The Waterscape of Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1879-2000


A review of Dividing the Waters: How Power, Property and Protest Transformed the Waterscape of Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1879-2000, by Sarah Thompson Hines.

Bolivia’s social movements seized international attention in the early years of this century. One of the most iconic conflicts was the “Water War” of 1999-2000 in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, in which residents successfully forced the government to rescind a water privatization contract with an international consortium dominated by the U.S.-based corporation Bechtel. The Cochabambinos’ victory reverberated around the world, signaling that the undemocratic purveyors of neoliberal globalization—corporations, financial institutions, and governments—could be forced to respond to popular resistance.

Though outsiders have often viewed the protests of 1999-2000 as a spontaneous eruption, Sarah Hines’ new study uncovers the deep historical roots of the Water War and the popular victory that resulted. Water had long been central to political life in and around the city. Over the course of more than a century, Cochabambinos had developed what Hines calls a “popular hydraulic society” (p. 1). Generations of urban dwellers agitated for affordable water service and democratic control over the provision system, while rural residents fiercely defended their access to water for agriculture and personal use. Many also made direct contributions to the region’s waterscape by digging wells and building provision systems. The Water War protests thus drew on a deeply-rooted political culture and social movement infrastructure. Popular knowledge and experience ensured that Bechtel and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would not get away with portraying water privatization as a purely technical issue.

Cochabamba’s dry natural environment and rapidly expanding urban population have made water provision a constant problem since the late nineteenth century. Three seemingly technical questions recur throughout the time period under study: where would the city obtain water, how would that water be distributed, and how would the needs of city residents be balanced against the interests of rural water users? Yet both the problems themselves and the solutions proffered always reflected the dynamics of “power, property, and protest” in the region. As Hines emphasizes, the arid environs and occasional droughts did not inevitably lead to water scarcity, which is “socially produced” (p. 3). Nor did the growth of the city water system automatically generate authoritarian political institutions, as some older studies of urban water development by Karl Wittfogel, Donald Worster, and others would predict. Ecological conditions and sociopolitical forces are mutually constitutive, not predetermined.

Chapter 1 covers roughly the period of Bolivian liberalism, from 1879 to 1935. It starts with the 1879 privatization of water ownership, which solidified rural hacienda owners’ and community elites’ ownership over prime water sources. By doing so, the law also facilitated the privatization of communal landholdings by giving those elites more leverage over indigenous peasants. Water privatization thus played an important, and largely neglected, role in the well-known processes of land concentration and community disintegration during the liberal era. An interesting contradiction of this process, though, was that by strengthening rural elites’ hold over water supplies, “liberal economic principles such as land and water privatization…ultimately undermined [urban officials’] ability to develop urban infrastructure” (p. 51). By the 1920s Cochabamba witnessed growing debate about the legitimacy of private water ownership, with even mainstream politicians and newspapers questioning the sanctity of private property rights.

Urban-rural tensions over water became more visible in the period following the Chaco War with Paraguay (1932-1935), particularly given increased urbanization and a 1940 drought, which produced growing urban demands for a solution. Chapter 2 examines the efforts of a new cadre of urban planners to solve the city’s water problems between the war’s end and the 1952 revolution. Government officials first sought to expand the city’s access to rural water sources, but private ownership over those sources undermined this strategy. They then shifted gears and placed more blame on individual water users in the city, alleging widespread waste and attempting to restrict urban usage. Poorer residents (especially in the southern zones of the city, farther from natural water sources) were especially affected by the urban “water segregation” that rigidified during these years (p. 57). Thus both diagnosis and prescription reflected non-technical factors like popular demands, the power of rural water owners, and socioeconomic hierarchies within the city.

The 1952 revolution led by the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) party is the focus of Chapter 3. Though the MNR leadership was conservative in many regards, Hines shows that it was willing to confront large rural landholders and their control over water. The historic 1953 agrarian reform, compelled in large part by prior indigenous and peasant mobilization, broke up and redistributed the old haciendas and also nationalized water ownership. After 1953, MNR officials attempted to balance the needs of peasant farmers and city residents, leading “at times to remarkable water-sharing agreements between the city and rural small producers” (p. 89). Many urban neighborhoods also developed systems for water-sharing. Destruction of the haciendas did not ensure harmony, however. By redistributing land to peasants and leaving water rights somewhat vague, the MNR’s land reform inadvertently “narrowed the city’s possibilities for expanding its water sources,” leading to renewed conflict (p. 127). That conflict intensified in the early 1960s as the local government sought to drill new water wells on peasant lands in the western part of Cochabamba’s Central Valley.

