Water for All: Community, Property, and Revolution in Modern Bolivia

Banner reading “¡El agua es nuestra, carajo!” (“The water is ours, damn it!”) hangs from the balcony of the Central Obrera Departamental building in Cochabamba’s 14 de Septiembre Plaza during the final mobilizations of the Water War, April 2000. Photo by Tom Kruse.

I returned to Cochabamba, Bolivia, this past summer (winter in the Andes), after six long years away.

Map of Bolivia from Wikimedia Commons

I lived in Cochabamba for five years, from 2010 to 2015, researching and writing what became my recently published book, Water for All: Community, Property, and Revolution in Modern Bolivia (University of California Press, 2022). The study traces social struggle over water access and property rights in Bolivia from the late 19th century to the early 21st, focusing on the Cochabamba region where water monopoly, water scarcity, and protests over water access have been more intense than anywhere else in the country.

It was gratifying to give copies of my book to colleagues, collaborators, and communities who helped me research it and who lived and made the history recounted in the book. And it was intriguing to see the ways that this history continues to unfold.

My attention was first drawn to Bolivia during Cochabamba’s 2000 Water War when I was a college student and an activist involved in the Global Justice Movement. Of all the social movements across the world that were fighting neoliberal policies like water privatization at the time, Bolivia’s were among the most successful. That success began with a fight over water. In April 2000, Cochabambinos overturned a water privatization scheme designed by the national government and the World Bank. This set the stage for another fight against privatization in the capital city La Paz and its sister city El Alto a few years later. Between 2000 and 2005, Bolivian social movements upended Bolivian politics and economic policy, overthrowing two presidents and electing a coca growers’ leader, Evo Morales, to the presidency. I first went to Bolivia in 2004 in this midst of this upheaval.

Water for All demonstrates that Cochabambinos succeeded in the 2000 Water War because they were defending something they had already won over decades of organizing—significant popular control over water sources, provision, and policy. In the late nineteenth century, where the book begins, a small group of large landowners monopolized the region’s most significant water sources. By the end of the twentieth century, a wide array of public utilities and water-using communities owned and controlled water sources and hydraulic infrastructure that had been hacienda property a century before. The book shows that water users transformed the water tenure regime in the intervening century though their labor, planning, protest, purchases, and seizures of previously hoarded water sources.

I argue that Cochabamba water users’ efforts to secure safe and plentiful water for all constituted “vernacular modernist” projects. I define vernacular modernism as creative appropriation and adaption of technological development paradigms by ordinary people on their own terms. High modernist projects such as mega dams that displace large numbers of people are by definition imposed from above and outside and require ignoring local people, history, knowledge, and ecology. Vernacular modernist projects, in contrast, are bottom-up efforts by local people who draw on their own history, knowledge, and desires to craft alternative visions of modernity.

Demonstration against privatization of Cochabamba’s water system (SEMAPA) and water supply by Aguas del Tunari, from Wikipedia.

The Water War transformed Bolivian politics. It opened a five-year period of mass mobilization that brought down two presidents, discredited neoliberal economic policies, and led to the election of the country’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales. Cochabamba water protestors called for a constituent assembly to refound the nation on the basis of democratic access to and control over natural resources like water. Morales promised to hold such an assembly and made good on this promise as president. In Cochabamba, the Water War led to the return of water provision to the municipal water company, peri-urban neighborhoods, and rural irrigation systems who had managed water before privatization.

But there was a tension between autonomous water governance by local water users and their organizations and the Morales government’s desire to centralize control over water provision and other state industries and services. For instance, the public water company in the small Cochabamba city of Sacaba, which was led by members of the president’s party the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), wanted to absorb water cooperatives into the municipal water system—and use their water sources and infrastructure for the broader region. But cooperative members argued that they had purchased these water sources and built this infrastructure with their own labor and funds. There have also been tensions between water users who possess historic rights and those who lack such rights.

