Bolivia: Communities Longing For Water


Water is a necessity for life. With increasing populations, it has become increasingly more difficult to provide access to clean water to everyone around the world, especially when only 1% of the water on earth is fresh and readily available. When climate change is added into the equation, the issue of water scarcity becomes much more complicated and pressing. The solutions so far have been either government management of water resources or privatizing water to corporations. Bolivia has been facing issues concerning water for decades, and is home to two of the most successful grassroots movements in advocating for equal access to water. It is through these movements, however, that we come to learn that it is simply not enough to frame equal access to water as a human right – the concept must be pushed further, potentially encompassing a global environmental justice framework, considering that Bolivia is now dealing with the consequences of climate change.

Water Scarcity

Water scarcity can be defined as an inability to meet water demands with the water resources available in the area. Because water is essential to life, water scarcity leads to a series of other problems, such as inability to produce food, which ultimately leads to hunger and poverty (Pereira et al 2009, 1). With changes in development and lifestyles, new needs for water have come about, doing away with any previously existing balance of supply and demand (Pereira et al 2009, 2). With only 1% of the world’s water being fresh and available for use, the natural fresh water bodies that we have available have limited capabilities when it comes to responding to increases in demand and increases in pollution (Periera et al 2009, 1). It is also important to note that water scarcity is not only about the ability for to meet human needs, but also the ability to maintain natural ecosystems.

Pereira et al define two different types of water scarcity: natural and man-made water scarcity. Natural water scarcity comes about as a result of droughts and an arid climate, while man-made water scarcity is a result of desertification and water shortages both due to the degradation/mining of land and water resources (Pereira et al 2009, 8). Agriculture plays a huge role in the availability of water because it is and will continue to be the largest water user (Pereira et al 2009, 16). Agriculture is also responsible for non-point source pollution, especially with the increased use of chemicals and fertilizers in order to mass produce food. In terms of point sources of pollution, industry and urban water uses seriously impact water quality and health, especially when disposed without being treated (Pereira et al 2009, 16). Water scarcity is not only about the availability of water, but also about quality of water.

Human Right to Water

As the issue of water scarcity has gained salience over the past few decades, so has the idea of water as a human right. For water to be considered a “human right” — a non-discriminatory, inalienable, indispensable, and indivisible right granted to all humans, it would first have to become accessible to all (Snell 2014, 132). According to Snell, a human right to water can either manifest itself as a derivative right or as an independent right. To see water as a derivative right would mean that it is imbedded in another right, such as the right to food, the right to health, or the right to protection from disease (Snell 2014, 133). To see water as an independent right would mean establishing access to water — specifically, ensuring safety, physical accessibility, and reasonable economic cost (Snell 2014, 137). Water was recognized as a human right by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2002 and by the UN General Assembly in 2010 (Snell 2014, 149).

There are advantages and disadvantages to declaring water as a human right. The advantages of framing access to water as human right is that it not only frames the issue as a moral obligation but it can also provide a legal framework for that moral obligation (Gleick 2007). Furthermore, it encourages both international and domestic reform in the way that institutions and governments address access to safe drinking water (Gleick 2007). In terms of disadvantages, establishing water as a human right then raises questions about the fair distribution, cost, and establishment of penalties for not implementing measures to ensure the right to water (Gleick 2007). Considering water as a human right could also encourage unrealistic expectations for the Earths water supply as well as encourage an anthropocentric view of water, when in reality water is necessary for all life, not just human life (Gleick 2007).

Mehta et al argue that the human rights framework has not and will not suffice to successfully ensure equal access to water. Mehta et al suggest that in order to address the need of sufficient quality water in order to guarantee well-being and the continuation of life, an environmental justice lens must be used in conjunction to the human rights framework (2014, 161). The global environmental justice movement focuses on the “equal distribution of environmental risks and benefits,” which is vital to ensuring that poor communities are not the only ones bearing the disadvantages of a changing climate (Mehta et al 2014, 161). Water and water scarcity is a global environmental justice issue because it encompasses quality of water and distribution of water in our ecosystems, which ultimately affect the livelihood of all communities encompassed in such ecosystem. Access to water must be framed in such a way that is conducive to the survival of the Earth and its constituents – when it is not framed in such a way, distress and civil unrest arises, as has been the case in Bolivia.