Chapter 4, covering the period 1964-1985, looks at continued struggles over rural water sources as well as urbanites’ mobilization around water rights. In 1967, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) promoted the creation of a new municipal agency, SEMAPA, to manage the water system. The IADB would extend a series of loans for regional water development, but conditioned those loans on the expansion of rural well-drilling and on rate increases for urban water users. While the first condition drew strong rural protest, the second met with continued resistance from urban workers and neighborhood committees. Both urban and rural popular groups demanded that the city instead procure water from the lakes and rivers of the Tunari Mountains north of the city. They looked to the Misicuni River, in particular, as the potential solution to Cochabamba’s water problem. (The long-delayed Misicuni Dam project continues to figure centrally in the popular imagination today). Hines emphasizes that these mobilizations sought not just affordable water access but also democratic control over the water system itself. That insistence continually frustrated the IADB as well as officials in SEMAPA and other Bolivian government institutions.

Chapter 5 analyzes the fifteen years that preceded the Water War of 2000. Water conflicts during this time were intensified by neoliberalism, droughts, and new indigenous and peasant land claims in the countryside. Urban-rural tensions increased as “urban popular groups actively backed well drilling in the provinces for the first time,” ignoring peasant resistance (p. 192). Urban residents continued to battle with SEMAPA over its attempts to increase charges and, on the city’s periphery, its lack of provision altogether. Yet while popular groups fiercely resisted SEMAPA (and often, each other) in the 1990s, they also united to oppose the privatization plans of the World Bank, IMF, and IADB. “Ironically,” Hines argues, “their experience fighting the company over wells, rates, and exclusion prepared peasants, customers, and periphery residents to defend it” (p. 224). Interestingly, most Cochabambinos did not oppose private ownership per se, but rather the undemocratic and regressive form of privatization favored by elite institutions—which implied rate hikes for poor customers, increased well-drilling, enrichment for private investors, and erosion of local control.

The conclusion examines the unexpected urban-rural alliances that facilitated the popular victory of 2000. Hines suggests that the victory was made possible by residents’ prior experiences of mobilization around water as well as popular sectors’ “physical control over local water sources and systems,” which gave them formidable power to resist rate increases and water usurpation (p. 231).

The study makes several key scholarly interventions, both historiographical and theoretical. First, it fills major gaps in Cochabamba’s environmental and sociopolitical history. For instance, Hines’ analysis of the 1953 land reform through the lens of water is a highly original contribution to historiography on Cochabamba in the MNR period, complementing other studies by historians like José Gordillo, Laura Gotkowitz, and Carmen Soliz. Her examination of urban popular consciousness and mobilization around water also enriches our knowledge of Bolivia’s urban history, a topic that remains under-researched.

The project also suggests broader insights about resource management and environmental history. Hines demonstrates that studies of urban water systems must be sensitive to urban-rural power relationships and property regimes. And while non-elites played vital roles in shaping Cochabamba’s water system—an important finding in itself—she also warns against romanticizing the “popular hydraulic society,” which contained “deep divisions, conflicts, and contradictions” (p. 234). Urban-rural tensions were especially notable. Urban popular sectors often asserted not only their “rights to the city,” but the rights “of the city” as well (p. 132).

Dividing the Waters is a deeply researched and well-argued contribution on a topic of undeniable importance. Its findings will have implications far beyond Cochabamba, and far into the foreseeable future as global capitalism and global warming intensify water scarcity and violent conflict around the world. Yet the story of Cochabamba’s water offers much more than just a warning about the destructive results of competition and hierarchy. It also offers hope, suggesting that in the increasingly hostile “natural” environment that awaits most of humanity, egalitarian and democratic alternatives are entirely realizable.

Kevin A. Young
Department of History
University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Primary Sources
Archivo del Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado (SEMAPA)
Archivo Histórico Municipal y Hemeroteca de Cochabamba
Cochabamba regional and national newspapers (Los Tiempos, Prensa Libre, El Heraldo, others)
Inter-American Development Bank Files
Oral histories in Cochabamba

Dissertation Information
University of California, Berkeley. 2015. 252pp. Primary Advisors: Mark A. Healey and Margaret Chowning.

Image: Lake Wara Wara, a dammed reservoir that serves the city of Cochabamba. Photography by the author.

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