Thirst In The Garden City: The Right to Water in Cochabamba, Bolivia: Table of Contents, Acknowledgments, Chapter 1












MAY 2012


“Artículo 20.
I. Toda persona tiene derecho al acceso universal y equitativo a los servicios básicos de agua potable, alcantarillado, electricidad, gas domiciliario, postal y telecomunicaciones.”

Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, 2009

“El derecho a agua no existe…es pura letra.”

Bolivian Citizen, 2012






  1. INTRODUCTION…………………………………………………………1


3.            WINNING THE BATTLE, LOSING THE WAR?……………………………..24

4.            VOICES FROM THE GARDEN CITY…………………………………53

5.             RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: SUN AND SHADOW IN                                                                 COCHABAMBA……………………………..………….96





1.            Indices de Gestión, SEMAPA 2010…………………………………….121

2.            Statement, Water Committee of San Miguel……………………………124




            This research was funded in part by grants from the John Montgomery Belk Scholarship, Dean Rusk International Studies Program, and the Abernethy Research Award.

Credit is due to faculty and staff at Davidson College, including Dr. Matt Samson, Dr. Eriberto Lozada, Dr. William Mahony, Dr. Abigail Schade, Dr. Scott Denham, Dr. Chris Alexander, and Dr. Verna Case. Drs. Daniel Goldstein and Pamela Calla provided wonderful guidance and support in their direction of the Rutgers in Bolivia program, and thanks go out to all those affiliated with that program, including Miguel Ricaldez, Mari Eugenia, Julio Weiss, Guerty Artega, Melina Ramirez, Fernando Herbas, and all my fellow students in the program.

Special thanks go to my Bolivian family abroad, who were amazingly hospitable and welcoming (Lucy Raquel Ortuño Castro and Adri). Thanks to Alexis Valauri-Orton for her support during the tough times abroad and for her editing help. Finally, thanks go to my family at home, who made all of this possible with their support over the years.


Chapter 1: Introduction


Encountering a New Kind of Right

Just minutes after I had arrived in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, I was walking around the airport when I saw an advertisement on television. The ad instantly struck me, despite my grogginess after the long flight. The ad depicts a young boy and girl who meet and quickly become infatuated with one another. They are separated, and pine for one another. But then, lo and behold, one of them receives a cell phone! Now they can talk to one another, and on their smiling faces is superimposed a message from the cell phone company: todos tienen el derecho a las telecomunicaciones (everyone has a right to telecommunications).

Up until that moment the advertisement had been in step with what I expected from television spots. But that one line stayed with me. Everyone has a right to telecommunications? It just didn’t sit right with me. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t ever actively prevent someone from the use of their phone, or computer, or television, but what did it mean to have a right to telecommunications?[1] What exactly was defined as telecommunications? Did people have a right to just one kind of media—cell phone, internet, television—or to all kinds? Is there a right to cable television, and, if so, why didn’t I have it? Can the government really come up with a situation in which it is economically viable to provide everyone in the country with a cell phone? Did the telecommunications company come up with this right as a marketing ploy, or is it actually in the Bolivian constitution?

There is a concrete answer to one of these questions. The right to basic telecommunications services is stated in the 2009 Constitution of Bolivia, in Article 20, Section I, which reads in full: Toda persona tiene derecho al acceso universal y equitativo a los servicios básicos de agua potable, alcantarillado, electricidad, gas domiciliario, postal y telecomunicaciones.”[2]

This list stood out to my American eyes: these were concrete, material things being guaranteed as rights. They are not, like the rights in the American constitution, limits on the behavior of the government: the right to free speech, the right to assembly, the right to a fair trial, the right to vote, and so on, are all behaviors and not services. This departure suggested to me that there might be a fundamental difference between the kinds of rights Bolivians and Americans were concerned with.[3]

This Article guarantees the right to telecommunications. It also, in the same fell swoop, promises universal access to potable water, also a service. This second right, the right to potable water, is the focus of my investigation.