In 2000, the citizens of Cochabamba, Bolivia successfully protested against the private water company Betchel, who had disrupted community water-provisioning systems and increased the price of water by up to 200% (Mehta et al, 161). Local citizens could not collect rainwater or get their water from their community wells – they had to pay Betchel for all of the water they needed (Dangl 2007, 57). Considering that only 60% of Cochabamba was actually connected to the public water network, many relied on such water wells in order to survive (Dangl 2007, 58). The switch to privatization was not welcomed with open arms.

Bolivia was essentially coerced by the World Bank into privatizing their water. If Bolivia did not take the deal, they would’ve been denied $600 million in debt relief (Dangl 2007, 59). Talks began in 1996, and in 1999 Bolivia decided that they would give the contract to Aguas del Tunari, who would own Cochabamba’s water for the next 40 years and be guaranteed annual profits of 16% (Dangl 2007, 59). The motivating force behind the move towards privatization is the neoliberal belief that the market is best solution. When compared to the work of the state, it is believed that water privatization will be more transparent, less corrupt, and more inclusive, but as the Cochabamba story shows us, that is not necessarily the case.

What made the Cochabamba movement special was the fact that the movement was not solely from one sector of society. While the movement may have started in the poorer communities due to their inability to pay, the strength of the movement lied in the diversity of the protesters. When urban residents realized that their money was going to a multinational corporation and that they were essentially paying money for a resource that came at no cost from Pachamama, or Mother Earth, they began to become outraged (Dangl 2007, 62). This frustration was shared with the rural communities, which made their collaboration much more powerful (Dangl 2007, 62). Through the Coordinadora, the organizing body behind the protests, pressure was put on the government to act against Betchel. With no response, the blockades and city-wide strikes began. On February 4th, thousands marched into the city, demanding that the water be returned to the citizens (Dangl 2007, 64). The government reacted with militarization, which only fueled the citizens further (Dangl 2007, 66). The government did not meet with the leaders of the Coordinadora until April 10th. Ultimately, the contract was successfully rejected and water provisioning was placed back into the hands of the people.

El Alto & La Paz

The second most important water mobilization movement was that of El Alto and La Paz in 2008. El Alto and La Paz were both placed under a water contract with Aguas del Illumani in July of 1997. The contract aimed to provide all households in the area with drinking water and to provide sanitation coverage to most of the area (Poupeau 2014, 229). It came to be known very quickly that Aguas del Illumani was not fulfilling its goals, mainly by leaving out the poor communities from becoming a part of the water network (Poupeau 2014, 230). While they attempted to institute more pro-poor provisions, Aguas del Illumani failed to install close to 35% of the connections it outlined in the original contract (Poupeau 2014, 231). In 2005, conversations began to remove the contract with Aguas del Illumani and to return to government-run water provisioning.

Conversations did not begin until citizens of El Alto took their concerns to the streets. The organization spearheading this movement was the Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto, or FEJUVE. Unlike the Coordinadora in Cochabamba, FEJUVE was already established before the water movement in El Alto, participating in the movement against the export of natural gas through Chile in 2003 (Spronk 2007, 19). FEJUVE began negotiating with the government in 2004, but after months of inaction by the government the organization called for a general strike and also seized several Illimani facilities (Spronk 2007, 20). FEJUVE gave the government 24 hours to cancel the contract, and the government conceded.

Water Wars Takeaways

It is important to recognize the importance behind the water wars movement in both Cochabamba and El Alto/La Paz. “In the words of Oscar Olivera,” writes Susan Spronk, “the Water Wars were about a lot more than water; they were a struggle for a new form of democracy ‘from below’ (2007, 21).” While the situation has not necessarily gotten any better in either area, the grassroots nature of both movements show the power that citizen mobilization can hold.  Both movements advocated for water as right, specifically through a human rights framework.