In the book I argue that the long history of social struggle over water access in Cochabamba shows that water rights need to be flexible and continuously reallocated through democratic and inclusive processes. Cochabamba water activists have proposed founding a new coordinating body like the one that organized the protests in 2000 that could make these sorts of difficult decisions, trying to respect both historic rights and present-day needs. It could also decide what role the state would play in this process. In my view equitable distribution will require acting according to a radical politics of solidarity where those with excess rights cede some of their rights to those without rights according to need.

Inspection of Misicuni Dam. Photo by Carlos.editor. BO, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

When I returned to Cochabamba in June 2022, I was especially curious to find out whether water from the now-completed Misicuni reservoir was supplying the Zona Sud, the city’s poor and arid southern zone. I learned that Empresa Misicuni, the company that built the Misicuni dam, is preparing to deliver water to neighborhoods in the city’s Zona Sud, where the city’s driest and poorest neighborhoods are located. While the municipal water service, SEMAPA, will administer water in some Zona Sud neighborhoods, in others, Empresa Misicuni will deliver water directly to the neighborhood. While a SEMAPA manager told me he was concerned that Empresa Misicuni was usurping SEMAPA’s role, a top official at Empresa Misicuni told me that the company would prefer that SEMAPA provide service. In his view SEMAPA is prepared to provide service while Empresa Misicuni, which was founded to oversee the construction of the dam, is not.

On the one hand, buying water “in bulk” from Empresa Misicuni may be a way for neighborhood water cooperatives to maintain autonomous control over infrastructure and distribution. But it may also mean that there will be unequal access among and within neighborhoods. As Cochabamba demographer Carmen Ledo put it in a June 2022 interview, “The construction of water coverage networks” should be prioritized, “but should not be left to local operators. In reality, this is the job of the state. Bulk sale [of water] from Misicuni’s pipes is going to again generate a vicious circle, related to who takes it from the tank to the houses.” Leaders of neighborhoods like Primero de Mayo, long excluded from the SEMAPA system, disagree.

SEMAPA has built eight new distribution networks and is looking for financing to build five more. While water arrived to some areas of Zona Sud in July, the network does not yet reach the southern-most neighborhoods. The metropolitan region’s other municipalities are even less prepared to distribute water from Misicuni.

Irrigators—small farmers with irrigation water rights—complain that Misicuni water is going to the city for human consumption and not to their fields. The Empresa Misicuni official says providing water to agricultural areas in Tiquipaya, Vinto, and Sipe Sipe will have to wait until the second and third phases of the project when two additional dams are built.

SEMAPA is on the verge of implementing a new rate structure that threatens to increase water rates for half of its customers. Furthermore, the company is asking water users to buy their own new water meters even as new meters are still sitting in boxes due to “irregularities” in their purchase. 

Meeting of Tirani irrigators, July 2022. Photo by Sarah T. Hines.

In Tirani, an agricultural community north of the city in the foothills of the Tunari Mountains with rights to two mountain lakes, San Juan and San Pablito, community members continue to debate how and whether to share water with their neighbors—and how to distribute it among themselves. In a July meeting of the community’s irrigators, community members debated whether to sell land and water rights to outsiders and, if so, which land on what conditions. While there were heated disagreements, all agreed that the community’s lakes and springs belong to the 57 1950s-era agrarian reform beneficiaries and their descendants.

All these water issues in Cochabamba—the Misicuni dam project, rate hikes, autonomous water management in agricultural communities and city neighborhoods, and urban expansion into agricultural areas and appropriation of rural water sources—have long histories. Indeed, it is impossible to understand why water is the object of intense ongoing contention without situating the present in deep historical context.

Just like other features of the environment, water sources and systems have histories that are bound up with people’s labor and power struggles. Cochabambinos’ autonomous water systems, its municipal water system, and the Misicuni dam are all products of decades of social struggle for more democratic water access. Today, Cochabamba water activists are working to deepen local control over water sources and systems and to overcome past divisions as they continue to pursue clean and plentiful water for all.  

Sarah Hines is an assistant professor of History at the University of Oklahoma.

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