Thirst In The Garden City: Chapter 4

Chapter Four

Voices from the Garden City


Flying into Cochabamba for the first time, I had little idea what the place would look like, and no experience with the culture. I awoke from my slumber to see a sprawling city with little downtown discernible. To my great pleasure, though, I was surprised to find the city ringed with beautiful snow-tipped mountains. I felt that tingling of excitement that comes with not knowing what would come next. While I had ambitious hopes for my first visit to South America, I also knew that much would be out of my hands. I simply vowed to keep my eyes peeled and my mind open.

Within minutes, I knew I was in good hands when I was picked up by my host mother, Lucy, at the airport. I stayed at the home of Lucy Ortuño during both of my visits to Cochabamba. Lucy lives in a modest one-story home on a plot that she shares with her sister; there are plans to add a second-story to her home, where her brother’s family will live, but for now these are on hold. Located off the corner of busy cross-streets Villavicencia and Avenida D’Orbigni, the home is in a neighborhood just north of the city center—not a rich one compared to others nearby, but certainly upper-middle-class.

As a visiting foreigner, the water situation in Lucy’s home is one of my most immediate concerns. I must not drink the tap water, and I have to be careful not to swallow water from the shower. The water runs 24 hours a day, thanks to a storage tank kept full on top of the house. Moreover, there is always clean water for me to drink, from a special barrel of clean water bought from a private vendor. This barrel is refilled every week; if we run out before then, Lucy boils tap water. When I venture out of the house, buying bottled water

Figure 4.1: Water storage tank on roof at Ortuño residence

across the street at a small store comes at no great expense relative to my wealth. My

situation is obviously very different from that of most Cochabambinos.

In order to draw the starkest contrast with my own water situation living at the Ortuño residence, I will start by describing Sivingani, a barrio far south of the city center. I then examine the water committee in San Miguel at length before finishing with an investigation into the water situation in Lomapampa. In moving between sites, I will examine a diversity of approaches towards obtaining water and varied attitudes towards the human right to water. In combination with the Ortuño home, these three sites provide a fertile set of experiences for data and analysis. Commonalities observed and lessons learned will be reserved for the final chapter.


Sivingani: Rapping for Water

Sivingani is about as far from Villavicencia y D’Orbigni as possible without leaving the city. Sivingani is a rural community on the outskirts of Cochabamba city, less than ten years old and with most of its inhabitants migrants recently arrived from elsewhere. Despite its status as a ‘new’ community, water was bringing the people of Sivingani together as they collectively organized to improve a water network in the barrio. In the process, they engaged with popular discourse derived from the Water War ten years earlier, successfully mobilizing this language to help them solve the collective action problem and attract the attention of ASICA-Sur and other helpful authorities. I visited Sivingani several times in the summer of 2011 as a volunteer with Rutgers in Bolivia; our visits were coordinated in part by Fundación Abril, and coincided with a major project by the water committee in Sivingani.

After an hour’s trip outside the city, passing by unnamed neighborhoods and empty fields, we arrived at Sivingani. It was apparent we were on the very outskirts of the city. Amenities like tiendas, health clinics, or web cafés were mostly absent. The homes were much more dispersed, and dust hung lazily in the air.

When we arrived, we were thrust straight into action: a shovel in one hand and a bottle of sunscreen in the other, I trudged with the rest of the American volunteers up the hill to dig with the community members of Sivingani. I spent the morning, and several to come, side-by-side with a pickaxe-wielding woman, and we traded off breaking up the dirt and moving it aside to build a new trench that would house PVC pipe to carry water. We were only one pair of three dozen or so such pairs working along a three-hundred foot area on the side of the hill.

It was only when I returned to the place where we had parked our car when I learned more about our job and its larger purpose. First, I realized that the building we had parked at was actually an office for the water committee. Second, all the leaders were men. Third, I saw that there was much hustle and bustle at the office, with about eight men circled up talking to Pamela outside and another few men and women coming and going from the office. Any doubt about the community’s enthusiasm for the water committee was diminished as bullhorns on the office began to chant slogans and play music; cumbia switched off with “¡Agua para todos!” for a while. Very quickly we were on a tour of the barrio with two of the gregarious committee members.

Some members of the water committee already owned small tanks in their homes, which they fill with water bought from carros cisternos, private vendors in trucks who come every week, selling five or ten barrels to houses that buy once a week or once a month based on size. This is the only method for obtaining water for non-members.

We also learned that the reason we were digging was to connect two tanks.

All work for water access was being undertaken wholly by the community, without any assistance from the government. Left to fend for themselves, Sivingani and the rest of District 9 (an agricultural zone in the far south of the city) have opted to run their own water services. As the committee members, Don Orlando and Don Florencio, told the story, Sivingani (and the rest of District 9) had been left out of SEMAPA’s plans all along. “That’s how it’s been structured, and we’ve been left behind,” except as a dumping ground, something Don Orlando found bitterly ironic: “They refuse to give us waste services, but they dump their waste here.”


Figure 4.2: Don Florencio of Sivingani

(Como El Agua 2011)

            Despite this oppressive situation, the members of the Sivingani water committee were optimistic. Don Florencio, the president, was especially so. Perpetually topped with a straw hat and speaking with a slight lisp, he was a born politician in the best sense, always ready to expound on his cause. He explicitly linked the situation in Sivingani to Bolivian citizenship, saying “In the political constitution of the state, water is life, it is a right; it is vital to the political life of the Bolivian state.” Don Florencio was incredibly proud of the federal powers in La Paz backing his efforts in modest Sivingani, but I would come to find that his enthusiasm for the force of legislation and its ability to improve life was the exception rather than the rule.

Don Orlando, another leader in the water committee, declaimed the merits of ASICA-Sur, the association of water committees, emphasizing that it allowed committee systems “the option to try to improve our service provision—each can try to finance a new tank or drill a new well with their help. They also help with workshops that allow communities to help one another with management, and other improvements.” Don Fabricio, the oldest of the leaders, continued in a low voice and steady cadence that signified confidence in their work: “ASICA-Sur was formed to help with water in the south. There is a directory where they call us from to help plan and carry out projects that are sent to La Paz for approval [for federal funding]. That’s their work.”

ASICA-Sur did not only provide technical support: they were a rallying ground for those sharing a common experience of water poverty. This experience was communicated through the language of exclusion. Don Florencio’s son Alvaro had been recruited to tape a rap song for ASICA-Sur. Rap music in Bolivia has been a successful medium for spreading messages of social justice, and groups like Wayna Rap take explicitly progressive political stances (Dangl 2007:171). Like Wayna Rap, Alvaro rapped in a mixture of Spanish and indigenous languages (Quechua or Aymara), heightening the sense that this music belonged to the indigenous-languages-speaking inhabitants of la zona sur, as did the common experience of exclusion from municipal water service.

In Sivingani, the state’s abandonment of its people was turned on its head and understood as an opportunity to demonstrate a capacity for self-reliance. Though the state did not respect the inhabitants of Sivingani, dumping waste while denying services, those same inhabitants were working together to take advantage of every opportunity, their aspirations expanding to fit the spacious promises made by the federal government in La Paz. As Alvaro rapped in person for us, freestyle: “They can take our water but they can’t take our self-respect/The future is ours to take.”

