashok.

reality in bits: economics, technology, and thought

Notes on a Theory...

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Nicole Gaddie

Journalist | Golfer | Storyteller | @NicoleGaddie

A kitchen for every pot

Public housing, people and policy

99 is not 100

"It's not about trash, not about waste. It’s about how we’ve chosen to live.”


Startup and Technology News

SHAM Lifestyle

SHAM Lifestyle Agency.

The Belle Jar

"Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences." - Sylvia Plath

Burly's Baseball Musings

News and Jaundiced Views on the National Pastime

Sad Old Bastard Radio

Broadcasting sad sounds for sad old bastards and reviewing live music around the Bay Area

dvdsn dvdsn

work, thoughts, translations

Collectively Speaking

A Blog of The Women's Collective

Another World Is Happening

and I want to learn about it


Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight uses statistical analysis — hard numbers — to tell compelling stories about politics, sports, science, economics and culture.

dc young entrepreneurs

You're an entrepreneur. We're your support team.


Sports and pop culture from our rotating cast of writers

%d bloggers like this: