Thirst In The Garden City: Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Results and Discussion: Sun and Shadow in Cochabamba


A giant statue of Christ stands over Cochabamba. The city’s people claim it is the tallest Christ in the world, taller than the one in Rio de Janeiro, though there are rumors the Polish have topped it. Some people I met would like this be what Cochabamba is known for: a tall Christ. But it is not so. Cochabamba is known as the site of a popular social movement that said “no” to powerful interests abroad, the place where the right to water was defined and defended. While these things may be true, the preceding chapters have shown that this is not the whole story, which is much more complex and less triumphant than it may have seemed to be in 2000 when the Water Warriors pushed back against the World Bank.


A Spectrum of Experiences

            The ethnography I conducted illustrates a wide view of experiences within the confines of la zona sur. While the people of Sivingani were just starting their water committee, the committee at San Miguel had been around for more than ten years, and seemed nearly finished. The water situation in the southern zone exhibits a diversity of experiences not only between barrios but also within them. Some people in a barrio can be very involved in water management while others are content to pay for private water.

Situations and opinions within the entire city are even more widely divergent, traceable mainly along the lines of geography from the center of the city to its waterless south. A variety of understandings of the meaning of water—and of the human right to water—were demonstrated, incorporating global/ecological, local/sociocultural, and transnational/market considerations (Conca 2006:216).


            The case studies in Sivingani, Lomapampa, and San Miguel demonstrate that even within the southern zone there are a variety of situations, united by the common experience of exclusion. Exclusion is a sociocultural consideration that looms large in the minds of all marginalized peoples. The long history of exclusion from political processes for the poor and indigenous in Bolivia, including the apportioning of natural resources like water, makes exclusion the dominant lens through which many of my conversants narrated their experiences with water management.

            The following table is the result of the twenty semi-structured interviews I held with individuals who a) lived in the southern zone, and b) were not employed in water management (though they might have been members of a water committee). Interviews were conducted on buses, in taxis, in restaurants, and on the street.

Water War made things better Water War did not make things better
11 9
Water situation is improving Water situation is not improving
6 14


People in the southern zone were less than enthusiastic about the possibility that their water situation would improve. This is not a shock, given that things haven’t improved in the last ten years. Perhaps more surprisingly, many opined that the Water War did not make things better, instead emphasizing that it prevented the situation from getting worse. This shows that the story told by FLOW and other media is incomplete and even misleading.

Exclusion figured largely in my discussions. Several individuals related water to dignity, including one who noted that before she had water she could not keep her home clean, which she was ashamed of. Water was also linked to humanity, and it was stressed that to be human was to need water. The most salient instances of exclusion were exclusions from decision-making processes. Citizens in the southern zone were acutely aware of prior instances of exclusion, citing such instances as being excluded from SEMAPA, being excluded from the decision-making process before the Water War, and in the case of Sivingani, being excluded from the processes that led to waste being dumped in their barrio. These examples all happened since 1993, when fully 80 percent of the peri-urban areas of Cochabamba were classified as illegal and were therefore completely excluded from political processes (Goldstein 2006:79). Exclusion became a shaping force of the worldviews of many in the southern zone of Cochabamba.

During one conversation with an itinerant street vendor, I was told, “I am basically invisible to the government; they like to ignore people like me, so that they can pretend I am not a citizen.” When people spoke of citizenship, they did not mean formal citizenship, but rather what Holston (1999) has called “substantive citizenship” that includes the realization of civil and political rights and not just their promise—things they feel they sorely lack.

A pervasive theme was distrust of the government and its promises. The government has promised the people of Lomapampa several things over the years: the completion of Misicuni, fair consideration for addition to the network, and assistance in starting a water committee. None of these has been forthcoming. Neither do they receive adequate police services, health services, or sewage services. Distrust of the government springs from pervasive corruption. Corruption perpetuates exclusion, as “in this country you need money to have a voice.” Years of governmental incongruity between word and practice has taught a rough lesson to the people of la zona sur: if you want a job done, you must do it yourself.

Perhaps predictably, my interviews revealed several distinctive points of departure between the ways the well-to-do cochabambinos and marginalized inhabitants of the southern zone spoke about water. Significantly, many of the middle-to-upper class Bolivians I spoke to were emphatic in their claim that the Water War had been triggered by poor planning on Aguas del Tunari’s part. Specifically, they believed Aguas del Tunari had been thoughtless in their pricing scheme. If the consortium had not raised prices so suddenly, I was told, no one ever would have protested. Individuals from the southern zone, and especially those who belonged to water committees, emphasized not price but place in their comments. They saw it as a complete contradiction that a multinational company could own the wells of the barrios they had built with their own effort—and impossible that profits from selling the water fallen from the sky or pumped from the ground could go to the pockets of someone in another country.

This contradiction was ontological, in that the two groups categorized water’s existence in two separate ways. Bronwen Morgan’s description of rural conception of “water as territory” versus an urban conception of “water as service” is helpful here (2011:86). Because people use and access water in different ways, they relate to it in different ways. The first emphasizes participation and sovereignty over water and its many uses (including agricultural), whereas the second allows focuses on questions of affordability and access. In the periurban areas, I found the first to be more common, and the second more present in well-to-do central areas. Part of the success of the Water Warriors was in uniting urban and rural groups, but their union did not persist into the stage of actually managing Cochabamba’s water.[1]


The Meaning of the Right to Water in Cochabamba

Perhaps because of the desire to end exclusion, social control and the notion of participation were much more salient to my interviewees than were human rights. Operationally, human rights have done little to nothing to actually expand access to potable water in Cochabamba; there are no stories of anyone using the Constitutional clause to petition for water successfully. When I asked about human rights, the responses were almost always negative:[2]

  • “Water, if it is a right, still has to be paid for, at least in this country.”
  • “What’s a right? You can’t drink it. It’s a law. And in this country, that doesn’t mean much.”
  • “The middle classes, the lower classes—they don’t have rights. Those are for the rich.”

Human rights are literally words on paper for marginalized Bolivians—pura letra, as Don Álvaro put it. Anything further than that is not guaranteed. It was only through various forms of social control that inhabitants of the southern zone could expect to receive what the Constitution promised. Human rights, then, are seen by citizens of the southern zone as earned (by the sweat of one’s brow in constructing a network for a neighborhood water committee), fought for (by protesting SEMAPA or the government), or bought (by the upper classes).[3]

The second thing about the right to water—related to the above point about water as territory and water as service—is that it is seen as a natural right by periurban populations, while it is discussed as a legal right by many observers. Periurban individuals emphasized that the right to water exists outside the guarantee of any government. Conversants frequently compared water to air, and even once to the “shade of a tree” as something that should be enjoyed by all people as a function of their shared humanity. One conversant brushed aside my question about the establishment of a human right with the declaration, “That kind of right has always existed. It is part of the land.” From this perspective, talking about a right to water seems redundant to many periurban individuals—by their cultural calculus, everyone has the right to water, but this doesn’t guarantee access.

These points might be summarized by reference to a statement made to me by a Fundación Abril worker and water committee member: “Water committees are an exercise of the right to water,” she said. At first blush, this seems to run parallel to the actual letter of the law in the Constitution, which guarantees potable water to all. But the emphasis in practice is on direct participation in the administration of public water services. This practice is the focus of my next section.


The Practice of Social Control and the Discourse of Autonomy

            In this section, I will propose that current practices and discourse in the southern zone compose a Janus-faced situation, with two sides that cannot be understood independently of one another. On the one hand, citizens of Cochabamba have empowered themselves by several tactics, referred to collectively as the practice of “social control,” to be their own advocates in a new, pluralistic system of water management. This perspective on the situation has received most of scholarly and popular media attention, especially in the U.S. On the other hand, the anthropological perspective requires a search for interconnections between what people do and the context they do it in (Bodley 2008:277). I propose several mechanisms by which the practice of social control and other seemingly innocuous factors might be interconnected with the continuance of water poverty in southern Cochabamba.


Light in the Dark

The success of the Water Warriors against fifteen years of neoliberal hegemony struck a chord at home in Bolivia as well as internationally. Oscar Olivera received a hero’s welcome as he flew from city to city decrying the greed of Aguas del Tunari, eventually receiving the prestigious Goldman Prize for his activism. The Water War became a crucial victory for the anti-/alter-globalization movement (Albro 2005). The rallying cry centered around the notion that cochabambinos had achieved a kind of “water democracy.” The term is defined by Stewart (2006:17) in her examination of the formation of a water committee in la zona sur as “the opportunity for all citizens in a nation to participate fully in the decision-making processes regarding their own water management.” In this fundamentally optimistic perspective, water democracy is an intrinsic good that is achieved through the deployment of various measures, known as “social control” in the local case.

There is no question that there are things to be optimistic about. At the macro-level, the Cochabamba Water War kick-started processes that led to significant legal reforms, including establishment of pluralistic regulation,[4] elected spots on the board of SEMAPA, and a human right to water on the national and international scale. On an individual level, several conversants’ comments reveal the empowering nature of victory in the Water War and social control in its aftermath:

  • “We triumphed. That cannot be taken away.”
  • “There is always the memory that we achieved something.”
  • “We would have control of everything, ourselves, our own destiny.”

The allure of social control, and self-determination in a seemingly deterministic environment, has been so strong that conversants from la zona sur stated to me their overwhelming preference for a water committee—with its higher degree of social control but higher variability in cost and quality—over SEMAPA. Marginalized citizens of the south reasoned that the government hadn’t ever listened to them—why would SEMAPA be any different? The most assured way of having social control was to be part of a water committee, which was autonomous and democratic. Control over a water committee was better and more direct, as expressed by one conversant, Alfredo. He commented, “It’s better to have your own source! More direct, more reliable. Because then you don’t have to trust the administrations, and deal with their corruption and poor management.”

In this sense, the act of taking social control by starting a water committee is analogous to the displays of spectacular violence investigated by Goldstein (2006). His book The Spectacular City discusses at length cases of lynching which take place in the southern zone of Cochabamba. Just as municipal water service is absent from the southern zone, so too is a functioning justice system; police hardly do rounds, and people who are already poor live in mortal fear of what would happen if their precious few belongings were to be stolen. When police do investigate, they are as likely to take a bribe from the criminal as they are to try to pursue them. In this environment of impunity, citizens of Villa San Pagador (the barrio discussed at most length in Spectacular City) take matters into their own hands, exacting justice on their own terms. Goldstein argues of these lynchings that they are calculated displays, wherein marginalized people are forced to administer justice themselves because it cannot be obtained from the government, which turns a willfully blind eye to crime. In the same way, starting a water committee is a potent display of communal dedication to filling a vacuum of power. In each instance, a community need (justice, water) is neglected by the government and then filled ad hoc by the people, who are empowered by the experience. Water committees, I was told several times, are the ultimate realizations of social control.


Instrument-Effects: Examining the Flip Side to Autonomy

“The prison, apparently “failing”, does not miss its target; on the contrary, it reaches it, in so far as it gives rise to one particular delinquency….so successful has the prison been that, after a century and a half of failures, the prison still exists, producing the same results, and there is the greatest reluctance to dispense with it.” (Foucault 1979:276-7)


            “Autonomy” figures as a key concept in the discussion of the benefits of a water committee. Autonomy, as we have seen, ensures freedom from the corruption and mismanagement that plagues SEMAPA and other public ventures in Bolivia. It is in this regard seen as a positive thing by individuals in water committees in the southern zone. However, the rhetoric around autonomy may work in several ways to obfuscate the most important point, which is that large-scale improvement in the water situation in Cochabamba will not occur without large-scale changes in the power relations that ultimately lead to differential access to water.

First, a bottom line: autonomy may entail mediocrity. As shown in the San Miguel case, several challenges exist for every water committee (i.e. obtaining technical advice, procuring funding, maintaining community participation and morale), and overcoming them requires extreme coordination and effort that is not always present. Even when these factors are present they are time-consuming, and cannot address the full scope of problems faced by water committees. Mari Eugenia noted that even when committees organize successfully, only 20 percent of committees have their own well, because the best places to drill are too expensive or are already taken. The quality of the water is then unlikely to be as high as it could have been. The initial costs of capital investments, as well as continuing costs of maintenance, are not always affordable, and credit not always available (as it fortuitously happens to be in Stewart’s optimistic story). Furthermore, water committees are reliant upon the month-to-month payment of their members, who may be delinquent with their payments (c.f. Stewart 2006:64-65). All in all, I did not ever hear any evidence that water committees provided better services than SEMAPA, and they definitely required more work.

Figure 5.1: “Autonomy,” Cochabamba street art

            Second, a reiteration of the above section: autonomy is not seen as entailing mediocrity. Instead, it is tied to social control, pluralism, and water democracy, all positives, in a way that elides the negatives.

Third, an observation I have yet to introduce: water poverty was depoliticized in the language of many of my conversants. Depoliticization refers to “the suspension of politics from even the most sensitive political operations” (Ferguson 1990:256). I observed two mechanisms of depoliticization of water poverty:

  • The naturalization of corruption: Corruption was referred to constantly less as a choice or product of conditions but as a natural characteristic of Bolivians. “That’s how it is in Bolivia—it’s just how we are,” seemed to go the line. The reality is that corruption is a rent-seeking behavior with negative-feedback implications for social mobility—as a mechanism, it largely keeps the elite on top and the poor at the bottom. As such it is not natural but political and social.
  • The naturalization of scarcity: Water scarcity was taken to be a natural phenomenon, with the desiccation of the valley only linked to human practices by Ricardo, the AAPS office worker. In this sense, management was a bureaucratic or technical question, and political aspects were ignored. Aside from Misicuni, no mention was made of the fact that Bolivia, as a country, does not lack freshwater resources, and the failure to facilitate transfers of water to Cochabamba might reflect governmental failure. I heard time and time again that there is “simply not enough water,” without any further reflection on why the water that did exist went to where it did. If there is only a limited amount of water, whi isn’t it spread around evenly?As such, scarcity, too, is political and social, not only natural.

These mechanisms of depoliticization, observed in both the center of the city and the periurban areas, may work in concert to obfuscate political implications of water management. They cast water poverty in la zona sur as a kind of accident of nature, and diminish the extent to which it is a purposeful way of perpetuating inequality between social groups in Cochabamba,

Fourth, it may be important to point out that just as one cannot drink rights, one also cannot drink participation. Social control does not entail better water, as evinced by statements from Oscar Olivera (Caero 2009). My own interviewees reiterated the fact that the water situation has not gotten better.

In his influential study of prisons Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault states that, as a method of inquiry, one should “reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of prisons,” answered via examination of “instrument-effects” (Foucault 1979:272). When an action has an overt, proclaimed goal, but its real importance and logic is not understood until a side effect is taken into account, that side effect is an “instrument-effect.” I suggest that the rhetoric of autonomy may have an instrument-effect: while the proclaimed goal is self-reliance, an important side-effect is that SEMAPA no longer has to worry about expanding its services. More generally, the result is that inequality is perpetuated.

Cui bono, who benefits, when a new water committee is organized? The people of the neglected barrio certainly benefit in the short term. In the long term, however, the state (and, particularly, the elite in control of SEMAPA) is issued a free pass that allows it to continue to proclaim its fair-mindedness and dedication to pluralism while evading the difficult responsibilities that would come with expanding the water network and raising its quality. In these case studies, particularly the study of San Miguel, the difficulties of maintaining a water committee are starkly present.

San Miguel is not alone, though. The environmental problems that have led to the imminent demise of their well affect all of the city. Amber Yoder Wutich’s ethnography of reciprocity in periurban Villa Israel details that barrio’s failure to have success in starting a water committee, and she surmises that community-based systems are imperfect for a number of reasons: wells dry out seasonally or permanently; costs may be too high; committees can become politically dominated; and strains of urban life can lead to reciprocity problems (2006:92). Bronwen Morgan notes the general failure of community-based approaches to water management not just in Bolivia but around the world, locating their failure in a combination of factors that sound familiar in the Bolivian case, including a lack of legal and economic resources (2011:198). I argue that “water democracy” doesn’t really exist because it exists within such a constrained environment. If we return to the definition given earlier—“the opportunity for all citizens in a nation to participate fully in the decision-making processes regarding their own water management”—we might ask at what point this process is so limited by social, political, and economic marginalization that it ceases to be democratic.

In an ironic twist, just what neoliberalism aimed for—devolution of responsibility for the basic needs of citizens—has been achieved, not by neoliberalism but by its enemies. The naturalization of corruption and scarcity, both of which have political implications, has smoothed over this process of devolution, turning attention away from political economy and the roots of inequality. There is some semblance of an analogy in the old racist U.S. policy of “separate but equal.” As I scrawled in my notes,

Is the current setup going to solve the problem, long-term? Is it really just a way of keeping these barrios on the periphery, a half-assed solution that is good enough to keep them happy but not good enough to vault them into real health and competition with the elite, a way to pawn off responsibility and keep the status quo?[5]


If this is so, then it is true that “the whole of society pays itself in the false coin of its dream” (Bourdieu 1977:190). Even as a population follows its aspirations to autonomy by forming a water committee, the evidence shows that there is a good chance that venture will end in mediocrity—that is, it will fail to contribute to development and equality in social relations. The marginalized people of the peri-urban barrios whose citizenship has historically been denied by the state have in some sense come to embrace that exclusion. The fact that privatization and water committees have an equivalent position to the elite-captured state—that is, they both decentralize its responsibilities—shows the logic of class in both cases. Acolytes of Antonio Gramsci will note that the possibility of a “false consciousness” in which the proletariat have taken on a worldview that ultimately reifies the existing class structure, to “a level which corresponds to the… interests of the ruling class,” in this case by leaving the peri-urban areas with substandard water services (2009:79).

Because such an assertion is almost impossible to prove, I have tried only to show that the conditions exist under which it could be true. Echoing Ferguson, I don’t mean to suggest that there is some magical process by which every action is bent to the hand of Capital (1990:13). Indeed, “it is necessary to demote intentionality” and instead see only retrospective coherence (1990:275). It may not be necessary to say whether or not this process is agentless, but it is relevant to say that agents are probably not aware of the full effects of their actions. Moreover, I stress that it is impossible at least by the bounds of this study to quantify the beneficial overt-effects of social control versus its potentially negative instrument-effects.

The anthropological perspective requires that the ethnographer give proper weight to the emic outlook of her or his conversants, while also reporting her or his own analysis. My feeling echoes Camus’s words, “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night” (1955:122). It is essential to look closely and critically even at those bright spots, those lights in the dark.


From Here to Where?

            Since I have returned from Bolivia, I have been frequently asked what I think should be done. This is a difficult and complicated question to address; as I have discussed above, I believe that even the most well-intentioned actions can have unseen consequences. However, a few things come to mind.

On the academic side, a continued ethnography of rights is needed, in order to understand whether rights are an appropriate framework for Latin America or for expanding access to water. In this instance, it seems that clearer definitions are needed for how a right is violated, and what the consequences of that violation should be.

On the political side, I emphasize that this is fundamentally a problem of political economy (Murray Li 2007:282). As Ellen Messer states, rights in Latin America will be meaningless unless “indigenous peoples [are] able to participate fully in the political process” (1995:19). Social control of water management is one step towards full participation, but it should not be taken for the whole. Attention need be paid to the underlying reasons for water poverty in the first place, and steps taken to alleviate it. It must become “living law” and not just words on a page (Morgan 2011:111).

Finally, I would like to add that a new chapter is likely to begin soon. Evo Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo has been steadily rewriting every bill on the books and will reportedly reveal a new Water Law later this year. How this law addresses rural/urban contention will be of interest. Moreover, there are rumors that the government would like for the Organizaciones Territoriales de los Bases to take over the autonomous water committees, a step that would fit neatly into Foucault’s analysis of governance and Ferguson’s reports of “etatization,” the expansion of the state (1983:224, 1990:267-75). Lastly, work is underway once again on Misicuni. The pipe dream may become real as soon as 2014. How different interests (SEMAPA, los regantes and other rural interests, ASICA-Sur and the committees) will negotiate the question of divvying up Misicuni’s water remains unclear.

“Water is like a mirror,” Oscar Olivera said. “Like a river, you can see yourself in it” (Como El Agua 2011). By the same token, water management in Cochabamba, Bolivia reveals larger truths about division, exclusion and empowerment in development. For as far as social control has come, it is important to remember that the inequalities present today have come from somewhere, and will continue to persist unless something these root causes are addressed.

[1] It is important to remember that in the longer history of Cochabamba’s water supply, rural/urban conflict is the norm, and the unity seen between the regantes and city engineers during the Water War quite an exception. In fact, Mari Eugenia of Fundación Abril told me that the rural/urban conflict over water sources was one of the biggest political fights currently brewing.

[2] Negative influence could be traced to the fact that the “rights” many inhabitants of the southern zone are most familiar with are those accorded to criminals, and are suspected in criminal cases to be fronts that the police use to hide their corruption-driven collaborations with criminals, who are sometimes let off due to their “rights” (Goldstein 2006:187).

[3] My results both confirm and add nuance to the 2002 report in which the majority of Latin Americans indicated that the rich are the only ones who can exercise their rights. It remains true that cochabambinos see wealth as an avenue to rights, but with the addition that rights can be earned or fought for by non-elites (UNDP 2004).

[4] Cf. Morgan 2011:102-110

[5] I am aware of some concern that I may be projecting certain assumptions about the role of the state that reflect my own culture or political beliefs. However, I believe these concerns are at least partially mitigated by the fact that good SEMAPA service is of better quality and cheaper than good water committee service. I also see that there is danger that my tone might patronizingly be suggesting that I know better than the people living there what is best for them. I can answer only that I do not claim to know these processes are taking place, only that I have observed conditions that might allow them to.


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