Framing the Question

The central questions I address in this thesis are the following: What does the right to water mean for Bolivians? And what does the right to water mean to Bolivians? I mean for this distinction to indicate a difference between an etic perspective, which will largely draw upon discussions of political economy and quantitative analyses of water access, and an emic perspective, which will focus on the subjective experience of Bolivians. These subjective experiences will be narrated from the lived history of water access in the poor southern barrios of Cochabamba, Bolivia, specifically in San Miguel, Lomapampa, and Sivingani.

The inhabitants of these villages live in a persistent paradox. One side of this paradox is Article 20, which guarantees them the right to water. The other side is that of water poverty. The southern zone of Cochabamba is not connected to the municipal water system, and though many barrios own water distribution systems, they are unreliable, costly, and unsanitary. None of the water is actually potable.

The rights mentioned in Article 20 are new to Bolivians, having arrived in the tidal wave of reforms brought by populist-socialist President Evo Morales—the first indigenous president in Latin America in over a century—after twenty years of neoliberalism and an even longer history of exploitation and conflict. The departure from the past two decades cannot be more stark, as privatized industries like natural gas are being re-nationalized and indigenous persons can now aspire to an office as high as the Presidency. The Bolivian Constitution of 2009, and Article 20 in particular, are direct results of a movement in Bolivian politics that sprang up as a rejection of the neocolonialist norm of dictators and neoliberalism.

In the wake of a law privatizing the water of Cochabamba, a grassroots social movement successfully appealed to the government for its repeal. The Water War, as this movement was called, turned out to be an important proving ground for this movement. Indigenous groups took the lead, future president Evo Morales played a strong supporting role, water was legally established a right, and there was an emphasis on keeping foreign companies from extracting Bolivia’s considerable resource wealth. The public-participatory approach championed by members of the Coordinadora—the popular organizing authority in the protests—is now encouraged by government in resource management on various levels. For example, by demand of the Coordinadora, there are now by law popularly elected officials who oversee SEMAPA (the municipal water company), ostensibly for the public interest. The Water War can be seen as a success in that a statement of its protesters—that there is a universal right to water—is now enshrined in the country’s constitution. The Water War is depicted as a success in this vein in the popular documentary FLOW: For Love of Water, as a victory of the people against corporate-capitalist demons.

The reality I encountered was, however, not so cut-and-dried. The Water War was not simply about kicking out the privatization effort. It was the watershed moment for a popular movement with the larger goal of ensuring clean water access for all Cochabambinos. In this regard, evidence shows it has unequivocally failed. In 2005, 300,000 Cochabambinos were without water, and many of those who had it only had it for a fraction of the day. The popular sentiment is that the officials elected to oversee SEMAPA are themselves corrupt. From this vantage, it might seem that Cochabamba won the battle, but lost the war. It is this arc that prompted the New York Times to comment in 2005 that “while a potent leftist movement has won many battles in Latin America in recent years, it still struggles to come up with practical, realistic solutions to resolve the deep discontent that gave the movement force in the first place” (Forero 2005).

In this project I seek to dig deeper into what efforts exist amongst Bolivians to help them reconcile the contradictory claims presented to them. On the one hand the state guarantees them a right to water. On the other hand their own eyes communicate to them a stark reality characterized by indigent water poverty. As my title suggests, there is no question that there is thirst in the Garden City—but my rejoinder is, what do the inhabitants of Cochabamba make of this?

One might ask, why does it matter what the cochabambinos think? It matters because there are close to a billion people without access to potable water around the world, and three hundred thousand of them are in Cochabamba. Improving access to potable water is a clear goal of international development agencies, as evinced by the inclusion of water-related goals in the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Development programs have been criticized for failing to take into account local realities, both material and cultural, leading to vicious circles of failed projects (Ferguson 1990). Reporting these local realities can contribute to more effective development—development which may improve lives around the world.

Moreover, as the human right to water has recently become an object of global discussion and contention (Provost 2012), investigating the operationality of a right to water has taken on new urgency. This investigation takes place against the backdrop of increasing anthropological interest in the implementation of human rights abroad, for example by Messer (2003) and Merry (2006). While my ethnography is focused on a specific place, its lessons may be able to inform work elsewhere, as “local understandings are used to comprehend and reshape global discourse (Arce and Long 2000:19).





            This work approaches a topic within political ecology via anthropological methods. On the other hand, political ecology is defined by Piers Blaikie and Harold Brookfield as “encompassing the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources, and also within classes and groups within society itself” (1987:17). Simply put, political ecology is the study of how politics inform the relationship between society and its physical environment. In this case, that relationship is the one between Cochabamba and its water resources. Following Lisa Gezon and Susan Paulson, this work is concerned with all four of the core concepts around which political ecology is organized: understanding the way local groups relate to their environments (ethnoecologies); how resource use is “organized and transmitted through social relations”; how global political economy influences and is influenced by local groups; and how land degradation can reinforce marginality (Paulson and Gezon 2004:2). This work uses the ethnographic method, which is the hallmark of anthropology, to study these questions.

Two Visits, One Purpose

            The fieldwork portion of this project was completed in two segments. The first of these emphasized participant observation and service learning, while the second was geared more towards semi-structured interviewing.

The first visit lasted from June 30 to August 10 in 2011. During this time I participated in the Rutgers in Bolivia study abroad program in Cochabamba.[4] The program consisted of two parts: an academic and a service aspect. The academics focused on issues of law, justice, and rights in Bolivia. The service included a small-group (about 5 students) service project and a whole-group (all 20 students) service project. My small-group service project was coordinated with the help of Fundación Abril and took place with the water committee in Villa San Miguel. I volunteered with another small-group service project in Sivingani. The whole group also worked in Lomapampa every Sunday. All of these places are communities in the southern zone of Cochabamba. These experiences are narrated at length in chapter three.

The second segment of my research was completed in a more independent fashion with funding from Abernethy and Dean Rusk awards from Davidson College. For eleven days in January 2012, I traveled to Cochabamba to conduct in-depth interviews with decision-makers, activists, and ordinary citizens. During this time, as in my first trip, I stayed in the home of Lucy Raquel Ortuño Castro, to whom I am incredibly indebted.


Participant Observation and Service Learning

The problem I am studying—that of the meaning of a right to water amidst widespread water poverty in a Latin American city of the Global South—is multidisciplinary. There are valuable contributions from anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, geography, and environmental sciences. Anthropology’s perspective remains valued and unique because of the natural emphasis it places on the importance of how people understand the world. In order to best understand how others understand the world, one engages in participant-observation, utilizing both emic and etic perspectives. In this regard I follow Clifford Geertz’s dichotomous formulation of symbolic culture as a model “of and for” human life (Geertz 1966). These two perspectives—existing in fruitful tension with one another—drive cultural anthropology and serve as the inspiration behind my two central questions: what does the right to water mean to Cochabambinos? This question is meant to invoke the subjective, emic perspective, which is investigated through participation and reported in the form of descriptions of another’s views of the world. And, what does the right to water mean for Cochabambinos? This question is meant to invoke the objective, etic perspective, investigated through observation and reported as analysis of how things are. These two perspectives distinguish between what people think about the right to water and how objective analysis shows it to operate in the world.

At the heart of this framework is an ability to balance the validity of another’s subjective views with the results of one’s own objective analysis. Reciprocity is part of this balance and has always been a central undercurrent for anthropologists doing fieldwork. What are the politics of participant-observation? Where is the line between being patronizing and being supportive? What is the role of mutual exchange in anthropologist’s work? Service learning presents a particular take on these questions.

I had never participated in ‘service learning before my trip to Bolivia. My first exposure to the concept was from the Rutgers International Service Learning website (2010):

Service Learning (SL) is an educational methodology combining the academic or classroom study of a particular problem or issue (e.g., social, educational, health, environmental), together with the practical experience of collaborating with a community seeking to resolve such problems or issues.  It means, quite simply, that you take a course thematically connected with a targeted service agenda, and immerse yourself in problem-solving interaction with a coordinated community or group with whom service is welcome and negotiated, in its home location.


This methodology shaped my 2011 summer experience. The classroom study (focused on issues of justice in post-neoliberal Bolivia), practical experience (working with a water committee in San Miguel and Sivingani, teaching in Lomapampa), and immersion (living with a Bolivian family) combined to provide a unique spin on the participant-observation approach. The service learning approach positioned me for a particularly easy introduction to conversants and allowed me to observe water committees.[5] As such, conversants had a practical interest in our exchange: my labor for their information. While this arrangement could arguably have been transactionary and hollow, it was in this instance imbued with genuine compassion and a desire on both sides to understand the other.

The attitude of reciprocity—giving back to the communities I was learning from—took more forms than simple labor. In one instance that illustrates honest curiosity on both sides, I ended up making a deal with one particularly important conversant: we would talk about my favorite topic, water, until lunch. Afterwards, we would talk about his favorite topic: religion. In the course of our conversation we both learned more than we might have in a more unilaterally-directed discussion.



            Interviews were an important form of ethnographic interaction in this project. Whether I was working with the Rutgers program in the fields of Sivingani or drinking tea in a café downtown, I was always ready to talk to individuals about their experiences and opinions of water management in Cochabamba (especially during my second visit, when my aims had been considerably narrowed). In fact, several of my conversations were with taxi drivers who often resided in la zona sur and were happy to share their experiences with me as we drove across the city.

These interviews ranged from happenstance to pre-arranged. Generally, the spectrum included three different classes of interview:

  • individuals I did not plan to interview, but ended up asking about water management
  • individuals I identified on the street or in the barrio, whom I approached and conversed with, asked permission to interview, and asked a semi-structured set of questions
  • individuals I corresponded with, obtained advance permission from, and arranged to interview formally

Interview subjects ranged widely. A taste of this diversity: I spoke with a Jewish-Bolivian documentary filmmaker; an upper-class municipal politician; barrio presidents; taxi drivers; street vendors; people who had immigrated to Spain or America or Argentina and back; professors; water management professionals; social activists; and more. In chapter five, where some results are presented, I will clearly indicate when I am referring to my interview subset of inhabitants of la zona sur. These interviews were conducted in a semi-structured style, with a few key points that had to be covered (e.g., “Was the water war a success?”) and allowance for elaboration at the conversant’s discretion. Names of conversants have been changed when appropriate; some, however, are public figures, and their names remain the same (e.g., Oscar Olivera).


Challenges & Limitations

            The scope of this worked has been limited not only choice but also by necessity. As anthropologists, we study how humans exist in the world—if I might understate the case, a broad enough question that limitations are sometimes welcome. However, I would have removed a few roadblocks if it had been at all possible. The most prominent challenges include the following:

  • Spanish Language: While I speak fairly advanced Spanish, I am not a native speaker, nor does my vocabulary approach that of a native speaker. One particular instance stands out. I was speaking with an older man and asked him what his profession was. He replied that he was a jubilador—a retiree or pensioner—but I did not know the word, causing quite a confusion in my mind. In general, I could always express myself, but I worried about understanding the nuances of some conversants’ speech.
  • Indigenous Languages: Perhaps more importantly, I do not speak Quechua (21.2% of national total) or Aymara (14.6% of national total) (CIA 2012), both of which are spoken at a higher rate in the areas I studied most intensely. Had I spoken one of these languages, I would have had more direct access to inhabitants of la zona sur who speak indigenous languages exclusively or preferentially. However, Spanish is spoken as a second language by almost everyone, and lack of knowledge of indigenous languages should perhaps be seen more as a lack of a positive than an actual negative.
  • Resources & Background: As an undergraduate student, I may not have been accorded the same amount of attention as a Ph.D. student or doctoral anthropologist—someone who might write a book about a community, as is demanded of Goldstein (2004:36), and thereby potentially raise its profile or status. I am also not an NGO, which many barrio residents “regard as their best hope for gaining needed special services” (Goldstein 2004:30).
  • Summer Program Structure: The Rutgers summer program was in general a great advantage, placing me directly into a water committee and affording me access to social activists. However, the structure of the program, which made constant demands on my time, restricted the amount of time available for independent research outside the summer program’s curriculum.
  • Length of Stay: Anthropological insight is based on long-term embedment, which fosters trusting participant-observation relationships and allows time for acclimation to a new culture. My visits lasted 7 weeks (July-August 2011 visit) and 11 days (January 2012 visit). Neither of these trips was as long as ideally possible; in each instance, I made a number of tantalizing discoveries on the eve of my departure, leaving me with a number of loose ends.


March 19, 2011



Dear Professor Goldstein,

I am a junior studying anthropology at Davidson College in North Carolina. I am planning to conduct research this summer towards an ethnographic account for my honors undergraduate thesis. I would like to be in the field for 8 weeks or so for this project, which right now would focus on the networks that environmental movements in Bolivia have crafted. I am interested in several issues as they relate to environmental issues, including civil society, social movements, voluntarism, memory and narrative. Cochabamba seems it would be a fertile site for the kind of study I would like to do…


As in many anthropological studies, this work is in many ways the product of chance. When I sent the above inquiry in the spring of 2011, I had no idea where my hopes would eventually take me. After Dr. Goldstein sent an encouraging response, I followed up by applying to the Rutgers in Bolivia program (titled ‘Law, Justice and Rights in Bolivia’). I was accepted and decided to go, setting the stage for this project.

As one can see, my focus adapted quite a bit over time, allowing for the resources and experiences that materialized once I arrived in Cochabamba. Sometimes this depended on randomness. One particularly decisive roll of the dice arrived the first Monday of our program. All the students were gathered in a conference room at the back of a small hotel when we were assigned our service learning groups. Along with four other students, I was assigned to work in Villa San Miguel for the local water committee. The choice to assign me to this water committee dictated one of my research sites, and therefore in part set the tone of this work. Over the course of my trip, many other such strokes of good or bad luck arrived. At the same time, this chance was directed within the confines set out by my methodology, its aims and its limitations. This work, then, is—like each of us—the product of a kind of bounded chaos.

On my way to Bolivia I read a set of primers to the issues one must be familiar with before embarking on the larger venture. In the same preparatory vein, I include in this paper two such brief introductions to two large areas of scholarship that require illumination before I move on to discussion of my own ethnographic work.

Chapter two addresses global issues of water poverty. I delineate the Earth’s water scarcity issues, their relevance to development, and the prevailing paradigms on how water should be managed. This includes a history of the changes in approaches to water management in development, as well as the trajectory of the human right to water. I conclude by situating the plight in Cochabamba within this global context, and suggesting how my micro-level work can add to the conversation at the macro-level about water in the twenty-first century.

In chapter three I give an introduction to the sociological and cultural background within which my work is situated. This includes a history of Bolivia, highlighting its difficult relationship with its neoliberalism. I discuss Cochabamba itself, including a review of the role marginalization and exclusion has played in the recent history of Cochabamba. I detail the 2000 Cochabamba Water War and its aftermath, including the rise of social control and the situation today.

Chapter four will include ethnography and personal observations, whereas Chapter five will include insights gleaned from these observations, which are then analyzed in the context of broader theoretical discussions. Chapter four includes discussion of three research sites in la zona sur: Sivingani, Lomapampa, and San Miguel. Each situation is unique. Chapter five consolidates data from interviews, participant-observation, and past research, and draws attention to the patterns that emerge, reporting my findings on what the right to water means to and for my case study populations.


[1] Cf. Lee 2005

[2] “All people have a right to universal and equal access to the basic services of potable water, sewage, electricity, household gas, postal service, and telecommunications” (my translation).

[3] Social rights versus civil-political rights. C.f. Messer 1995

[4] This program was led by two anthropologists, Dr. Daniel Goldstein of Rutgers University and Dr. Pamela Calla of New York University and the Universidad de la Cordillera (in La Paz). Dr. Goldstein’s work has focused mainly on political and legal anthropology of security and human rights, using the southern zone of Cochabamba as a field site. Dr. Calla has been an eager participant in action against racism, helping launch the Observatorio del Racismo in La Paz. Both Dr. Goldstein and Dr. Calla guided my approach to Bolivia throughout these six weeks, and beyond.

[5] It allowed me a very particular perspective that was privileged as well as limited. I was privileged to have access to those within the committee and to hear their side of things. However, my formal association with the water committee and work on its behalf may have precluded others from speaking to me or discouraged them from sharing unfavorable opinions about the committee. In a very short-term project like mine the benefits outweigh the negatives.



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