San Miguel: “We have raised our voices”

Villa San Miguel was a twenty-minute drive past Lago Alalay and into the southern district. There were four of us student-volunteers, joined by Maria Eugenia (Mauge) from Fundación Abril and by our professor, Pamela. The driver was a young man who would drive us twice weekly for the rest of our stay and never say more than two words at a time.

We got out and stretched our legs, wondered whether we needed to put on sunscreen, and followed Pamela up a hill. A small, bespectacled man descended with his arm outstretched. “Don Eufracio!” exclaimed Pamela, and soon we were seated in a semi-circle in Don Eufracio’s garage, two to a stool. There were a dozen-odd people in the open garage, with several older women seated outside as well. We students looked at one another nervously, unsure of what would be expected of us in this situation. Someone passed around plastic cups and a bottle of Coke. I tried to keep up with the Spanish flying around and felt better when I realized that my incomprehension was mostly due to the fact that many of the words were actually Quechua—not something I would have learned in the U.S.

Finally it was deemed an acceptable time to start the meeting. We were joined by several youth, seated to our left—“jovenes.” Directly across from us were four older women, each to be addressed with the honorific Doña signifying an older woman of status. Then to our right sat Don Eufracio, the president of the water committee, and two men who seemed to be his lieutenants. Dogs came and went.

The proceedings were opened by Pamela, who explained who we were and how glad we were to be there. After we briefly introduced ourselves, Pamela and Don Eufracio did the same. We learned about the history of the barrio and the water committee. The committee was founded in 1998 with an initial network of 200 connections; two years ago, another 688 connections were added, bringing the total of inhabitants covered by the committee to an estimated 3500. In that same year the committee was certified as a Potable Water vendor by EPSA and AAPS.[1] Committee leadership is elected every two years, and we were told that decisions were made by consensus at monthly meetings of the 300 active members of the committee.

Then came the turn of one of Don Eufracio’s companions. He started by saying, “There is a right to water.” Then he sighed, looked down at his worn and creased shoes, and talked for the next ten minutes straight. “Water is a right,” he said, “but that does not mean we have it; the government promises it, but that does not mean it can provide it. All of this we have built ourselves: the barrio which we made the bricks for, the pipes we laid ourselves for the water network. We have raised our voices,” his tired voice proclaimed, “but still we are ignored.” He said this and more without raising his voice, speaking instead as if he were reading from a script.

The older women, however, were not so quiet. They spoke animatedly, more in Quechua than in Spanish, gesturing and speaking with real righteousness. Pamela whispered translations to us: “We are real people too. We have needs, and the government must recognize this! The middle classes, the working classes, they must have water.” It was rousing to hear their enthusiasm, and I felt good about our chances to be able to help out.

Afterwards we walked around the barrio, which is situated on the side of a hill. The climb was steep—on a later date Mauge would slide down an embankment trying to scale it. That day we were just taken to see the tanks at the top of the hill: big concrete cubes. There were two of them at the top of that hill, one 80 cubic meters, the other 50 cubic meters; when the new additions were made to the network, a new, 300-cubic-meter tank was built to accommodate them, on another ridge. Water, Don Eufracio explained, came to the tanks from a well, 100 meters deep, a kilometer away, owned by the committee. When the tanks periodically needed to be cleaned, members of the committee would assemble with buckets of bleach and flashlights and descend for a day of communal labor. Every bit of the water network had been built with their own labor and money, with some support from European NGOs and ASICA-Sur.

We then decided we had enough time to practice reading a meter to prepare for our work the next week. Collectively, we walked up to an unsuspecting resident’s house. Don Eufracio handily opened the meter box and pronounced how much water (reported in cubic meters) the family had used. One of the young men handed me a clipboard, and next thing I knew I was writing down numbers in a spreadsheet while standing over the PVC pipe that brought water to the household.

Our task was then laid out for us. As we strode through the streets back towards our waiting car, I learned why so many meters needed to be read. We passed a large, open pit, perhaps eight feet deep. I asked Mauge what it was. I didn’t know the word she responded with—“alcantarillado,” or sewer system—so Pamela explained it to me. “This is a sewer system that the city is trying to put in.” She exchanged some words in Spanish with Mauge, and translated for me: “The construction of the system has damaged the pipes of the water committee’s system, and for that reason they’ve shut down the water since last December.” Looking at Pamela’s concerned face, I did not think she had been aware of this difficulty.

The committee’s water supply had been broken for the last seven months of the year, and so no readings had been taken in a very long time. Readings had to be taken, and payments made, now that the well was producing water again (if weakly, as I would learn as time went on). We would be responsible for taking readings all over the barrio. I had no reason then to suspect the challenges that would face me and the other volunteers over the next six weeks; indeed, I had no idea of the difficulties that had already beset the water committee in San Miguel.


Reading Meters

When we returned to San Miguel the next week, a plan seemed to be in place. Mike, Daysi, Elizabeth, Khrystle and I were to assist the committee by checking the meters of the entire barrio, some 888 in all. We pulled into Don Eufracio’s driveway once more and walked up to his family-owned store.

Soon Don Eufracio was showing us a map of the barrio, dividing us up into teams, and pointing to different manzanos (blocks) that each team would be responsible for visiting. Each team received a clipboard with a worksheet, showing the households whose meters we would check. As we watched Don Eufracio shuffle through his papers to try to figure out which meters had already been checked, it became painfully obvious that accounts were kept by hand, rather than computer. We waited around for some time for more people from the committee to show up, but it turned out that Don Roberto (one of Don Eufracio’s lieutenants) had forgotten and was caught up elsewhere. No one else came to help.

I went out with Mauge to read the meters the first time. We ambled from house to house, reading meters and talking with households about the importance of keeping the meter clean and knowing where one’s meter was located.

Reading a meter consists of three steps. First, one must locate the meter. This is often the most difficult step. Meters are always encased in a concrete box, through which the PVC pipe carrying water passes (in from the street towards the home). However, the concrete box (which has a door on top of it) is often covered with gravel or dirt and is sometimes buried underground. In one extreme instance, we found a meter that had been paved over.

Secondly, one must open the meter. This, too could be very challenging. In a perfect world, the door could be opened with a wrench, which unlocks it. However, dirt or weathering often made it impossible for the wrench to grab onto the door. Worse, the internal metal arm of the lock was sometimes found to have rusted—in that case the door was said to be stuck, trancado or atascado. In this case we would ask the household if it could fetch some oil; if they didn’t have oil, Coca Cola. This would be sprinkled on the stuck part of the door in the hopes that it would open. Most of the time we could eventually get the doors open, but in ten or twelve cases the door was completely stuck, and we had to leave it without writing down a reading.

Thirdly, one must read the meter and record the reading. One of us would bend down and wipe the dirt off the glass and read the number on the meter. The meters were cumulative, so that the current reading would be matched against the previous one to find out how much had been used since the last reading. In one instance, we found a meter that was so high that we had to conclude that there must be a leak somewhere, and advised the family to find it. Sometimes the meter would read zero, or almost zero, which meant the family had discontinued using the water committee water at all.

This process was repeated twice weekly, lasting for three hours at a time, for five more weeks. By and large the general process was rote and did not deviate often from the process I have described above. Though our visit to each home was for the same purpose, we learned different things on different visits. As time went on, I observed signs that the water committee in San Miguel was not as healthy as I believed during that first visit to the barrio. As I noted, a number of meters read zero: I was about to find out why.


Lost (Hidden?) Meters

Reading the meters would have been much faster process if a significant portion of them had not been buried, lost, grown over with weeds, or purposefully hidden. I would spend a quarter of an hour sometimes digging through earth with a pick-axe (picota) looking for a meter. This would happen even with the presence of a household resident, whose helpfulness ran the gamut from open disregard to complete befuddlement to a genuine desire to help. Once we had to move a pile of bricks that had been piled up on top of the meter by accident; we dug up countless meters from under dirt or overgrowth.

Many meters’ location, though, seemed to be no accident. When we saw a pile of rocks on the sidewalk, we looked there first, because more often than not the meter would be underneath the rocks. When I asked people about why meters seemed to be hidden, they responded that there were robbers who would take them. Don Eufracio and Mauge told me this had never happened in San Miguel, but they understood why people were worried, and accepted hidden meters as part of the job. The complicated situation certainly spoke to the atmosphere of distrust that pervades certain parts of the southern zone.

However, Don Eufracio did not excuse families who had lost their meters completely. I saw several families receive a scolding after being unable to locate their water meters. Don Eufracio and Mauge saw upkeep of the meter as a basic tenet of membership in the committee; as a meter reader, and therefore the one who had to deal with finding meters under dirt, cleaning dusty meters, or unlocking rusted doors, I understood why. This part of the scolding was usually followed with a reminder that the individual should be present at water committee meetings.

The implications of a lack of participation could be illustrated through an encounter I had with one man whose meter I had read. He asked what I was doing, and I explained that I was a volunteer with the water committee. He became very confused and said he had already paid his water bill, and insisted that we were mistaken to say that he had an outstanding water bill. Don Eufracio was passing through, and so I called to him for help. Don Eufracio asked the man to produce his receipt of payment, which he did after returning to his house. Don Eufracio put on his glasses and held the bill up to his face. “This isn’t a water bill!” he exclaimed, laughing. “This is for your waste! Don’t worry, though,” he added, “you have not used much water. Your bill will be very small for the water.”

The resident laughed weakly, apparently relieved that there was no real reason for conflict. He said he hadn’t been to meetings and had only recently moved to the area. I encountered another several individuals who were similarly unaware that the committee had meetings, and several who thought the water supply was permanently broken. These incidents reveal the lack of information that pervaded the barrio. For recent migrants to the city, who made up a significant portion of San Miguel’s residents, figuring out how to navigate the field of bills and responsibilities that came with urban living could be difficult, leading to misconceptions about the water committee’s function.

Even though there were several other elected offices within the water committee—vice president, recording secretary, treasury secretary, vocal[2]the only one to meet us every week was Don Eufracio, the president of the water committee. For the first few visits, we would arrive at Don Eufracio’s house and wait for fifteen or twenty minutes while Pamela and Mauge made phone calls. Towards the end, we gave up on looking for help, either from other elders in the neighborhood or from the youth who were reputedly going to help us around in the first place. When I questioned Don Eufracio about this in my interview, he admitted that attendance at water committee meetings had suffered badly as of late, mostly due to recent problems with the water supply that were out of his hands. He also noted his concern that he was the only one who knew the full extent of how the water committee worked knowledge that had gotten him reelected as president of the committee several times. However, he knew he was getting older and was hopeful someone younger would take over soon.


Water Quality

Why would someone quit using the water? As Don Eufracio mentioned during the first meeting, the water that came from the pipes was salty—so salty, in fact, that it often had a milky-white tinge when put into a container. It could hardly be used for washing clothes or dishes—they would be left caked with salt—though, left with no choice, people did sometimes do exactly that. This was the main complaint that people had about the water, though other important complaints will be noted later. When asked, Don Eufracio said that the water used to be better—agua dulce, potable water—which led me to believe that the aquifer the well drew from must be nearing depletion. (After speaking to others, I confirmed that this is a pervasive, significant threat facing water committees in the southern zone.)

This idea was reinforced by the fact that water flow is very low in San Miguel: the well produces an average of 0.43 liters per second. Peter Gleick (1996:91) has estimated that individuals need 50 liters per day minimum for basic domestic needs. By my calculations, the well that the water committee owns must produce 37,152 liters per day, enough to support 743 people by Gleick’s standards, far short of the 3,500 in all the households that were members of the committee.

This shortfall can be explained in three ways. First, as I learned while reading meters, many members of the committee did not use the committee as a primary strategy for procuring water—every fifth or sixth one seemed to read close to zero. Second, the committee was buying water in bulk (en bloque) from SEMAPA to make up for the lack of productivity by the well. Third, the people of San Miguel do not use as much water as is recommended by Gleick. When I asked people how they used water, they usually responded that they used it to clean.[3] Fresh juice, chicha (corn beer), soft drinks, and beer are much more common drinks for mealtime—not water.

The low quantity of water being provided by the water committee’s well was certainly a source of consternation amongst committee members, and especially Don Eufracio, who saw their choice to build the well where they did (with expert input) as a grave mistake. In reality, it was a crapshoot. The inability of the committee to provide adequate water services, even if it wasn’t their fault, led to a corresponding loss of respect and trust in the committee amongst community members, manifested in a lack of participation in meetings and upkeep.

In one instance, we got to a house and found the kind of mark on the wall that usually signified that the water line went under that spot (meaning the meter should be a couple of feet beyond the wall perpendicular to that spot). But the entire area where the meter could have been was paved over with concrete. Mauge (my companion for the day) knocked on the door. A young woman with a baby in her arms opened the metal gate suspiciously.[4] We asked her if she could show us where her water meter was.

“Meter? I don’t think we have one,” she responded. I showed her where the meter should have been. A look of understanding passed over her face, and she said, “We paved over it, that’s right. We didn’t get water any of last year, so we didn’t think it mattered.” Mauge and I looked at one another in disappointment. The committee’s temporary inability to provide water had led to the permanent loss of one of its members.

The committee did not have the capital to go out and invest in a new well anytime soon, and in the meantime it was apparent that the committee was losing respect and viability as an alternative to other water procurement strategies. I did not realize how much damage was done, affecting not just the comité but the well-being of the people, until my second-to-last day working with the committee, when the Rutgers students brought cameras to conduct video interviews with barrio residents.


On Camera—the Storekeeper and the Baby

            While I had seen first-hand how a lack of good water was affecting San Miguel, I assumed people were coping one way or another. The barrio didn’t seem especially poor, and bottled water was available, if expensive (4 bolivianos or so for a bottle). But the visceral way that water insecurity affected San Migueleños hadn’t been put on full display quite yet.