The biggest change in Bolivia as a whole came in 2008 when the Morales government passed a new constitution declaring water as a right and outlawing any form of privatization (Poupeau 2014, 234). What has continued to be problematic since then, however, has been actually ensuring that the right is fulfilled. As Frank Poupeau explains, “this right implies an obligation to produce results rather than provide means. As such, it says nothing about approaches to managing the service… (Poupeau 2014, 237).” It is expected that the Bolivian government provide water to all of its citizens, but the means by which that is to be done is not specified, creating a disconnect between what is expected and what is actually happening. It is not enough to say that water is a right – work must actually be done to ensure that for all people, no matter the living situation.

Bolivia Today

Most recently, Bolivia has seen even more protests concerning water. Glaciers in Bolivia have receded by over 40% since 1985, resulting in huge concern from those living in cities that rely on water from the glaciers (Martinez). Both La Paz and El Alto get most of their water from the glaciers – the three main dams that supply water to both cities have almost run dry (Rocha). Some have also blamed foreign mines in the country for allegedly using up all of the water, also mentioning bad government planning (Martinez). Bolivia is said to be suffering from its worst drought in the past 25 years, so much so that a national state of emergency has been declared (Martinez). Considering that Bolivia has established the right to water as a law, it is not surprising that citizens are demanding action from the government to ensure their access to water. The movement has transitioned from a solely “human right”-focused movement to a more global, environmental justice movement, intentionally or not.


Countries all around the world are battling water scarcity. From Latin America to Africa, hundreds of thousands of people are demanding that governments not only provide clean and safe water, but that they ensure their right to water somehow, someway. In Bolivia, the water wars in Cochabamba and El Alto/La Paz have demonstrated what it means to get rid of water privatization and demand equal access to water for all. The local citizens of Cochabamba and El Alto/La Paz did not want multinational corporations pinning a price on something they considered should’ve been free, as it came from Mother Earth. Successfully implementing a grassroots approach to mobilization, they were able to pave the way for getting rid of privatization entirely. With glaciers being a main source of water for certain communities in Bolivia but now receding at alarming rates, the stress for water has increased extensively. The movement has shifted from being solely focused on establishing water as a right to now protecting the ecosystems and environments that provide such water.




Dangl, Benjamin. 2007. The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia.          Oakland, US: AK Press. Accessed May 6, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

Gleick, Peter H. 2007. “The Human Right to Water.” Economía Exterior 41 (May): 1–5.

Martinez, Ricardo. 2017. “With Melting Glaciers and Mining, Bolivia’s Water Is Running Dangerously Low.” Public Radio International. Accessed May 8.

Mehta, Lyla, Jeremy Allouche, Alan Nicol, and Anna Walnycki. 2014. “Global Environmental     Justice and the Right to Water: The Case of Peri-Urban Cochabamba and Delhi.”         Geoforum 54 (July): 158–66.

Pereira, Luis Santos, Ian Cordery, and Iacovos Iacovides. 2009. Coping with Water Scarcity: Addressing the Challenges. Springer.

Poupeau, Franck. 2014. “From Private to Public: Challenges in La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia.” In Globalized Water: A Question of Governance, edited by Graciela Schneier-Madanes, 225–40. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Rocha, Jan. 2016. “Bolivian Water Crisis as Glaciers Vanish.” Climate News Network. November 26.

Snell, Kirsten. 2014. “Can Water Be a Human Right?” Appeal: Review of Current Law and Law             Reform 19: 131-149.

Spronk, Susan. 2007. “Roots of Resistance to Urban Water Privatization in Bolivia: The “New      Working Class,” the Crisis of Neoliberalism, and Public Services1.” International Labor        and Working Class History 71 (1): 8-28.

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