Mike, one of the Rutgers students, was my companion for the day as we walked around looking for people to interview. A woman saw him with his camera and asked what we were doing; eventually she ended up agreeing to share her thoughts.[5] Doña Catarina was a long-time resident of San Miguel (over twenty years), and this was her perspective on the water situation:

Well, I’ve lived here 20 years and we have always received water from cistern trucks. Over time they got the ability to pump groundwater, but I have never consumed from it because it was very salty and it wasn’t good for consumption, or even to wash clothes, and for that reason I rarely use that water…. If you want to wash the walls, it will ruin your walls. If you want to wash the street, maybe it’s good for that, but I don’t even use it for that. What am I going to waste it for? For the street I use what’s left over from washing clothes and other things… Yes, we get it from trucks. That water is usually fresh water that they bring from the Northern Zone. It’s water we can still drink. We also don’t know if it’s really clean water, but what else are we going to do? That’s the water we use. Each day, here in the house I use about three barrels, that’s about 15 bolivianos per day. It’s the most expensive water. Of course it strains the budget. But what else are we supposed to do? (Como El Agua 2011)

Doña Catarina’s budget was compromised due to the high price of water from the only

reliable source (private trucks). I couldn’t help but think of the anecdotes I’d heard from

the Water War, of families who had to ration their meals or stop children from going to school for fear of not having enough money to pay the water bill. In this case, the problem wasn’t severe enough to merit direct action, but it seemed to me almost as sinister in its relative dullness—the quotidian nature of the problem. While Doña Catarina didn’t provide any details, there is no question that savings that would come from using less expensive water would make a difference to her finances. The opportunity cost of buying water from trucks was high, but it was one families had to pay if they wanted to be able to drink.

Later that same, sunny afternoon, I was around the corner reading meters when Mike asked me to help him with an interview. Don Eufracio, my partner that day, had headed back to his house to fetch another alicate (pliers), so I agreed to help for a minute.

We walked together to the front of a typical Bolivian general store to find a middle-aged woman. Mike told me in English that she wanted to talk, and asked me to hold the camera while he spoke to her. He explained to her who we were and what we were doing, and then indicated to me to start taping.

At first she was shy, or vague, when responding to his questions. He asked her whether she was a water committee member. She said she was not. He asked why; she said the water was bad, shaking her head soberly as she answered. Mike pressed her—what did she mean that the water was bad?

“The water that comes from the faucet is a very poor quality. Even the water that the committee has bought from the trucks that deliver to the big tanks. All my children have been sick because of this water, especially that one,” she said, pointing to a boy perhaps three years old. “For a month he had rashes. All over his body. I had to take him to the doctor he was so sick. The doctor said it was from the water. That sickness, and who knows how many more the water might have caused.” Her sorrow turned to anger. “What do we do to deserve this, when even the water will poison you? The innocent children, too?”[6]

I had no answer.


The Last Meeting; Alalay and the Country Club

            Every time we drove south to San Miguel, we passed Laguna Alalay on our right side. The lake has several soccer fields on its eastern edge, and I was pleasantly surprised to see baseball fields to the south. The water was mostly a greenish color, thanks to the amount of growth all over the surface—Pamela told me it was because of nitrogen that had leached into the lake. Though the lake was a public park, we were always advised not to visit it, as it was known we would be targeted and mugged.

Just to the right other side of the road (El Circuito Bolivia), the Cochabamba Country Club’s fairways stretched out parallel to our route. From the car we could glimpse a well-manicured golf course, whose verdant expanse contrasted intensely with the brown hills and densely-packed concrete homes that made up the area south of the course. The Country Club web site shows pictures of an equestrian club, modern fitness facilities, fit golfers in the middle of their swings, and a swimming pool (Country Club Cochabamba).

The Country Club and Laguna Alalay together marked the transition to the southern zone of Cochabamba where SEMAPA had only barely made inroads. The contrast was jarringly ironic and troubling. Audubon International estimates the average American golf course uses 312,000 gallons (equivalent to 1,181 cubic meters) of water a day (Deford 2008). All this water so that a couple dozen people or so a day could play a game, when the people of the southern zone were going thirsty. It wasn’t just the quantity, but the quality as well. The water going to the golf course had to be of a higher quality than what San Migueleños were being offered; the beautiful flowerbeds would never grow if watered with such salty water. The juxtaposition of two very different water situations stuck with me throughout the ride, and beyond to this day.

We pulled into San Miguel one final time. Pamela, a native boliviana, had herself gotten sick that morning from eating vegetables washed with unclean water; nearly as soon as we had gotten out, she called a car to come get her to take her to the doctor. Don Eufracio, in his signature many-pocketed vest and blue hat, met us and escorted us into his home.

Today was the day of our despedida, our farewell. A despedida is a big thing in Bolivian culture: a time to celebrate, to say a goodbye, and formally recognize the reciprocal relations that have bound two groups. The other despedidias I’d been to had been big affairs, so I was surprised to find that our despedida was just going to be us and Don Eufracio. We ate dinner in a large meeting room, invited the driver in, and drank chicha. The size of the room, Don Eufracio’s physical smallness, and the absence of any of the peripheral characters in our story—the youths who were supposed to help us read meters, the old women who attended our first meeting, Mari Eugenia (Mauge) or Don José—combined to lend an air of sadness to the proceedings.

We knew that Don Eufracio was essentially alone in his job, and it seemed that he wasn’t up to the seemingly Sisyphean task. As he told me, he was too old for the job, but no one else wanted it. It wasn’t an easy position. The challenges facing the committee were great, and it seemed they couldn’t get a break. When the committee built a well, it turned out to be a poor investment, and only ten years after its construction was hardly producing any water, and even that was salty. When the committee bought water from SEMAPA to make up this shortfall, that water gave children rashes and drove away committee members. When the committee had built a new network, the pipes were damaged by the state’s construction of a sewer system. When we came to help, we were greeted with gratitude and commitment; but when we left, it was Don Eufracio only who said goodbye, and I feared the deck had been stacked against him all along.


Lomapampa: The first gringo to come by micro

Figure 4.4: Lomapampa

            I had only been in Cochabamba for a couple hours when I arrived in Lomapampa, a dusty barrio situated in the hills on the outskirts of the city, for the first time. It was the first of July, and I would be joining the rest of my study-abroad program there to start our volunteer work in the barrio. I would find out later that I hadn’t been expected to come that day at all, as I was alone and very worn out from my travel from the United States, but on that first day I didn’t want to make a bad first impression of laziness on my professors or peers, and so I decided to go.

This was easier said than done. My host mother, being a sensible upper-middle class Cochabambina, never traveled to the southern zone, which has a reputation for violence and lawlessness. Hence, she did not know how to get me to Lomapampa. We took a taxi to a bus stop and she inquired around, ultimately pushing me onto a schoolbus-sized vehicle painted red, yellow, and blue (a micro).[7] I asked the driver, with a bit of consternation, “A Lomapampa?” He nodded, took my two bolivianos, and kept driving.

Tired, I sat down in one of the bench seats. I had to turn sideways, because I was too tall and the benches too close together. I clutched my bag tight between my knees: all the travel books I’d read said buses were one of the most likely places for robberies. I was on my way, and I started observing earnestly. There was nothing that was not new: the sight of women dressed in traditional chola garb, the smell of the street, the many honking cars. I hung on to all of it. Nonetheless in the heat I began to drift off to sleep, the long hours of travel finally catching up to me. We spent what felt like an hour stuck in the central market of the city, La Cancha. I wove in and out of consciousness; I remember a man came on board to sell toothbrushes. When I finally awoke we were speeding down a kind of highway, and the euphoria of being in a new place returned. The refrain of the Bob Dylan song popped into my head: “A complete unknown/just like a rolling stone.”

Lomapampa was the last stop on the line. The bus jerked to a stop and I got out. I was the only one still on the bus. I was not sure if I was at all in the right place. I couldn’t see any gringos, that was for sure, and this barrio looked just like all the other ones I had passed. But then two faces emerged from behind a building on a hill, and, descending, I recognized Dr. Daniel Goldstein—who looked mostly relieved—and Dr. Pamela Calla—who was laughing.

“Hayden,” Pamela said, “I think you are the first gringo to ever come to Lomapampa by micro!” So began my first visit to Lomapampa. Two experiences in Lomapampa allegorized the water situation there, illustrating viscerally how central water can be in the struggle between life and death.

Every weekend, on Sunday afternoons, all the study-abroad participants would travel to Lomapampa to teach children. Some taught crafts, or dance; I was in the group teaching physical education. We often taught basketball, since the kids were better than

Figure 4.5: Teaching basketball in Lomapampa

we were at soccer anyways. For some strange reason there is a basketball hoop in every barrio in Cochabamba, even if almost no one knows how to play. As the sun beat down we would do dribbling drills, passing exercises, and the occasional scrimmage. Unaccustomed as we were to the high altitude, the four of us gringos teaching the class had to make sure we drank a lot of water. (We always made sure to bring bottled water for ourselves.) After the first time we scrimmaged, though, we saw the way the children watched us drink. We collectively realized the children had no water, and held out the bottle to one of them. They passed around the bottle until every drop was gone. From then on, we brought bottled water for them.

The quality of the little water available in Lomapampa is as much of a problem as its scarcity. The second experience began during a lunchtime in Lomapampa. I was eating and realized I had forgotten my water bottle. As is the case throughout Bolivia, Lomapampa had a small corner tienda where one could buy snacks, mobile phone credits, drinks, and other sundries. I went to the tienda in Lomapampa and asked for a water, as I had before. This time, thought, they said they had no bottles; a girl, maybe twelve, brought me a plastic pouch, straight from a refrigerator against the back wall. It only cost a boliviano or so, so I bought two.

I was immediately suspicious, because I had never seen water sold this way before. But when I got back to lunch, my professors and our Bolivian guides found nothing objectionable about the bagged water. It was sealed and clean, so I drank it. This was on Sunday. I was okay until the next day, when I went home with what I believed to be heat exhaustion; I did not sleep Monday night, and was in the emergency room Wednesday.[8] I was hospitalized Thursday. I was back home by Saturday night, but the fundamental lesson was simple: bad water can kill. It is likely that the water in the bag was merely well or SEMAPA water, unfiltered (and certainly unsafe for me) and simply put in a bag for retail (this is a common complaint against aguateros). There is an analogous situation in the United States, where bottled water—which costs much more than tap water—is often just tap water put into a bottle. The difference is that the tap water in most of the U.S. won’t make you sick.

Had I been unable to afford care, or been unable to access care, my situation may have been much worse. Though grown Bolivians might drink the bag-water without any problem, building up that resistance takes a toll, or, as is discussed in the San Miguel case, lead to illness. These two cases taken together were vivid, lived illustrations to me of the centrality of clean water to life in Lomapampa, despite its relative absence. One doctor estimated to me that eight percent of illnesses in Cochabamba were related to the lack of clean water.

When I returned to Cochabamba in January, one of my goals was to revisit Lomapampa and learn more about its water situation. I was able to do this primarily through the helpfulness of Don Álvaro, the president of Lomapampa, who I came to know throughout the Rutgers program. Don Álvaro had been a primary informant for Dr. Goldstein, who sought to return the favor by organizing a service-learning program that would work in Don Álvaro’s neighborhood (i.e., the program I attended).

Álvaro Murillo was Presidente of the OTB of Lomapampa and had a personality fit for his office. A short, squat man with a booming laugh, weathered face, and a gold tooth, Don Álvaro is spoken of admirably by his peers. He is well-respected for his leadership, loyalty, and faith, including his ability to defuse conflicts.[9] I never asked his age, but he has several children and one granddaughter. He earns money working as a cab driver some days, and his wife is part of a small business cooperative. Like many of the inhabitants of Cochabamba, he was not born in the city, but rather hails from a rural area of Cochabamba Department.

While I visited with Don Álvaro, we would often spend the first half of our conversation on water-related topics, guided only by my curiosity. During the second half—over lunch, perhaps—the discussion would turn to religion. Don Álvaro would tell me, “Ask everything you want now. But I will ask questions later.” Don Álvaro told me he had been baptized several times, but finally found the true faith after reading the teachings of William Marrion Branham.[10] Our relationship was founded on mutual curiosity about one another’s backgrounds and knowledge: I would draw him a map of the U.S., he would show me how he collected rainwater, and so on.

The first thing I asked Don Álvaro in a formal interview, in January, was fairly open-ended. We were sitting outside on his patio, a couple feet from his barrel of water. It was a sunny day, though clouds lingered in the distance, hiding the distant mountaintops from view. He had just finished handling some business with an elderly visitor, indecipherable to me because it was conducted in Quechua. “What is the water situation like in Lomapampa?” I queried.

He took a deep breath, and said conclusively, “No existe.”

Don Álvaro didn’t mean, of course, that there was literally no water consumed in Lomapampa. There was no central, organized water system—SEMAPA did not exist here, south of San Miguel, and neither did any water committee. How, then, did Lomapampeños get their water?



The next question I asked Don Álvaro was “Do you participate in the administration of your water?” My thought was that social control had been such a big emphasis during the Water War—had it become anything more than an idea here in Lomapampa?

“No, no. We can’t participate in the administration of our water because it’s not from the government!” he responded.

In the early days of the barrio, residents could get their water from a creek on a nearby ridge. Since 2000, though, getting water from the creek had ceased to be a viable strategy; like many such sources around the valley, it had dried up. Ten or so families owned their own small wells on this ridge, but this water was drying up, Don Álvaro believed. Today, a majority of the barrio uses a mixed rainwater/water truck strategy.

During the summertime, rain is the most important source of water for Lomapampeños, and is preferable to other sources of water. Lomapampeños are enthusiastic about rainwater not just because it is basically free—one must only buy a barrel to keep it in—but also because it is clean.[11] One resident I asked told me enthusiastically that water bought from trucks would turn colors after two weeks, but that rain water, being clean, would not turn colors for six months after collection. Rainwater was collected during the summer months via basic catchment systems, and stored in barrels, as seen in Figure 4.6.

Figure 4.6: Don Álvaro showing off his rainwater collection system

        The other strategy used by Lomapampeños was to buy water from carros cisternos, or water trucks. These trucks could be seen driving all over Cochabamba. They were owned by private vendors, whose operations were of varying size and quality. The price of a barrel was about five bolivianos, but varied slightly in proportion to the price of gasoline. Water from trucks was cheaper than government water. Families would buy more barrels each week, but could be at the mercy of the vendors. Sometimes a truck would not come in a given week; there was no contract requiring them to, in any case. The consumers were at the mercy of the vendors in another way, too: there were no promises as to the source of the water. As noted before, the water would turn colors after two weeks, suggesting that it wasn’t always of the highest quality, containing impurities or bacteria. One certainly couldn’t trust it to cook with or drink—whenever possible, the water was boiled before use, or even treated with cloro (chlorine). Then the water is used to drink, cook, garden, wash clothes, wash the house—anything.

Figure 4.7: A cistern truck in a neighborhood in central Cochabamba

            I learned that Don Álvaro had solicited SEMAPA to extend its water network to Lomapampa. He had paid for architect’s plans and environmental reports with barrio money, and turned in a formal application to the government. Unfortunately, that was five years ago, and he has never received any kind of answer.

Therefore, Don Álvaro, like others, was skeptical that water would reach the southern zone any time soon. “Sinceremente, it does not seem to me that water will ever reach the periurban population, the poor and the middle classes. Even the center of the town—even there, only maybe,” he mused.[12] There was a terrible tramite, he said, in terms of applications to get water, but that wasn’t all that there was.[13]

It was more than that: it was a question of fundamental inequality. The rich families had bought the land in Cala Cala with water, but the south was desiccated. Don Álvaro saw this inequality erupting at the locus of human rights.


Pura Letra

            “Water is a human right, guaranteed to all human beings,” Don Álvaro proclaimed. “It is like the sun—it is a right that one can sit in the sun, no? It’s the same with water,” he said, “No one can have it all. People charging for water is like a rich neighbor making a building that blocks the sun, and then making you pay for the sunlight!” Doña Cenovia, his wife, chimed in that water is “Para todos. God made it, and we are all God’s children.”

Nonetheless, the idea of a right to water was more problematic than it initially appeared:

For politicians, rights apply in politics, but not in daily life. The middle classes, the lower classes, they don’t have rights in reality. The police here need money for you to do something. We could go through the courts, but judges prefer people with more money. (Don Álvaro chuckles heartily.) I’ve been to Argentina, Chile—there police protect and help citizens. Here it’s the opposite. How can we talk about a right to water when we don’t even have the most basic rights of protection against crime? A right? Pura letra. (It’s just words.) Here you have to have money if you want someone to do something. There’s no guarantee of anything.


Don Álvaro continued to tell the story of a drunk-driving policeman who ran into him on the road. The policeman turned out to have fake plates, and was ultimately protected from prosecution by his friends. Don Álvaro could not talk about the right to water, because even more basic protections were still not presented to him. How could he expect due process in water supply if he could not get it in other instances?

Given this impunity, I couldn’t help but think of the moment in Heart of Darkness when the Russian realizes of the Nietzschean Kurtz, “there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased” (Conrad 1990:51). As in the jungle, there seemed to be no protection against the unfettered rule of force. In this case, that force was the embodied in the long list of disadvantages owned by the marginalized inhabitants of la zona sur, including poverty, ethnic minority status, and a state that had consistently all but denied them citizenship or its benefits, including water (Goldstein 2004:5).

Taking It Into Your Own Hands

            Don Álvaro saw that the state could not be counted on to provide for the people of Lomapampa. He did not plan on waiting around another five years for SEMAPA’s response if he could help it. Even if he did receive a response from SEMAPA, he and other community activists provided reasons why it would be better not to rely on the government for water.

First, the government water was expensive. SEMAPA water, as stated above, cost more than private water. This was partially because the SEMAPA water came through tubes mixed with air, and the system did not have a pump that could take the air out. This meant that consumers ended up paying for water and air that came through their pipes and meters. Second, the government water was not of an especially high quality, something that was attributed to the fact that the water came in open canals that could be polluted. Finally, and most importantly, the inhabitants of Lomapampa had learned not to “trust the administration” because it was “corrupt and unreliable.”

Don Álvaro had two ideas for progress on this front, but neither would likely come to fruition anytime soon. The first was a joint project with other leaders of the southern OTBs—a grand plan for connecting the whole zone to the water network. The plans for this, he told me, were ready to go, but there wasn’t enough money for the project. “Waiting on finances!” he exclaimed. “Always.” Similarly, there wasn’t enough money to start a water committee, because of the massive initial investment required to construct the concrete tanks.

His second plan was even more independent, but was more of a short term fix. He wanted to buy a carro cisterno for the barrio, build a tank at the top of the hill, and supply water this way for the community. Water would be bought in bulk from SEMAPA and sold at a price that would pay for the truck, gas, maintenance, and a driver. This way, he said, they would know where the water was coming from, and have a reliable supply. Alas, there was no money for this, either. He didn’t know how much the tanks would cost, but a new Volvo (carro cisterno) cost $30,000, far out of the community’s budget.

The last word I got Don Álvaro to give on this matter before we slipped into theology discussion was this: “These are three hundred fifty families, more than a thousand people, without water. Human beings. And there isn’t enough water. They want water for all, but it doesn’t exist. The rich have it all.”


Other Voices: Visiting Fundacion Abril and AAPS

I knew all along that my return to Cochabamba in January 2012 couldn’t possibly last as long as I wanted it to, but I wanted it to last as long as I needed it to, long enough to gather evidence from the sources that were crucial to answering my ethnographic questions. Ten days in Cochabamba was enough to begin to feel comfortable, but not long enough to relax.

The most important informants in the quest to understand water in the southern barrios of Cochabamba are, of course, the inhabitants of those barrios. Other players, however, possess the capacity for insight into this situation, by virtue of their own history of work trying to service or influence it. Such players might include government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private businesses, missionaries, academics, and so on. My personal wish list of ‘other voices’ to include in this project included, at the outset, ASICA-Sur, SEMAPA, and Fundación Abril.

On my last full day in Cochabamba—Friday—I set out to get in contact with as many of these ‘other voices’ as possible.

This wasn’t the first time I had gone on such a quest, however. I had spent the previous days trying to track down a professor named Carlos Crespo whose work I had read on the internet. I knew that Dr. Crespo worked at a special institute of the university, called the Centro de Estudios Superiores Universitarios (at Universidad-Mayor San Simon). All Wednesday afternoon I had walked around the campus asking students and faculty if they knew where I might find this institute and the professor’s office. I was led on a wild goose chase for an hour or so until I finally found out the offices were located almost a mile away, off campus. Thursday afternoon I made my way to the offices only to find out Dr. Crespo was not in, and was indeed on vacation (though I did obtain his email address). From all of this I learned that such journeys could be quite unpredictable.

Luckily, Thursday afternoon I had also been able to finally get in touch with an elusive old acquaintance, Mari Eugenia, the same woman I had worked with in Villa San Miguel. We made plans to meet Friday morning at the Fundación Abril headquarters, which I was surprised to find were located in a house within walking distance. I strolled there, watching the clouds gather over the mountains to the northeast. I walked over SEMAPA meters installed in the sidewalk, and realized the Fundación Abril house would have running municipal water, unlike so many of the houses they were trying to help.

I was received into the house, and found five or six individuals working on different projects in three different rooms. One bearded, Spanish-looking man typed away at a computer. Two women in their thirties, dressed in the local hippie style, were poring over a map spread out over a table in the center of the main room. I was told to wait for just a moment; Mauge (Mari Eugenia) would arrive in five or ten minutes.

I started to search through the bookshelf of volumes, trying to pick one to read to pass. Andean studies, water, cooperative resource use, and anti-globalization were common themes. Before I could choose just one, though, Mauge arrived, and we removed ourselves to a small side office for the interview. She greeted me with a surprised smile and exclaimed in Spanish, “A gringo who came back!”

We sat down and I reviewed with her what exactly it was I had come looking for. I had a series of questions ready, but of course these proved only to be guidelines.

The most interesting outcome of the interview was the revelation that the Dr. Crespo I had been searching for before was actually one of the directors of Fundación Abril—a natural outcome, given the papers I’d read in which he’d readily espoused the kinds of social action this NGO engages in. I also suddenly had a wealth of leads to follow. Mauge recommended a book to me, gave me the author’s number, and told me where I could buy it. She also gave me Dr. Crespo’s number. Finally, and most importantly, she gave me a phone number for someone who worked at CTRL, the licensing body, and told me how to get to the offices of ASICA-Sur.

The first lead turned out to be about as good as dead: when I called the number, a totally different person answered. The number had changed, a common occurrence in Bolivia. The university office where the book could be bought was on the outskirts of town, and closed early that day; if I made the trip, I might not make it before the office closed, and everything else would be closed when I got back. I headed home to lunch and recoup, turning my attentions towards finding ASICA-Sur.

After a hearty meal I walked to the main avenue and hailed a cab. The cabbie and I talked about the weather, and, then, about his former job as a policeman. I asked whether he had been here during the water war. No, he said, he had been in Santa Cruz, in training; but he had heard rumors about how things had gone, and, anyways, he had been at the Gas War in La Paz, and that had been much of the same. From his description, it sounded like the police hadn’t had much of an idea what was going on: he painted a picture of confusion and inexperience, saying that the police didn’t know why they were fighting against the protesters and in many cases hadn’t been trained how to use their weapons (specifically, tear gas grenades). They had been happy to ultimately take advantage of the situation by, in the grand Bolivian tradition, joining the strike and petitioning the government for better wages.

I said goodbye to the driver when we hit a traffic jam two blocks from my destination. As I strode to where I thought the offices were, I thought about the difficult position the police had been put in during the Water and Gas Wars. While the police are known for being overwhelmingly corrupt, many of them surely empathized with the protesters, and had friends or relatives in their ranks.

I knew I was in the right place: directly across from the old Catholic church. But I didn’t see any offices. I looked at all the street signs. Nothing. I went into a mall to look or ask someone. There wasn’t anyone on the bottom floor, so I walked up. I saw two women working in an office, filing papers, and started to ask them where ASICA-Sur was. That was when I noticed the poster on the wall behind them, advertising for a conference on water in Bolivia. I looked up at the sign over the door and saw that it read CTRL—Comité Técnico de Registros y Licencias. I turned to my right: there, another office, this one governmental—AAPS—and, across from it, ASICA-Sur.

ASICA-Sur consisted of a single office, perhaps twenty feet by thirty feet, but no one was there: they were away on vacation. In the AAPS office across from it, however, a case officer was hearing the pleas of two middle-aged men. AAPS, I saw, stood for Autoridad de Fiscalización y Control Social de Agua Potable y Saneamiento Básico. It seemed to be exactly the kind of place I could learn something from. I settled into a chair by the door, indicating that I would wait, and started looking around. Above the bureaucrat’s head was a portrait of Evo Morales, a Bolivian flag (the national one, not the Wiphala), and a map of Cochabamba. There were only two desks.

I looked closer at the map of Cochabamba. It looked a lot like the one I had received at the beginning of my stay in the city, a gift from my travel agency. The city I had become familiar with was outlined in black, with no indication of what lay beyond its borders. Tellingly, I thought, it looked as if the city had been shifted downwards in the poster, so that its southern reaches were cut off, framed so that the poor austral barrios were not even acknowledged as part of the municipality.

The men at the desk exchanged a significant glance, stood up, shook the bureaucrat’s hand, and left. I walked to the desk and sat down. The man fussed with some papers for a second, then turned to face me. I introduced myself: I am a student, from the U.S.A. “Yo soy Richard. Como mi presidente favorito, Richard Nixon,” he returned, laughing over his joke.

I told him how I had ended up at AAPS, and what kind of information I was looking for. He was happy to oblige and asked only that I sign in to an official notebook he kept on his desk.

Richard started by telling me it was unfortunate, but ASICA-Sur was out on vacation this week. Still, he felt he could help me, and he did. It turns out that AAPS is in some sense a consumer protection agency. AAPS hears complaints against domestic water service providers (known as EPSAs[14]). If a consumer feels that an EPSA is not fulfilling its legal obligations, he or she can complain to the EPSA. If the EPSA does not resolve the problem within 15 days they can bring the complaint to AAPS.[15]

These complaints, Richard said, run the gamut, but most have to do with people who think they are being charged too much (una factura elevada, an “elevated bill”). Most of the time, he said, it is an error on the part of the EPSA (which is often SEMAPA). I mentioned the rumor I’d heard about water being mixed with air in the tubes, causing people to be overcharged. He responded that they had heard this rumor, too, and so were conducting tests to figure out how to fix it. In fact, he said, they had just hired a team of scientists to survey the water quality all around the city, whose work would commence in March 2012.

Richard’s fundamental job was to protect consumers’ rights. He used this word before I prompted him, saying very explicitly, “¡los usuarios tienen derechos!”  These rights were listed in a pamphlet he gave me and anyone else who visited the office (see Appendix). I asked him about the “social control” aspect of AAPS. He responded by telling me about CTRL, the office across the way, whose members were “elected from the bases[16] and which received applications for new water licenses. “We regulate everyone,” he said. “From the aguateros to SEMAPA.”

Richard’s general feeling on SEMAPA was that, for better or worse, they were a business. “SEMAPA is a business, and therefore it thinks only of income and expenses,” he said. And that’s why they have no interest in improving their services. “Projects for improvement, no, there aren’t any, really. ¡Mentira! They don’t want to improve, or invest in, the system,” he said with disdain. In this comment I began to detect a trace of the experiences and beliefs that might have led him to this office in the first place. I asked him whether he had participated in the Water War. He laughed, and said, “Of course. We all did.”

I followed up by asking about something I had been trying to figure out for a while. “For you,” I said, “what was the Water War all about?” What I was trying to get at was a distinction I had noticed forming. Some people said the Water War was just about the price of water—that it had been triggered by the price increase put in place by Aguas del Tunari. Others, though, believed it was set off by the notion that water was a commodity at all, something that could be bought by a multinational corporation. In large part, I felt as if my more well-off informants ascribed to the former theory, whereas the informants who worked in water advocacy or who were from the southern zone tended to ascribe to the latter.[17]

Richard’s response was intriguing, and fell into the latter category. “I will tell you what the Water War was all about. Do you know that there is a Pepsi plant here, and it has fifteen or sixteen wells? They don’t pay for it. They aren’t accountable to anyone. All around the plant, the water is drying up, and neighborhood wells will not be good anymore. This is the same as the Water War. It’s ten years gone, but it’s still here.” The linkage of a multinational corporation, and the blind eye turned by the government towards its practices by virtue of its links abroad, was immediate.[18] The Water War wasn’t over.

Richard identified the contamination of the environment and the depletion of groundwater as the most pressing large-scale issues facing water management in the Cochabamba Valley. He did, however, believe there was hope, starting with a new approach to water that would center around uso racional (rational use). His office was conducting workshops throughout the city (and the peri-urban areas) on the “rational use” of water with respect to the environment. He wanted these workshops to be a vehicle to spread a more rational way of thinking about water. “Rational use” entailed, as I understood it, a hierarchy of uses for water (with human use at the top, then agricultural use, then industrial use, in Richard’s opinion), contractual rights between providers and consumers, and large-scale, long-term management incorporating environmental approaches and coordination between all stakeholders. Moreover, he hoped that this concept would be embedded in the coming Ley de Agua Potable, currently being developed by the Morales administration.[19] We exchanged emails, I thanked him, and I left. On the way out I visited the CTRL office, but it was getting late and they were too busy to help me, and so sent me away with some pamphlets and promises to answer any emails I sent.


            Later that night I was out at a café in the middle of the city. I was poring over my notes, trying to make sense of all that had transpired during my nearly two-week visit in the middle of January 2012. Nursing a mate de coca, I spied a familiar vendor. This man wore what looked to me like a fishing vest, but it was filled with cigarette boxes and packs of gum. Like a waiter balancing a tray of food on one hand, he carried a platter of his most popular offerings on his right hand, wading through the crowd inquiring as to whether anyone wanted any of his goods. I recognized him because I had bought gum from him on another occasion. Seeing me, he smiled and asked, “Do you want more gum?” I decided I’d like to have some for the plane ride home the next day and passed over a couple bolivianos. We got to talking about my trip, and ultimately I asked him about the Water War and its aftermath. My notes from that night show his response when I asked him about the right to water:

“Water, if it is a right, still has to be paid for, at least in this country. And most people—especially in la zona sur (stresses this many times)—don’t have the money. It’s true that many of the barrios have cooperatives, but even then, the water, it is not good. Sometimes it is–for example, Taquiña has great water. But usually, the quality is low. The water comes from wells, and of course wells take money, and in the southern zone they don’t have a lot of money, so a lot of the time the wells are not made properly. They might have been drilled in a bad place, so that the people only receive a little bit of water. Or they might be damaged, so that there is contamination. For this reason the people really only drink water off of trucks, which are private enterprises. It’s not cheap, no, not at all… (asked about the water war) The people are not proud of the water war, no. Nothing has gotten better. How could they be? Nothing much has happened since then.”


            This response painted a starkly different picture from what I’d seen in the movie F.L.O.W., which depicted Cochabamba’s victory against privatization as a total success. As I had seen, difficulties were present at every step of the road in the quest for social control of water. One could start one’s own water committee, but it would require weeks of manual labor, as in Sivingani. One could apply for a license, but there was no guarantee the government would respond, as in Lomapampa. Once one had a water committee, there was the perpetual danger that a well would break or some other infrastructural problem, with costs greater than the committee’s resources, would undermine the thin layer of trust that held the committee together, as in San Miguel. Even though the campaign for rational management was underway at AAPS, there were significant hurdles to realizing this vision, including environmental degradation already done to the water supply in the valley.

I learned an immense amount from my experiences, all the way from the fields of Sivingani to the offices of Universidad de San Simon.[20] What I learned challenged me constantly, requiring a move from the simple view of Cochabamba’s Water War as a victory against privatization into a more complex understanding of the war as a battle in a historically ongoing struggle by excluded populations for full citizenship. In the next chapter I will summarize the results of my ethnography before making the step into analysis.










[1] See AAPS section, p. 88

[2] Vocal means something like “non-officer member of the board.” (Samson, personal communication)

[3] San Miguel, like much of Cochabamba, is very dusty, especially in the winter months (June-August). Mopping the floor gets rid of this dust.

[4] I don’t mean to impute anything negative through the use of this word—the reader should remember that this suspicion is a natural reaction to the danger of crime in the area.

[5] Because we worked in the day, men were almost always away from home when we were checking the meters (usually from 1-4 p.m.).

[6] Footage for this incident was lost, unfortunately, and so is not featured in Como El Agua, the documentary that the Rutgers students made about their experience, but I was able to piece it together with help from Mike Molina.

[7] Micros are buses operated by independent owners but regulated by the city. They run on fixed routes, as do trufis (mini-buses), and with trufis are the main mode of transportation for most of Cochabamba.

[8] Water-borne illnesses often take two days to show symptoms. The doctor said this was in all likelihood what made me sick.

[9] See Goldstein 2012, forthcoming.

[10] Branham (1909-1965) was an American charismatic minister known for his predictions of the Second Coming, faith healings, and evangelism. He is seen as a prophet by his followers. As an ethnographer, these conversations were interesting and illuminating, allowing me to learn about evangelical Bolivian’s worldviews. As an individual, however, the views he presented struck me at times as off-base, misinformed, or frighteningly extreme. I felt obligated to listen to his opinions but worried about offending him, lest I lose an important informant. I did not want to present myself as a non-believer, lest Don Álvaro spend the rest of our precious time trying to convert me. When he said things like, “Women can’t be priests,” or “Catholics killed all the dragons,” I focused my efforts on allowing him to explain these perspectives rather than challenging them, as I might have done in another context. I felt it important to learn more about his faith, as evangelism is a rising force in Bolivia and I needed to admit the possibility it might influence political attitudes relevant to my thesis.


[11] Cochabamba receives 19 inches of rainfall per year, more than Honolulu, HI (18.29) and less than San Francisco, CA (20.1) (Bolivia Weather; National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration 2007).

[12] I should note that so long as there was no water, there was no hope of a sewage system, either.

[13] A tramite is a procedure, but with the usual connotation that the wait is going to be filled with arduous and bureaucratic hurdles.

[14] EPSAs include many different kinds of water service providers.

[15] This number is also quoted at 20 days on the AAPS website.

[16] Literally “bases,” but with the connotation of “the common people.”

[17] An important question to ask oneself is whether, if this correlation does actually exist, it existed at the time of the Water War, or developed afterwards.

[18] The CIA World Factbook adds that “industrial pollution of water supplies used for drinking and agriculture” is a serious environmental problem in Bolivia (Central Intelligence Agency 2012).

[19] The prior relevant law was passed in 1906. The revamping of this law is part of MAS grand strategy to cycle through all laws on the books and refashion them in accordance with MAS ideology.

[20] Where I was attempting to interview Carlos Crespo, a Bolivian anthropologist and water management activist. He turned out to be on a family vacation in another part of the country.


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